Diablo III isn't going to be released in 2010, and odds are it'll be deep into 2011 before Blizzard pushes their RPG onto store shelves. This poses a bit of a problem for many gamers, who expected the developer to have the product finished much earlier, and built a PC the moment the game was announced. Luckily, there's another option: Runic Games' recently released RPG, Torchlight. Taking elements from just about every game in the genre, Torchlight doesn't look to push any boundaries or innovate the action RPG genre, but it absolutely does look to fill the gap left by Diablo III's absence. It actually manages to go a good way beyond that, and ends up being one of the best, most addictive dungeon crawlers in recent memory.
The basic design elements popularized with the original Diablo, continued through the sequel, and brought into other RPGs such as Titan's Quest and Fate, are intact in Torchlight. The camera sits at in an isometric position and almost everything is mapped to the left and right mouse buttons, meaning the gameplay is click, click, loot. It should all be fairly standard for anyone who has ever touched the genre. In fact, the similarities go further than that, with the inventory, skill, and item drop system looking and feeling reminiscent of Diablo's. The first time a player holds down the ALT button and sees all of the items on the floor light up, names floating above, it's going to be hard not to crack a nostalgic smile. It's almost instinctive, something that I'm sure Runic games takes pride in.
It might be tempting to call it "ripping off," but "paying homage" makes more sense with most of the minds behind Torchlight team being made up of ex-Blizzard employees. In actuality, it's possible to trace Torchlight's lineage as you would a typical family tree. After working on Diablo II, many of the people who made Blizzard's hit went on to make Fate at Wildtangent, which also followed many of the same guidelines. Certain elements, such as the fishing and pet system of Fate, come over in full form. After creating a character, a dog or cat can be selected, and aid the player in combat. Ponds scattered in the world can be fished in, and the various catches can be fed to the pet to temporarily transform it into different animals. The animal’s usefulness, however, extends well past that. Being able to equip a cohort and, more importantly, teach it spells, makes the furry friend much more important, and an added bonus of sending it back to town to sell goods means the animal is more than a wandering turret. The loose plot and lack of interactions between the owner and animal means there’s little chance of becoming too attached, but the function is still served, and it’s served well.
It's actually a much smaller game than many are used to, with only one town and one long, winding dungeon. At a glance, it would appear that Torchlight is somewhat lacking in terms of content. Storywise, there's not much going on, and the different NPCs in the titular town will constantly have new quests that send the player deeper into the earth to find items and kill monsters. There are only three classes, filling the basic archetypes of warrior, mage, and archer, and each has three different skill trees to choose from. Thinking that this means the game doesn't have replay value, however, is a huge mistake. On the contrary, Torchlight is an extremely focused game, even if it isn't the absolute deepest.
For instance, it's possible to purchase maps at different vendors that will create random dungeons to explore and pilliage. This might seem like a strange, small addition, but when the game is essentially a lootfest it means a massive amount of fun. It is, in fact, just that: a lootfest. Just as was the case with Diablo and, for that matter, Borderlands, much of the fun in Torchlight is in killing big enemies and looting their bodies, constantly equipping upgraded items. It goes even further by allowing items to be enhanced not just by putting gemstones into sockets, but actual giving them to vendors that will "enhance" them. It might add a socket, it might add more damage or a new ability, or it might disenchant the item altoghether. It costs money, which can be earned by killing enemies, and makes for even more reason to plunge back into the dungeons to farm and loot.
It's addicting, which ties into the game's main goal. Torchlight isn't meant to replace Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, or any other RPG that might be released. It's playable in short grinds or long runs, more akin to playing a puzzle game than another game in the genre. It's why the graphics are stylized enough to make the game possible to run on a netbook, it's why the story isn't too involved, and, in a way, it's why multiplayer was left out. It's supposed to replace the time spent playing Peggle or Bookworm, and it's why the game excells.
And yes, you read that correctly, Torchlight doesn't have any multiplayer. Instead of pushing cooperative play into this title, singleplayer was a focus, and upon completion the developer is hard at work at an MMO based on the franchise. When it comes out, it will fix the problem, but it feels like an omission, either way. Instead, the hopes and dreams for replayability past the regular game lies in the hands of the community, since modding tools were released soon after the game was made available. Already, some issues were resolved, new classes were added, and many are working on entire new storylines and campaigns. It's no multiplayer, that's to be sure, though it's surely going to amount in a great future for the title.
At times, Torchlight feels like a “best of” mix tape of the genre, taking the elements that worked best in other isometric camera PC games and blending them together. This works both against and for the title, dropping some points for originality and gaining some for the design. In the end, it’s as hard to shake the feeling of familiarity as it is to stop playing. It’s easy to write off Torchlight as a Diablo clone, but that phrase doesn’t fit it as well as it might seem. The developers are the same as those who crafted both games in the series, meaning it’s more of a brother than a clone. Or maybe a son. In fact, if it’s said that God created man and made him in his own image, than we could even use that analogy, since the word “clone” carries a connotation that shouldn’t be anywhere near Torchlight. No matter what people call it, the game is a simple, masterfully crafted title that shouldn’t be ignored, and with the incredibly well optimized system specifications, a $20 price tag, and an imminent OSX port, it’s a game that should be purchased by anyone with a working mouse. God knows you’ll need it.