Monday, July 12, 2010

Bargain Hunter Review #1: Torchlight

Thanks to the recent Steam Sale, I have a few games to play and review. The game I first chose to play is Torchlight. I want to say that I normally finish all games before writing a review. However, I am writing before I finish, because the gameplay in Torchlight is repetitive. I don’t foresee any changes in the way I play. Now some could say the last two sentences are a good summary of the review and they would be right. Read on, if you want to pay me the courtesy of reading what I have typed.

I’m not going to get into the Story. I am playing the game as an Alchemist on Normal difficulty. Here we go.

One thing I need the reader to understand is that there are Levels and Character Levels. When you see me talking about Levels, I am using the term as the game does. Simply, how far down in the dungeon I have traveled. I am only on level 28 or 29 of 35. Everything you do in the first 5-10 levels is the exact same things you will be doing in the lower levels. The only difference is that you will be more efficient at it. In the beginning, my gameplay experience was one of entertainment and enjoyment that transitioned into playing out of sheer determination. The transition into grinding occurred around levels 22-24. This is Torchlight’s biggest flaw. At this time I started to get bored with it. I didn’t want to play it anymore. I began dreading even starting the game. It was like being presented with a meal I didn’t want to eat because it tasted bad. Every time I hit “Play” in Steam, it was like I was pinching my nose in order to kill any taste sensation I had just to stomach the experience. Naturally, I started to look elsewhere and so I began playing Trine. Even though Trine is a different genre of game, I think it is superior in its quality and presentation. Once this was set in my mind, I began to judge Torchlight by the example that Trine has set. Some people may think of this as comparing an apple to a strawberry. I’m actually comparing an ok apple to a great strawberry covered with whipped cream. If you are a game designer it should be your goal to make sure you never lose the attention of your players.

Visually Torchlight looks great. The stylistic cartoon look works. The colors are all rich and vibrant. Spell effects are great and explosions are nice.

Audibly, the sound effects are good. There’s nothing outstanding about the sound of lightning and the pistol I carry in my off hand. I’m not sure what I should be expecting in sound either. The sound effects are crisp, but there’s nothing that really stands out. This leads me to the soundtrack.

Many have compared Torchlight to Diablo. This is a fair comparison since the same people that made Torchlight, made Diablo. While some praise the game for this relation, I would consider it the biggest flaw. In another example of repetition, the musical style is the same as Diablo. The game has about 3 or 4 tracks of the same variation of the Tristram theme. If someone was simply listening to the game, one might think they were playing Diablo again. So not only does Torchlight repeat everything it tries to present as original, it also repeats Diablo. After playing this game, I have an image in my head that the Cube Farms of Runic Games looks like a Hall of Mirrors. This isn’t true by the way, their offices are actually nice.

Artificial Intelligence
The Artificial Intelligence in this game is very basic. Monsters simply run and cast at you. Some minions run away if you kill a fellow minion. But, they eventually come back. The one piece of Artificial Intelligence you will pay attention to is your pet. When you create a new character in Torchlight you can select a Cat or a Dog as a pet. This pet will melee attack enemies and has 2 spell slots where purchased spells can be put in. The pet will cast the spells at random and sometimes even when NPC’s aren’t around, as in the case of Heal and Silence. I was standing in the town and my pet kept casting Heal Self over and over. My cat ran out of mana just sitting in town. He was already at full health, why is he casting Heal Self? Another annoying bit is that the pet often gets stuck on some of the architecture of the dungeons. I’ll often be fighting a group and notice that things aren’t dying as fast as they should be. I’ll look for my pet and notice on the mini-map that he is two rooms back. You are probably wondering how you can lose your pet. During fights there are so many explosions and spells firing off that it becomes difficult to see exactly what is going on. Most of my fights involve me casting spells into a group, and the pet will go tank another group. I’ll toss some explosion spells over there to help it out and keep hitting stuff with chain lightning. The pet is so small he’s just easy to overlook in the mess. The pet, while a good tank and companion, often has path finding issues. It is very detracting from the game experience to have to go back and lead your pet through various obstacles as hard as a flight of stairs, to a simple overturned table or a pile of rocks.

Your Character
Character building is pretty generic. Every character has 4 stats, 3 Skill Trees and 4 Spell slots. The in-game Tooltips aren’t very specific or helpful when it comes to your stats. For Example, Dexterity increases the chance to hit and crit with a ranged weapon. It will even tell you how much, for example it says, “+9 to Critical Hit”. Is that 9/100 or 9/10? I don’t have a scale to compare this value with. Also, it is not presented how much Dexterity it takes to raise that value. Numbers don’t necessarily make a game for me, Trine has none for example. But, once a game starts displaying numbers it had better be ready to explain how they operate. Maybe, some of this explained in detail in the manual, but I sure don’t remember seeing it.

