Monday, October 22, 2012

GOT 'IM - Torchlight II

I finished this game weeks ago, and I'm still playing it.  I'm checking guides, I'm making spreadsheets, and I'm even editing wikis.  Not sure it will catch up to Persona 3 FES in my Obsession of the Year race, but it's gaining ground.  One of my most anticipated games of 2012, Torchlight II. 

Torchlight is the creation of Runic Games, which is headed by former members of Flagship Studios (incl. Max Schaefer and Travis Baldree), and by extension many former members of Blizzard North, the developers of Diablo and Diablo II. I'll try to keep the Diablo comparisons to a minimum, but it has to be said: the first Torchlight is extremely similar to the first Diablo, and Torchlight II is extremely similar to Diablo II.

The first Torchlight (and Diablo) take place in a single town with a great calamity taking place in the caverns and ruins beneath it.  I both games the player chooses one of three classes and descends into the ruins, eventually confronting an ancient evil.  In the second Torchlight (and Diablo), the town from the first game has been destroyed, and one of the three heroes that saved the town has been corrupted by the aforementioned ancient evil.  Choosing a new hero, players must pursue the fallen champion and defeat him before he unleashes more darkness upon the world.  Torchlight II (and Diablo II, before the Lord of Destruction expansion) are composed of four separate Acts, with the first taking place in hilly territory, the second taking place in a desert area, the third taking place in a dense swamp, and the last taking place in a fiery abyss of concentrated evil. 

So there are a lot of comparisons to make, but I'll hold off.  But do understand that Diablo II is an incredibly influential game that has spawned its own genre of imitators, of which Torchlight II is the best.  Torchlight II is the most entertaining Diablo impersonation ever, and I believe it's better than Diablo Uno or Diablo Dos.  So with that said, let's stop talking about Diablo and continue with the frontrunner for the prize of "Monsoon's favorite game of 2012." 

Torchlight II is a looting-clicking-Western-style-action-RPG.  A Diablo clone.  Basically, it's a single-player RPG with multiplayer functionality predicated on character building and a persistent loot hunt.  And holy shit is it good at what it does. Torchlight II doesn't stray far from Diablo II in its basic setup, but it has such solid visuals, customization, responsiveness, usability, and satisfaction that it stands tall amongst its mimic brethren.

Torchlight II has four playable classes, and I love all of them.  Each class has 21 active skills and 9 passives between three talent trees, and four spell splots.  You can use as many active and passive skills as you want, with each skill evolving somewhat after 5 skill points (maximum 15 per skill, and at level 100 you'll have 132 points available).  Spells, which are found or bought rather than learned, range from fireballs to healing spells to summoned skeletons to basic passives (i.e. bonus to melee, bonus to EXP, bonus to mana regen.).  On top of that, Torchlight 2's four basic character stats are fully customizable, with even the stamina and agility stats able to contribute to both offense and defense.  There is enormous variety here, and despite each class having specific roles and strengths and weaknesses, there are an incredible number of directions you can take with any of them.

The four classes are NOT specifically-designed characters, like in the Diablo games, the Sacred games, or even the first Torchlight.  Every character has a medium height and build, but the player can determine face, skin color, hairstyle, and hair color to make your character unique.  The tremendous variety of skills, spells, stats, and equipment allow any class to play just about any role.  Still, each of the class's trees (three for each class) revolve around a particular type of build that are usually the most powerful options for the class.  Each class has a Charge Meter that gives special bonuses to the class as they build a meter by dealing and receiving damage (just like Street Fighter!).  The four classes are the Engineer, Berserker, Outlander, and Embermage, and I've beaten Torchlight II twice (Engineer and Berserker) and am in the early stages of three other playthroughs. 

I'll get into greater class detail now, talking about each of the three skill trees for each class. The Engineer is a heavy hitter that can specialize in powerful two-handed melee weapons, steampunk cannons, robot minions, or defensive tank skills with a shield.   Each tree has a clear equipment suggestion (2H melee, cannon, weapon+shield) and skills that compliment the equipment selection.  The Engineer's meter builds up into special Charge units that are "spent" on a number of Engineer attacks.  Basically, the Engineer can be a heavy tank or a heavy hitter, but always focuses on big damage and steampunk bots instead of rapid attacks or a myriad of spells.  The engineer's passives either increase the effectiveness of the recommended Engineer weapons, boost up fire and lightning damage, or make the engineer's Charges more effective. 

The Outlander is a classic rogue with a support twist, with several techniques for evasion, ranged attacks with guns or bows, poison damage, shadow minions, and helpful team auras.  The Outlander's meter is the most boring of the four special meters, but also the most party-friendly - Outlander meters boost evasion, speed, and critical hit rate, but skill investments can have it apply to the Outlander's entire party.  The three Outlander trees respectively deal with ranged weapon damage, mid-range projectiles that weaken enemy units, and a powerful selection of support totems and summoned creatures.  The Outlander is great at fire and poison damage, and even better at flooding the screen with shadow minions.  Any Torchlight 2 class can be a summoner with certain spell selection, but the Outlander is the best at handling it, with so many passives focusing on boosting allies and minions on top of providing cover fire from range. 

