Wednesday, February 2, 2011


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.

In Summary

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.


Klepsacovic said...

I did find some interest in the life-stealing stat, but was disappointed when I figured that it only works on regular attacks, not specials, which make it much less appealing for my vanquisher.

The sets might have been of some interest, if they dropped consistently enough to actually gather them.

Logan said...

i'd be interested in hearing your comparison of Torchlight and Magicka.

i enjoyed Torchlight enough to "beat" the game (the main story and sidequests at least)... i liked the pace, and the polish, and it was just barely difficult enough to keep me from falling asleep.

on the other hand, i just started playing Magicka.. and it's pretty much the complete opposite... it's incredibly interesting and can be quite challenging.. but it lacks the polish of a game like Torchlight.

i feel like if they took the magic system from Magicka and put it in the Torchlight game engine.. it would be a damn near perfect action rpg.

Nils said...

I agree. I felt the same way about Torchlight. It is well done, but misses interesting decisions in the gameplay and interesting storylines in 'world' aspect.

There was also so much loot that I got bored of loot itself. Now, that is a problem for a game based on .. loot.

Kenny said...

For me first and foremost TL suffered from the very same problem as Hellgate did: the extremely repetitive and linear dungeon crawl feeling. The lack of choices both in skills and items make the crawl bland and uninteresting. Sure it can be fun for the first time but around floor 15 with my second generation character I was asking myself "why the hell am I still playing" and that was it.

One thing that clicked very well for me was the enchant guy - I'm just a sucker for taking my chance for stuff like that. Setting up public enchant sessions in a MMO where other players can watch you make the absolute most powerful item in the game, or epically failing at it sounds like a fun social event to me.

Tesh said...

Klep, I wrote a whole article about item sets, and Torchlight was the biggest reason why. I think they are absolutely stupid, but they could be a lot of fun. (To be fair, sets are stupid in Diablo and WoW, too; sets are silly during a leveling curve.)

I like Torchlight. It's just good monster blasting fun. It's not the best game, and this is a good collection of why... but it's fun enough that I'm happy with the $5 that I spent on it and the ten or so hours that it kept me entertained. Popcorn gaming, perhaps, but y'know, there's nothing wrong with that. I have other games to really test my brain for when I want that.

So... I don't disagree, Evizaer, I just don't mind. :)

Anonymous said...

All of your concerns have been addressed in Mods. Some of them official. I loved vanilla Torchlight, but I love it even more with all the sprinkles.