I sat with my hands resting on the keyboard and mouse, mulling over a selection of loot I'd accumulated from my hacking and slashing through the Ghosts of Plunder Cove. Did I want to equip the Hasty Maul, which has a "very slow attack speed" but also a "+7% attack speed"? Doesn't sound so "hasty." How about the Vampiric Lumber Sledge with the ability to steal 6 health on a hit? Or maybe the Paired Battle Axe with a "very fast attack speed" and a "+5% chance to execute"? Execute what? I'm not sure.
It's a quarter to midnight, and I'm nearly through my six-pack of Session lager. I need to get this show on the road. I don't really have a good way of knowing what would be the best weapon to equip, so I settle on Ole's Massive Wrench's 161 damage per second rating and dump everything else off on my pet hawk to sell back at town.
Runic Games' sequel to its premiere action role-playing game is overflowing with swords and shields and hammers and axes and wrenches and all kinds of spoils. I knew this going in. Everyone knew this going in. Many might profess that this is their reason for playing.
But Torchlight II taught me an important lesson: It's not really about the loot.
I reached a point early on when I decided that the attributes of most everything in the game were indecipherable from one another at a glance. Not that I couldn't discern the meaning of each uniquely, randomly grafted quality, just that judging the aggregate difference wasn't an easy task – certainly not for my inhibited senses at that moment.
Once I shelved the loot, sticking with just the equipment with the highest numbers, I could focus away from the extrinsic reward of bursting blood piñatas and hoping to get The Sword of a Thousand Truths. In this age of achievements and trophies, this feels liberating. And that's when I started to notice little details.
Combat in Torchlight II is visceral. When my Flame Hammer skill, a strike to the ground where fire spreads from the point of impact, crushes an enemy, I feel the game pause for a moment as the creature explodes into a red cloud of gore. Whether this is a result of my own delirium from having just finished off my last Session, I can't be sure. A satisfying thud accompanies the animation of its death, and text flies overhead, marking my swings as "critical!" or noting that I've "shattered!" the foe's shield.
I'm reminded of the Savage Lash skill of Dragon's Dogma's Warrior class, where you can feel the game pause for a split second as your greatsword makes contact. Or Demon's Souls' parry and riposte counter attack, where the slow-down couples with a sharp contact clank to really bring to life the sensation of plunging steel into your enemy.
But Torchlight II takes me back further with its use of sound in some hardly noticible ways. Every once in a while, I'll hear the guitar twang of Tristram as I trudge through the overworld. And when a mob of monsters draws near, sometimes the pounding tribal beats reminiscent of Diablo's Caves swell in my headphones if only for a moment.
These hit my nostalgic nerve in just the right way — back to the ‘90s when I first discovered the isometric hack-n-slash in Blizzard North’s Diablo. It’s revealing, then, to know that Diablo creators Max and Erich Schaefer joined with Travis Baldree (who developed the ARPG Fate, a homage to Diablo) to give us Torchlight. The sequel’s attention to such small detail fosters flashes of joy. It’s difficult to describe other than to say that it just feels right.
Now I remember that while finding a new sword or set of armor in Diablo left me tickled, doing so was not an end — it was a means to an end. The real excitement came from exploring the randomly generated dungeons underneath a defiled church in a secluded medieval town and not knowing what I might find below. Walking into The Butcher’s chamber, a scene straight out of Vlad the Impaler’s legacy, for the first time is not something my 14-year-old self will ever forget.
My satisfaction came not from merely finding weapons but using them to slaughter the demons of Hell. I distinctly recall the death animation of the Hidden, which would gargle and gasp for breath in its raspy voice as blood spurt out from its sliced-open neck and it slowly fell to its knees. Just killing it felt good; the animation enhanced the moment-to-moment play.
I don’t draw on Diablo lightly. It’s a point of comparison for obvious reasons that many critics already have made and many more likely will make in discussing Torchlight II. But sometimes we can get a little lost in exploiting game systems for an optimal run. And maybe it's not all just a dressed-up Skinner box. I’m just happy that Runic’s latest has reminded me of what "playing for the fun of it" feels like.