Three hours into Torchlight, I was bored. I was following around my minions as they effortlessly crushed any opposition, picking up uninteresting loot, and getting seriously sick of fighting the same few monsters. What did this Diablo clone have to offer me that I hadn't done a thousand times before? Then I had an epiphany: hard difficulty. Dozens of hours later, Torchlight has more than answered every question I originally had. The team at Runic Games has an unparalleled grasp of what makes the action/RPG formula fun. I feel like I'm discovering Diablo II all over again.
On the surface, there's not a lot to recommend Torchlight. Its gameplay falls neatly into the "point, click, loot" category that most PC gamers instantly recognize. The graphics are colorful and inviting, but Modern Warfare this ain't. There's just the one dungeon to explore, a mere three character classes, and the same old skill tree design we're all so familiar with. Once you dig past the initial learning curve, though, the skill with which everything is crafted shines through and turns this hack n' slash loot piñata into a deep, engrossing action/RPG.
Pinning down exactly what separates Torchlight from the dozens of similar titles on the market isn't easy. Part of it is the responsive interface, which never gets between you and the next monster on your hit list. The slick animations and sparkly effects create variety that keeps the visuals engaging after hours upon hours of gameplay. Most of all, though, the impressive depth of character progression and clever enemy design that keeps combat new and exciting are what have me coming back to Torchlight.
In addition to the tiered skill tree that you'll slowly work your way through as you level, you can also equip up to four spells that come from loot drops or vendors. These cantrips have a broad range of effects, including (but not limited to) fireballs, healing, summoned skeletons, identification, and conjuring flaming swords. This simple addition increases the freedom you have to build an effective character; you don't have to spend skill points on a hamstring attack when you can slot a frostbolt spell. Summoning meat shield minions is incredibly powerful, but it's completely viable to use temporary zombies courtesy of a spell slot rather than dumping points into a summoning skill. The combinations are legion, and frequent drops and vendor offerings of spell scrolls encourage the kind of experimentation that permanent skill point assignments suppress.
Every few levels, a boss fight presages a change in scenery. The big battles are entertaining in their own rights, but moving to a new area is the best part of the game. Drastic changes in the environment keep the experience fresh, from catacombs to caverns to a goblin city suspended over a sea of lava. Even better, though, are the new enemies that inhabit these areas. Far from being simple re-skins of monsters that run up and attack, the changes in visuals are met and exceeded by the new tactics that you face. Suicide-bombing goblins, magic-draining animated mushrooms, teleporting life-sucking wraiths, and zombies that detonate into poison clouds are only the beginning. When playing on hard (which you should, trust me), the pressure to adapt your own strategy and keep your equipment, spells, and skills optimized is constant.
The one big knock on Torchlight is the lack of co-op. While this is undoubtedly a bummer, I am much happier with the polished single-player experience and no online than I would be with two half-assed elements. There are other, minor complaints that one can level – often-uninspiring loot, poor in-game documentation, and badly explained major game mechanics are all frustrating. However, the core of the game is its combat and character progression, and both of those are outstanding. Torchlight might not be breaking any new ground, but the soul of Diablo hasn't been so ably captured in years. You won't find much that approaches Torchlight's worth at its $20 price point.