Hack-and-slashers rejoice: Diablo 3 is still a long way off, but Torchlight might make you not even care. Runic Games has produced one of the most fun and polished titles showcased at PAX.
Hack-and-slashers rejoice: Diablo 3 is still a long way off, but a little game called Torchlight might make you not even care. Seattle-based Runic Games has produced one of the most fun and polished titles showcased at PAX '09. Development is headed by none other than ex-Flagship Studios' Travis Baldree, Max Schaefer and Erich Schaefer – who've previously lent design credits to Diablo, Diablo 2, Fate, and the unfinished Mythos (an IP which is now owned by HanbitSoft).
The game is set in the town Torchlight, where enterprising miners have hit the strike of the arbitrary-game-related-time-unit. The precious resource is called Ember, useful for its magic-y awesomeness, but could ultimately spell cataclysmic doom for the poor shack-dwelling harvesters who would seek to control it. In fact, you'll find the ruins of plenty of other unfortunate civilizations buried in the mines as you boldly smite your way toward the end of the game.
First off, combat is fun. The game's Ogre 3D graphical engine pulls off impressive and artful environments without a hitch even on slower computers, which makes for smooth and fun-to-watch encounters between your stalwart hero and hordes of vicious baddies. The abilities and spells we witnessed were by no means on the cutting-edge of shader technology – in fact, we're told the game doesn't use shaders at all – but they were nonetheless potent, dazzling, and full of win. Even compared to Diablo 3, which was being showcased in a not-too-far-away corner of the convention floor, I felt Torchlight oozed quality from hidden pores and crevices that seeped through the computer monitor to fill me with a sense of sheer giddiness.
The level layouts are generated randomly, but they're based on hand-built 'chunks' of game environment. In this manner the team is able to maintain a lot of the aesthetic appeal of a finely crafted dungeon and still allow for a large amount of replayability. There are environment puzzles that include levers and drawbridges but, despite the randomization, everything felt very fluid and natural.
Character classes fit the conventional archetypes you would expect in a dungeon crawler, but they're done so well that they feel almost new. There's a melee-heavy class called the Destroyer, a spell-caster called the Alchemist, and a ranged attacker called the Vanquisher. They sport standard branching skill trees, but also special perks that can be used to further customize your playstyle. Your characters can ultimately 'retire' from their questing once they complete the game and pass on unique benefits to their progeny.
Showing us some of the abilities available to the alchemist, Travis Baldree, President of Runic Games said, "As you can see I've got a couple of summons out. The alchemist has two or three summon types that he can do. He can summon these alchemic golems, which are basically robots, some that do melee attacks and some that shoot laser beams." That's right, Dr. Evil. "He can also summon these nether imps from the corpses of fallen enemies, and later in the game you can have up to six of those. You can have lots of pets."
Pets play a central role in the game. Every character starts with a pet that can accompany him into battle, and they'll level up with your character as well as provide extra inventory space to assist you in pilfering priceless artifacts from long forgotten ruins like an asinine Indiana Jones villain. Baldree made his own comments about pets saying, "Your pet stays with your for the duration of the game. They never die, and they can actually hold and carry loot for you, they can attack monsters for you, and you can send them back to town to sell all your extra loot so you don't have to go. Over the course of the game you can also catch fish in fishing holes that you can use to turn your pet into other monsters which all have different abilities. So, you might turn your pet into a spider that can spin webs on the ground and slow any nearby enemies. Some of those are only temporary, but some can be permanent if you want them to be."
Something that sets Torchlight apart from most other games is its complete modifiability. The team plans to release their development tools to the online community, and according to them nearly every aspect of the game is alterable, from the graphics to the skills to the interface. We can expect plenty of user-made content to show up once the game starts selling.
Even more exciting are Runic's plans to develop Torchlight into a full blown MMORPG. Runic's CEO, Max Schaefer, had this to say: "We're partnered with Perfect World. They've got great infrastructure for MMOs. They've got really good customer support tools and things like that. [...] So we're going to take our gameplay, and our style, and our randomization and all that, and layer it in to their backbone MMO. So it'll be a free to play, free to download, item-based MMO that will look and play just like this."
When asked about the persistent game elements in the MMO, Schaefer went on to say, "The dungeons will be a mix of fully shared and instanced. The overland areas will be shared. So we'll do big overland areas with lots of towns and all that sort of stuff."
The single player Torchlight is available as a $19.95 download on October 27th. Personally, I intend to play the hell out of it, and we'll keep our ears open for more word on the MMO version when it gets closer to completion.
Chris "Xenophage" McGraw