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Anyone who’s ever played a game ported from PC to console knows it’s risky business. Strike that. Generally, it’s an exercise in stupidity. Sure, first-person shooters seem to have figured it out, but for every massive success like the Call of Duty games there’s a StarCraft for Nintendo 64 or Diablo on PlayStation. Some things just haven’t translated well without a mouse in years past. Don’t believe us? Just ask the Xbox 360 Final Fantasy XI players. All three of them.
Seriously, then, thank God for Torchlight.
After having played the PC version of Runic Games’ 2009 indie success to death, the idea of us tackling it with a controller was a nightmarish proposition. After merely an hour with it, though, we decided we may never go back. Torchlight for XBLA is a tighter, faster combat experience and feels right at home with an analogue stick and bumper buttons. If action/RPGs are your thing, 1200 Microsoft points will be a pretty small price to pay for what you’re getting out of Torchlight.
For those not in the know, Torchlight was developed by ex-Blizzard staff who helped cook up Diablo and later Fate for PCs. Released in 2009 for a small price tag and some pretty decent reviews, the game’s emphasis on loot grabbing and monster slaying made a success story out of Runic and gave them the room to tinker with not only the thought of a Torchlight sequel (tentatively set for this summer), but also an MMO.
With that sort of pedigree, you may not be shocked to learn that Torchlight is a dungeon crawling action/RPG. But it’s an expertly crafted one. After choosing from three basic classes – melee, magic, and marksman, basically – players are introduced to the town of Torchlight, which serves as a hub outside of the main dungeon and is home to vendors and quest-giving NPCs. After a brief scuffle outside town, the player jumps headfirst into what the locals think is a mine. That’s about where the party starts.
The main dungeon itself, like Diablo’s, is over 30 floors deep and is randomly generated, meaning that no two playthroughs are exactly alike. It also means that loot found in treasure chests and dropped by enemies is also random, and that’s what makes the game addictive. While you’ll find that most of what you harvest from a trip spelunking isn’t necessarily useful, finding particularly rare or powerful armor and weapons can be exhilarating. And though the story itself isn’t the most original out there, the need to push ahead to find bigger monsters to kill and more loot to farm makes the game hard to put down. Most floors of the dungeon are fairly short, too (maybe ten to twenty minutes give or take), making it all too easy to justify one more before hitting the sack or running off to work.
The character classes offer a wide variety of play styles, making it fun and rewarding to roll up new characters and experiment with their abilities. Multiple skill trees vary individual classes, but you can mix and match the different skills to form your perfect killing machine. Gaining these abilities comes fast and loose, too. Not only do you level up your character like in other role-playing games, you’re also given a fame meter that fills when you complete quests and kill high-powered enemies. Hit a certain threshold and you’re awarded another point for unlocking new skills and abilities. While some can argue that this makes the game a little on the easy side, the constant stream of new abilities and powering them up are another carrot to keep you hunting sub bosses and going deeper into the main dungeon.
Though Torchlight may be passed off as a Diablo II clone, it plays more like a spiritual successor to Fate, chiefly in that a pet accompanies you for the trip underground. While on a utilitarian level you can simply use the pet as a pack mule to hang on to extra items and even go topside to sell off unwanted loot, it can also be armed with spells to battle enemies and heal you, as well as jump into the fight at close range depending on how you set its behavior.
While at first it seems a bit gimmicky, the pet that you have can drastically alter the way you play the game. While it starts as a dog or cat (the XBLA version adds giant lizard option as well), feeding it fish will transform it into anything from a small gnome to a giant troll. Set it to be aggressive if you’re a mage or rogue and you can have an effective tank while you sit back and hit enemies at a distance. Or maybe you want to give it healing spells and let it passively sit behind you to keep you alive. Maybe still you want another giant melee damage dealer like you for a little boss battle assault and battery. With the amount of fish that you find throughout the dungeon, you’re given a lot of possibilities to experiment with. The pet goes a long way to separate Torchlight from other dungeon crawlers out there, and makes it a much more varied game than the typical kill-level up-find loot grind.
