Version tested: PC
My cat can summon zombies. In a way, that's all I've ever wanted from a videogame - for something to come up with something absolutely, wonderfully, wilfully absurd, and let me achieve it with glorious ease. Something that only a videogame could do. Seriously, my cat summons zombies. I don't even have to tell her to. She just does it, because I've given her the spell to do it. I could summon them myself, but I just can't be bothered to add one more hotkey to my left and right mouse button repetoire. So the game does it for me, via curious cat-based necromancy.
And that's Torchlight all over - it's Diablo run through a "What If?" filter a hundred times over. All you're doing is clicking to kill things and clicking to collect things and clicking to assign stat and ability points - but what if your cat could summon zombies? What if you could fire a giant laser beam from your hands? What if you could wield two enormous wands at once? What if said cat could go sell all your unwanted loot for you? What if someone made a hackandslash RPG whose primary goal was to reward you so insanely often that you became paranoid you'd used up all your lifetime of Christmases in one fell, hyper-colourful swoop?
Torchlight's been available for just a couple of days at the time of writing, but it's been pretty much all PC gamers have wanted to talk about during that time. Understandably so - we've been teased by the bright spectre of Diablo III for so, so long now. Since, frankly, Diablo II, way back in the year 2000. In all that time, we've waited, prayed, begged for something to scratch that same overwhelmingly compulsive itch. We wanted to kill a whole lot of fantasy things very quickly, and we wanted to be given a large number of swords with complicated statistics for doing it. Pretenders have come and gone - the late Iron Lore's Titan Quest generally being considered the most successful - but nothing, really, has quite done it.
In the wake of Torchlight, the web's filled with guys offering variants upon "I thought I'd play it for an hour before dinner, but when I looked at the time I discovered I'd starved to death because I'd been playing it for three million and twelve years." Great stories. Great, great stories. But, banal as they might sound, they're harrowingly accurate. Torchlight is that game - the one you can't stop playing, because it's based around the two most delectable poles of videogaming: killing and collecting, and the unbreakable bond between them.
It's lately more known as the MMO formula, one oft- and understandably sneered at, but here engineered into an ever-spinning merry-go-round of cheerfully stupid fun. You kill hundreds of goblindogs and evil dwarves and dragonkin and giant spiders because you want a bigger sword/wand/hat. As soon as you have said bigger sword/wand/hat, you immediately crave another one and forge bloodily onwards. It's short-term personal reward at its finest, a perpetual carrot whose only stick is the potential to harm your relationships and exercise quotient.
Torchlight dispenses with anything that could get in the way of this sense of incessant reward. There's the aforementioned pet salesman, you ordering your cat (or dog, if you're some sort of sick, twisted deviant) to run off and flog anything you don't need while you're still mid-dungeon, returning with empty bags but a big pile of cash a couple of minutes later. It's a feature lifted wholesale from Fate, an olden RPG by one of Torchlight's main chaps, but its return here is enormously welcome, avoiding the aggravating inventory Tetris of so many of this game's more fiddly peers. Furthermore, any of TL's three character classes can use essentially any item in the game, so long as they've poured enough stat points into strenth, dexterity, magic or defence.
On this theme of no-time-wasted, most boldly but most disappointingly, the game is one, long, linked dungeon. All of Torchlight's killing and collecting happens in a multi-level dungeon beneath the titular town, theoretically plunging forever downwards, but never quite feeling like you're going anywhere. You don't need to roam the world to find anything, and you certainly can't get lost. Yeah, there are optional dungeons you can access for side-quests, but they're instantly teleported-to and recycle art assets from the main questline.
Yer proverbial double-edged sword, this. +18 vs critical indecision and all that. This insta-uber-dungeon means you're always straight to the fight, but it also emphasises the inherent hollowness of the game. You can't pretend you're in any sort of real world, fighting any sort of meaningful fight. There's a superficial sham of a narrative about some dude being possessed by some thing and presenting some danger, but it barely even tries to make you care. All it amounts to is a brief cut-scene every 10 or so levels of dungeon, before you carry right on with your fantasy genocide. Against, well, Diablo, it's a kind of relief - draping a pretence of grit and purpose around something that's only really about watching numbers get bigger is openly ludicrous in a lot of ways.
However, most of us do feel a whole lot better about this repetitive, crazy thing we're doing if someone is telling us it's ultimately for some greater good. I merrily lost double-figures of hours into Torchlight, before catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, so to speak, and thinking "what am I doing?" It had been several hours since I could honestly say I was enjoying myself, and while it certainly hadn't lapsed into anything like dislike of the game, it was by that point only some strange, almost inhuman compulsion that was keeping me playing. "Just two more levels and I can wear that hat I found an hour ago..." Immediately, I wanted another hat.
But I definitely had a good time for the first, ooh, six hours. A great time. My cat can summon zombies! The spells and weapons are agreeably unhinged - everything exaggerated in size, appearance and, to a point, damage. Nothing is taken seriously. And it does sustain this past the double-figures of hours mark - come level 25,my Alchemist character was followed around by a loyal army of six imps, two golems, a floating death-crystal, the cat, the cat's three zombies, and as many skeletons as I could be bothered to temporarily hotkey into existence. It's a game that really, really wants you to kill a lot of stuff. But I did get bored. The idea of playing it again now is almost sickening to me, after the absurd binge of the last few days - but I'm quite sure I'll come back to it, most of all because developer Runic is planning to expand it from its current single-player form into a quasi-MMO, and to add a glut of modding options to further ensure every player sees and kills different things.
As it is, dungeon levels are randomly generated the first time you enter each. I didn't feel this made any meaningful difference personally, but I suspect I would have a greater sense of New! second time of playing. I'll also have a more challenging time, as I made the now-infamous mistake of playing on Medium difficulty, wherein everything's just a bit too easy. Just one difficulty level up and there would be sustained challenge, and therefore probably heightened interest at the later stages. Alas, it's not possible to change difficulty midway through (though fans have discovered a hacking method to achieve this), and I really, really, really don't want to start a whole new character after this many hours.
So, it's the best Diablolike since Diablo II, and a very real rival to the upcoming (at an unspecified point, God-blinking-dammit) Diablo III. Even though there is nothing new or truly unique about Torchlight, nothing at all, that it so confidently and prettily takes the fight to Blizzard is an enormous compliment about how well put-together this is. Yeah, it gets old pretty fast - but it's also only £15. You'll definitely get your money's worth. And that's even before the MMO stuff turns up. But, by Christ, my hands hurt, and my brain is squealing for stimulation. I've had a whale of a time, largely - but I desperately would not want to put my body through these few days of unblinking kill'n'collect again any time soon.
8 / 10