The Berserker is a class that thrives in dual-wielded melee weapons, but can also play with ice magic, hastening techniques, area-of-effect melee attacks, and chain combos (somehow).  The Berserker's meter is a "super mode" that raises critical hit rate to 100% (!?) and increases move and attack speed.  In fact, pretty much everything the Berserker does is about critical hits, faster movement, and faster attacks.  Their first tree is all about insane melee damage and criticals.  Their second tree is about mid-range ice and lightning damage on top of more melee boosts.  And the third tree focuses on summoning ethereal wolves and even more damage-spreading and melee-enhancing techniques.  The Berserker works best when tearing into mobs in close combat, and there are skills in every tree for boosting those three aforementioned offensive stats and spreading damage done by regular attacks.  Berserker is the most vulnerable and click-heavy of the four classes, but oh man is it fun. 

The final class is The Embermage, which is a magic-using class capable of any role from melee damage to ranged damage to crowd control to summoning to just about anything, with most attacks being fire-, ice-, or lightning-flavored. The three skill trees are fire, ice, and lightning, but unlike Diablo II it's easier to dip in multiple trees.  The Embermage's passives focus on status effects instead of pure spell damage and as such you can throw around a firey aura, and ice clone, and a thunder cloud all at once with ease.  The Embermage's charge meter is similar to the berserker's, but instead of boosting critical hits, movement, and attack rates, the meter eliminates mana costs and cooldowns for all spells and skills, allowing players to spam at will for a short time.  The Embermage's variety is insane - it's the class I've explored the least, but with so many spells capable of so many different effects the possibilities are incredible.

The real big deal here is how different the classes "feel." In the first Torchight, sure, the classes had their differences, but the more specified skillsets and the addition of meters differentiate the classes further.  The Engineer's charges boosting hammer and cannon attacks have a real feeling of weight and power; the Berserker's boosts to attack rate, speed, and chain damage result in the player's mad clicking struggling to keep up with the 'zerker hurtling from foe to foe, with enemies popping into cartoony explosions of blood, bone, and smoke.  Any class can play any role, but if you stick to the more obvious builds, the four classes feel distinct and truly entertaining. Torchlight II differentiates between its classes while still offering variety within each class better than any other Diablo clone I've ever played. 

So that's why I play these clicking RPGs, basically.  Sure, the basic gameplay and loot is fun and satisfying (though not so much as a traditional action game, shooter, or even several RPGs), but the real fun is building up a character.  I *love* planning and executing builds and getting palpably stronger with every level and upgrade.  Torchlight II has those upgrades coming fast, with your character leveling up WAY more often than in a Diablo game and also gaining points of Fame whenever you complete a quest, slay a Champion-level monster, or defeat a boss.  Levels of Fame don't level up stats, but do grant additional skill points.  Fame was great in the first Torchlight, and is just as good now.

The last bit of key character-building in Torchlight I and II are pets.  You choose a pet at the beginning of the game, and it accompanies you for the rest of the game.  While never being a major source of direct damage, your pet gains an absurd amount of health with each level and can equip collars and tags to increase its defenses, making it a serviceable off-tank for your character. The real useful part of having a pet, though, is for your second inventory.  You can dump off unwanted loot into your pet's item pouch, then have it run back to town and sell it off!  You can also teach your pet spells for support, or give it shopping lists to buy potions or scrolls when it's away.  If you don't want to use pets, you can toggle them off, though I have no idea why anyone would.  Torchlight pets are awesome, and Torchlight II lets you choose from a list of eight (my favorite's the bulldog). 

The basic story has you forgetting all about the first Torchlight right quick.  At the 5-minute mark (not counting character creation), one of the original Torchlight's four main characters is dead, a second is incapacitated, and a third has become a blighted, wandering evil scourge, spreading chaos in his wake.  Oh, and the town of Torchlight has been destroyed.  Well then.  At the prompting of the injured hero from the first game, you proceed after the character that made a heel turn, and eventually rescue Torchlight Main Character Number Four.  She explains that the antagonist is trying to remove the blight affecting him, but the influence of the evil demon from the first game has made him insane - now he's wandering the countryside, draining life energy from the land's totemic spirits.

