I played Torchlight for six or seven hours before I realized that the game is nothing but polish. The graphics are reasonable and consistant, the sound is good enough, the gameplay is quite smooth and appealing, but when scrutinized the mechanics are subpar. The problem I have with Torchlight isn’t that it is derivative; my problem is that the individual game systems are middle-of-the-road, uninteresting, and do little to cover the flawed reward-chain it is at its heart.
Action RPGs are interesting to me because they combine loot and character advancement along with a progression of different enemies with odd abilities that cause you to vary your tactics. I do not play action RPGs to be intellectual stimulated, but keeping these systems interesting for as long as possible lies at the core of the action RPG experience. The combat itself is often trivial—the real game lies in picking between loot and getting that little shot of dopamine when you find an awesome item or acquire that next game-changing ability.
Torchlight’s loot system was boring. Few items, if any, had unique and interesting effects on gameplay. Items presented a bland optimization problem instead of leading to interesting decisions where the player has to choose between two very appealing, distinct mechanics to harness. These kinds of decisions are what made Diablo II such a great game in the genre. A chance of casting Frozen Orb weighed against life leach and improved attack speed is a much more interesting decision than +20 fire damage vs. +15 Ice damage and +5 Poison damage. Torchlight does allow items to carry spell effects, but the game’s abilities are generally as uninteresting and lack innovation as well.
The character advancement system was boring. Skill trees are small compared to Diablo II. A disproportionate number of skills are passive or are reskinned buffed versions of other skills.
You could play well using trivial strategies that were no fun. As a summoner, you should have no trouble butchering your way through the game unless you play at a high difficulty. You don’t even have to worry about mana much, because you can simply dual wield wands and do constant, credible damage to augment the punishment your pets provide.
What makes an action RPG exciting for me are abilities that I have to choose between depending on the situation. The decision has to be non-trivial. If I’m doing no more than maintaining some summons and shift-rich clicking to cast wand spells, the game rapidly bores me. If an action RPG can’t pace loot and advancement along with enemy power, it has failed at a basic level and there’s little reason to continue playing it.
There was just enough polish that the game didn’t immediately give offense to my game design sensibilities.
Torchlight was an ego-tickling reward treadmill that gave just enough stimulation to players to keep them blithely clicking and button mashing their way to inevitable victory. A game doesn’t need to be hard to avoid this fate, but it does have to present the player with a variety of interesting decisions, not just the same kinds of decisions with bigger numbers attached to them.