The release of the game on XBLA evolves the game subtly, though significantly. Comparing it to its PC sibling, we noticed that the console version takes steps to slightly rebuild the combat animations in the game, making them tighter and more natural. All of the character movement is mapped to the left stick with no faux-mouse cursors present whatsoever. With the smoother combat animations and a more common console controller layout, the action will just feel faster than pointing at a monster and clicking from left button to right on that gaming mouse. Skills and spells can be mapped to nearly all of the face and shoulder buttons. You can have 4 readily available, but swap to another set of four with the d-pad.
The flip side to this is an auto-targeting system implemented to make up for your lack of pointing at a specific enemy or loot drop. For distance attackers - mages and rogue classes, really – this isn’t a problem. By simply pointing the left stick in the direction of the nearest threat, you can usually get by pretty well with popping off foes from a safe distance or tossing in some crowd-controlling spells. Melee fighters, though, will sometimes have trouble actually hitting enemies. Especially with the camera zoomed all the way out, it can get tough to accurately judge the distance of you vs the target, resulting in a lot of whiffed swings until you notice that there aren’t any damage numbers floating above the enemy’s head.
The biggest problem, though, is when things get crowded. Since you’re using the same stick for movement as you are for targeting, it’s just about impossible to single out one monster to kill when they mob together. While this generally isn’t that big a deal with melee fighting since you can use the default crowd-controlling skill to clear a path, the other two classes have trouble taking down specific targets, making things a little aggravating.
Nearly everything else in the game has received some streamlining for functionality, for good or ill. The actual interface for the game is brilliant: health and magic meters are moved to the top corners of the screen and are more easily seen sitting a few feet from a television instead of a few inches from a computer monitor. Placing four active skills on the bottom of the screen makes it less busy and cluttered - an entire row of them would cloud your view on a TV. Item management and inventories are a mixed bag, though. Potions that refill health and magic now stack up to 99 and only take one slot in your inventory. Stronger potions are auto-selected for use with the bumper buttons, making healing a lot easier than the PC counterpart.
Gone, though, are large windows displaying your entire inventory or that of a vendor in the hub. Inventory is now represented by large lists with tabs for weapons, armor, items, etc. that are a pain to use. Turning on the option for comparing weapons or armor to what you already have equipped makes the lists pretty hard to read when they are full, and if you’re buying multiples of a certain item you may not be able to tell how many you’re buying or carrying if they’re lower down.
Strangely, there are also some graphical glitches and skipped frames from time to time. While this is really a minor gripe, the original Torchlight ran fairly well on a pretty low rent PC. The 360 certainly has the muscle capable of keeping the whole thing smooth.
The great things about Torchlight, though, are completely untouched. The main quest, though sort of short, can be supplemented with side quests and ancillary dungeons. An infinite dungeon opens after the main one ends for limitless loot collecting and bad guy smashing. New armor sets and a new quest-giving NPC appear in this version, too, which is just gravy.
The best feature about the game, one would argue, is the shared loot box. Find something that’s great but unusable for your class? Toss it in the box. Stumble upon a piece of a dedicated armor set that’s way below your level? In the box it goes. By having multiple characters played in tandem, Torchlight eschews the traditional concept of a New Game+ in that, by having your stronger characters filling the shared loot box with powerful low-level gear, they are making a super-powered second character (or third, or so on) after only a few levels. Retiring the old characters after the main quest is over and continuously passing on loot to new characters keeps the ball rolling. In theory, and if you’re really into min/maxing your characters, this can make Torchlight last forever, even without the infinite dungeon.
With this in mind, though, it’s actually a bit disappointing that you can’t trade loot among your friend lists, which really would have added to the experience. While Torchlight is definitely a singular odyssey from a dungeon crawling perspective, some small multiplayer connectivity like this really would have added to the package.
But, yes, 1200 Microsoft points for Torchlight is a pretty darn good deal. Minor graphical issues and clunky inventory management aside, Torchlight for XBLA does a spectacular job of translating a PC dungeon hack-and-slasher to two analogue sticks and face buttons. Combat feels faster and smoother in your hands, and the minor additions peppered throughout like added quests and a new pet are nice bonuses. Torchlight will absolutely be one of the best downloadable games you’ve played in months, and maybe one of the best you’ll play all year.
Mar 15, 2011