The Skills a character gains are spread into Tiers. Skillpoints are gained at a rate of 1 per character level and 1 per fame level. Fame is achieved by killing mini-bosses throughout the dungeons. The highest level Skills require a character level of 25. Since you can bank Skillpoints, I found myself saving up for the higher levels. Perhaps this lead to some of the repetition I suffered. If so, the skill trees need to be reworked to entice me to spend those points as I reached each tier. Some of the skills, while nice to have, did not particularly seem desirable or useful. It also seemed that I really only needed 2 of the 3 trees.

The 4 Spell slots might as well be 3 spell slots. This is a consequence of yet another repeated mechanic. Torchlight took the mechanic of using Town Portal and Identify Scrolls. The issue a player runs into is that you have limited bag space. Bag space is such a premium, it is much better to buy or loot a Spell of Town Portal and put it in one of your 4 slots than to take up a bag slot. Since Identify and Town Portal are used so often by characters, something desperately needs to change. From a Lore standpoint, if everyone uses these scrolls all the time, they should eventually know how to do it inherently. Simply put, the Identify system needs to just be scrapped. I hate to bring World of Warcraft into this, but the Identify mechanic doesn’t exist there. When you loot an item, if you meet the requirements, you should be able to use it. Before anyone argues about WoW being an MMO, Runic Games is about to begin showing us the Torchlight MMO. This leads to several questions, which I’ll go into later.

The pet you have following you around doubles your bag space. You have the option to send it to town to sell everything in your pets inventory. This is a convenience to keep the player moving forward. However, more often than not, you find yourself waiting for your pet to come back before proceeding. While the pet is away you can alt-tab out and take a break from the monotany.

Class Balance
Question: What is the difference between me casting a lightning bolt that jumps across 3 NPC’s and a Vanquisher that shoots a bow that shoots 3 NPC’s with a lightning attack? Answer: depending on the skill trees and equipment being used, there is no difference. Simply by being single-player, Torchlight hides the blurred lines the Classes share in Skills and gameplay. While you can specialize and try to play different styles, you inevitably wind up doing one of two things. You either stand at range and make funky lights and explosions, or stand in an NPC’s face and make funky lights and explosions. Here again, I can’t help but bring up Trine. You play three characters in Trine. Each one is distinct in their abilities. The Wizard can’t wield a sword and shield and melee effectively. The Knight can’t use a grappling hook, to swing around, probably all that armor and big gut. The Thief can’t create boxes or planks to solve jumpy puzzles. Class distinction actually matters and made Torchlight’s attempt at Class differentiation appear languid.

How could Torchlight be better? Well I’m not a game designer, but I know what I like. I think the game could have been better by being shorter. This goes for the number of levels in the campaign, character levels, and a pruning of the skill trees. Some of the enemies have resistances, but not many with immunities. Now, I am playing on Normal, so I don’t know if the higher difficulties have immunities. I only bring this up because in some Fantasy worlds Mechanical beings are immune to all forms of magic. Since, I am playing a caster, this would have required me to change to using my weapons. Conversely, there should be a phased NPC immune to physical attacks and requires magic. They could even have a mechanical NPC that alternates in and out of phase, requiring both types of attack. Since Runic Games has a Hall of Mirrors for an office, how about a magic mirror that spawns an evil version of the player? Or how about a boss that takes over your character and you have to play as the Boss to defeat your own toon to get your character back. Those are some ideas I just now came up with and would have really kept my attention. Any little changeup to the gameplay would have been an improvement.

I have read that after finishing the game you unlock the infinite dungeon mode. Yay! My award for getting through the repetitive gameplay is more repetitive gameplay.

What are some of the questions we have about the Torchlight MMO? Will it still be action based? To be action based, there should be no cast timers with health and mana potions a-plenty. Cooldown timers are ok, but no Cast Timers. It is so easy to fall into the familiar combat stylings of WoW. Will there be the Trinity of Tank-Healer-DPS? I keep hoping some company will kill this forced bi-polar co-dependent relationship. Will it maintain the stylistic cartoon graphics? I hope so. Can Runic Games create an actual living environment to explore? Torchlight takes place in a small mining town and the mine it sits on top of. This is a much easier environment to design than a forest or a coastline. Will you still have a pet in the Torchlight MMO? Will your pet go back to town for you and sell items in the MMO?

I paid $5 for Torchlight on the Steam Sale. Did I get my money’s worth? Yes. Would I recommend someone else buy it for $5 on Steam? I am iffy on this. By trying the demo, you will get the same gameplay, but you would not have the option of playing the different classes to see which one fits your personality.

My recommendation is try the Demo. If you like it, don’t pay full price. Wait for a $5 Steam sale.

Torchlight on Steam

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