The going gets tough in Torchlight II

, | Game reviews

My first playthrough in Torchlight II was with an outlander, a ranged class that relies on guns. I set the difficulty level to veteran, which is one notch above normal. This was partly because the first Torchlight was forgiving to a fault, and partly because I wasn’t eager to repeat the experience of Diablo III, in which the first playthrough is basically a tutorial on the way to the actual game. I wasn’t really interested in just plowing through the content before the challenge started. I wanted some resistance. I wanted my choices to matter. I wanted to see if that was an action RPG that would push back.

After the jump, Torchlight did not disappoint

Torchlight II can be as forgiving as the first Torchlight if that’s what you want. I know this because I’m also playing a hardcore character at the normal difficulty level. The hardcore setting means death is permanent, but the normal setting means its not very likely. And below normal, there’s always casual. This is as friendly as an action RPG can get, made all the more friendly by the cheerful cartoon aesthetic, in the same vein as World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, and Age of Empires Online. Cheerful is the new black.

But it can also be a punishing action RPG, and this is what I find most interesting about Torchlight II. My veteran playthrough has stalled several times, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Sometimes the stalls are because I’m pushing too hard in a direction I’m not ready to go. Other times the stalls are because I’ve chosen my skills a specific way. Yet I can’t respec my character and choose new skills. I am accountable for my choices. My choices matter because they will not be undone.

That screenshot up there is from a nearly Copernican moment for my outlander. I’d been playing with two pistols, an emphasis on dexterity to boost my critical hits, and a handful of magic attacks. And I’d been dying repeatedly in areas the game was telling me I should be ready to beat. Previously, my solution to dying repeatedly was to play in a game set to a lower difficulty level, or to hop online and tag along with other players for some wonderfully chaotic and lucrative multiplayer action. Then, after another level or two, I would jump back into my veteran difficulty single-player game and push forward some more. Because another distinct thing in Torchlight II is the way it saves your progression geographically. When you clear out an area, it stays cleared as you try to reach the next objective. There’s a sense of seizing territory.

But this time, I decided to shift my perspective and adopt a little serenity. How does it go again? “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can”? If I can’t change my skills, I can change my gear. So I got rid of the gear that gave me a dexterity boost in favor of more protective attributes. And most drastically, I put down one of my pistols and took up a shield. I put a precious point into a skill called Stone Pact that temporarily boosts armor. Torchlight 2’s skills aren’t a traditional tree with branches and prerequisites, so I didn’t have to build my way towards Stone Pact. Instead, like all the other skills, it was waiting for me once I’d reached a certain level, regardless of which other skills I’d unlocked.

And lo and behold, Torchlight II responded. I could hold out longer against hard-hitting monsters. I could make progress without having to back down and come back. I had to work for this. I had to make some mutually exclusive choices. In Diablo III or Guild Wars 2, when I want to change my character build, I can do it as freely as swapping guns in a shooter. But Torchlight II demands a sense of investment.

Some of the difficulty is disappointingly old school. Too often boss fights are won by carrying enough potions. Too often the price of failure is simply a matter of sitting through loading screens or walking across long empty stretches to get back to where I died. For all the old-school Diablo smarts in Torchlight 2, it suffers from a few failures of imagination when it comes to failures.

Torchlight II’s willingness to play tough is only one of its selling points, but it’s arguably what sets it apart from the other good latest-gen action RPGs you could be playing right now (Diablo III, Borderlands 2, Darksiders II, and Guild Wars 2 come to mind). This is certainly a beautiful game, and not just beautiful “for an indie”. The cartoon cheer doesn’t detract at all from the gratifying hack, slash, whack, thunk, and whoosh of combat. The random level design is unparalleled, and it does a great job of encouraging replays, something already tempting enough given the four character classes and the variety of skills. For your alt, do you try a new class or do you try the same class you’ve been playing to take a different set of skills? Torchlight II’s four classes are potentially as many as three or four separate classes each.

The loot chase is mostly traditional, but Runic’s sense of economy is every bit as superlative as their ability to do random levels. You will never find yourself with too much money or loot, given the enhancements, gem sockets, gambling, and transmutation. The enhancement system in particular is one of the most damnably addictive sinks into which you can throw money. Given the fumbled economies in Diablo III (auction house uber alles!) and Borderlands 2 (uh, I guess I’ll throw some more money into Moxxie’s slot machines…), it’s a nice change of pace to play an action RPG that knows enough to build its loot chase on top of a solid economy.

I wish there was some better meta to mark my progress through all the great content Runic has put into Torchlight II. Right now, it relies on rote Steam achievements and a few stats at the bottom of your character’s detailed stat screen. The experience would have benefited immensely from a log of some sort, or something along the lines of Borderlands’ “bad ass” accomplishments, or even Diablo’s achievements. It’s a real embarrassment of action RPG riches when you want something more than a good game to pull you through a good game.

4 stars