Look, Torchlight 2's storyline is not only really similar to that of Diablo II (dark wanderer, chaos in his wake, etc.), it's even stupider.  Eventually it dissolves into a mishmash of goblin and dwarf steampunk factories and evil Cthulhu-like beings from another dimension invading the world.  Sure, a few quests might have amusing dialog introductions, but the game is still pretty thin on that front. Torchlight II's story is weak at best, and sometimes damn inadequate (there is a ton of lore that goes unexplained, which I only know of because I've read developer articles about things like monsters and races of Torchlight II).  Sure, you don't play this sort of game for story, but... this story is so nonexistent that I can't really defend it. 

The main story is basically a big ol' carrot on a stick, following quest markers to boss fights across medium-sized maps.  Torchlight II is composed of four Acts, with the first three each comprising of a hub town and several (read: 3 to 5) overworld maps with at least a couple self-contained dungeons on each map.  There's a fourth Act, but it's really just a hub with an 8-floor dungeon.  After you save the day, you can complete a New Game Plus mode with monster levels matching your character's, or complete small, power-matched dungeons in The Map Works, where you can buy randomly-generated or even player-created stages (with in-game gold, not real money).

The best part of the overworld areas and dungeons is how busy they are.  Enemies appear organically, like piling out from pits, leaping in through stained glass windows, or even skeletons removing themselves from being impaled upon a wall.  That might not sound like much, but for an isometric Diablo clone that only costs $20, these little details are mighty impressive.   Enemies have a frightening tendency to swarm in on you (especially on higher difficulties) and things can get pretty intense during special Phase Portal stages or during Map Works dungeons.  Torchlight has a ton of nice details in its enemies and maps, with boss fights in particular being more interesting and high-stakes than usual - this is a major improvement upon its predecessor. 

Those aforementioned maps are a decent size and randomly-generated, but less vast than those of Diablo II or even Diablo II clones of the 2000s like Sacred or Titan Quest.  Even if you explore every sidequest and un-shadow every inch of map, a single playthrough lasts maybe 12-14 hours; even shorter if you play on a difficulty below Veteran (Casual, Normal, Veteran, and Hardcore are the selections, and chose Veteran for my two completed games).  After beating the game, the Map Works and NG+ add to replay value, but the main quest itself isn't terribly long.

So I've mentioned loot a few times. Torchlight II has a lot of loot.  Tons of it.  Oodles of loot.  You'll sell most of it for gold, but you can use that gold to enchant your favorite pieces of loot, buy socket items to put in your loot, or gamble for unknown items that are potentially better than any sold in shops.  In multiplayer matches loot drops individually for each player, and a basic trade interface (no RMT or auction houses) lets you trade with others.  You will be rolling over money piles and popping open chests all day.  You will be finding secret passages that contain extra loot.  You'll get Steam Achievements for getting loot. Look, there is a lot of loot in Torchlight II, and with things like gambling, enchanting, and pet inventory, Torchlight II is great at managing and utilizing loot.  

And multiplayer.  Such good multiplayer.  Every time I've gotten online in TL2, it's been awesome.  Enemy volume increases, good loot drops increase, everything runs smoothly, and it only breaks down when my shitty internet does likewise. Enemies and loot quality both increase as multiplayer does, and there is a framework in place for mods only to work if every player in a certain game has the same mods running (Torchlight II is fully moddable and Runic Games provides editing software for free with a purchase of the game).   No DRM, no always-online, full mod support.  Welcome to Torchlight II. 

One last bit: audio and visuals.  Matt Uelman, the composer for Diablo and Diablo II, also did the music for Torchlight and TL2.  So, well, they sound similar.  Lots of moody, atmospheric background tracks that lack memorable jingles or hooks, but fill in dead air reasonably well enough.  The visuals, which have been compared disfavorably to World of Warcraft, are bold polygons with characters possessing exaggerated hands and feet - basically normal video-game people, like a recent Tales game with smaller heads or Street Fighter IV with smaller character models.  Even better are the sound and spell effects - every attack has a fantastic visual flair, making skills easily distinguishable and personalized.  It's not Diablo III's (admittedly impressive) multiple variants of each skill, but it's definitely cool.  Every skill, enemy, and character type has their own soundboard for good variety as well, but the voice work is nothing to write home about. 

I admit that Torchlight II is far from perfect, and is probably downright not-fun if you don't already have some appreciation for the loot-RPG genre or especially for the play-by-clicking-things mechanics that are the backbone of Torchlight II.  But if you ever liked Diablo II, or loot RPGs, or customizable RPG classes, or watching mobs of enemies explode, then you ought to give a shot to this $20 bargain. 

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition

1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII
17. DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue
18. Super Mario Galaxy
19. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
20. Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi
21. Torchlight II

Targets: 7/12


The reason this one took so late is because I've been either busy going to the movies with friends or playing videogames all week.  On breaks are for work, sleep, food, and exercise.  Seriously, I've seen four movies in theaters the past two weeks.  Well, I probably shouldn't be playing many/any videogames that aren't on my list for the rest of the year.  Time to go play some more Rogue Galaxy. 

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