I doubt there is another genre dominated and defined by a single game like hack and slash is by Diablo. One sees the phrase 'Diablo clone' each time games of this type are announced, and they always end up being compared with what Diablo accomplished ten years ago. I believe, however, that the use of the phrase is a little misguided, especially when the majority of releases being labelled clones are simply role-playing games that fall in the sub-genre of hack and slash. Building on, or borrowing successful ideas pioneered by Diablo, doesn't mean that the developers are trying to replicate the game. Runic on the other hand have actually tried to do just that, and I while I don't know what everyone's expectations are concerning twenty dollar digitally distributed games, I certainly did not expect one which actually deserves being called a 'Diablo clone'.
"What's surprising is that it doesn't get old, or even tiresome."
First of all, beware that Torchlight has a very clear purpose and it doesn't pretend to be original or innovative. What you do is hack, and then slash. There is the occasional visit back to town to replenish supplies or enchant a weapon, but then it’s back underground to hack and slash some more… way more. What’s surprising is that it doesn't get old, or even tiresome, and I’m not some Diablo fanatic either. In fact, I prefer RPGs of more tactical nature similar to Baldur’s Gate, but there is something irresistible in the non-stop and never ending massacre that Torchlight offers. When I say never ending I mean it literally, there is actually an 'endless' dungeon, which is unlocked after you finish the game. The word endless should be a clue that the dungeon is randomly generated, i.e. boring as hell to explore. However, this should not come as a surprise since Torchlight is not a game about exploration or discovery, but about mindless fun making your way through mobs of enemies while finding better and stronger equipment, which is really what draws you in and keeps you playing.
You can think of the game as a direct opposite to story driven RPGs like BioWare's recently released Dragon Age, or their previous game Mass Effect. There is some sort of narrative of course, but what you basically end up doing is going deeper and deeper below the town of Torchlight looking to kick someone's ass down in the mines. The game is divided in several chapters, each preceded by a brief introduction trying to make your descent seem less trivial, and each chapter offers a unique environment. However, every level (or floor as they are called) in the environments is randomly generated, so there is little excitement or sense of discovery; in fact there is absolutely nothing of interest inside the mine except creatures to kill and loot to gather.
In the end, Torchlight hit the jackpot exactly where it counts the most – the gameplay. If you're familiar with the one-more-turn syndrome of addictive turn-based strategy games you'll understand what I mean, except that here it’s all in real-time, it’s fast paced and you're not given a break; you just know you want to go forward and kill one more goblin, or find one more enchanted battle axe. There is so much loot that at times you'll have no clue what to keep and what to sell, which weapon to enchant and in what manner. What makes the choice even more difficult is your limited inventory, which often fills up after every battle. There are of course a couple of chests back in town at your disposal, plus your pet is able to carry some things, but I personally found myself a little overwhelmed at the amount of loot in the game. At one point I actually decided to try and just ignore everything lying on the ground, but I only say try since the curiosity of finding a more powerful weapon or enchantment is just too hard to resist.
These periods of inventory management are actually the only times when you're not engaged in battle, but because the combat mechanics are so fluid and so well done I personally felt that fiddling with the items was a little disconcerting and even unfitting (yes I know its an RPG). I guess I simply had too much fun clicking on monsters and taking their stuff that the need for inventory management was kind of breaking up the pace of the game for me.
The interface is intuitive and streamlined and you're never more than a few clicks away from managing your character. There are three types in all with different sets of abilities — nothing out of the ordinary — but the skills are varied and fun to use. What’s more is that they only come with level requirements and not in a skill tree, which means you can spend points anywhere you wish without first going through skills you might or might not want to use. Another interesting feature is your pet; either a cat or a dog, which besides fighting alongside your character, can also carry his stuff or be sent back to town to sell it. There is even fishing, which is about as exciting as, well, fishing, but can bring you fish which when fed to your pet will transform it into various creatures for a limited amount of time. Towards the latter part of the game, however, I pretty much used my pet only as a mobile storage chest, as it often got critically wounded, in which case it stops fighting and flees.
Yet, no matter how fun and enjoyable Runic have managed to make the game, it is obvious why it came with a twenty dollar price tag. There is just one neutral area, the town of Torchlight, where like Diablo you can store equipment, purchase items, or upgrade weapons. Otherwise the only other place that's accessible to you is the mine and the randomly generated content it offers. This is pretty much the whole game. There are no quests besides a few generic ones you can find up in town, no NPCs to talk to, no interaction with the world, and really nothing to surprise you. Thankfully, the game comes with an editor and can be completely customized and modded, and whenever the original material gets old there's sure to be plenty of user made content out there.
"…pretty much anyone with a PC will be able to play it…"
I completed Torchlight on my laptop, and this should tell you several things; pretty much anyone with a PC will be able to play it without worrying about stutter or system requirements (there's even a 'netbook mode' in the graphics settings), and don't expect anything groundbreaking from a visual standpoint. In fact, as is usual with games with very low system requirements, rather than trying to create photo realistic graphics they often go for a more artistic approach, which gives the game a more distinguished style, and at the same time, masks the simpler graphics. Visually, Torchlight reminds me of World of Warcraft, and while overall it looks quite nice, the only thing that actually stood out for me were the particle effects, which add some flair to the battles when you're using your magic skills. Still, being able to play this smoothly on my laptop along with anti-aliasing was enough for me to appreciate the decision to keep things simple and accessible to a lot of people.
There isn't that much left to stay except that this is a game that does hack and slash real justice and it’s a the perfect choice for those eagerly waiting the release of Diablo 3. In fact, if Torchlight came with a more involved single-player campaign, had multiplayer and didn't rely on random level generation, it would have been a real threat to Blizzard's long awaited sequel. As it stands now, it’s more of a tease for fans who will have an even harder time waiting after getting such a satisfying taste of what Diablo 3 could (and I’m sure, will) bring.