Going Underground

by Shim

In which Shim battles monsters in the shadow-haunted depths, frees the people from a hideous blight upon their fair town, and accessorises like anything.

So for a few months now I've been sporadically playing Torchlight. It cropped up in one of the Humble Bundles that I actually bought. It took me a little while, because I was wary after attempting to play Diablo years ago, but Ferrets had been generally enthusiastic, and I got into it fairly quickly once I started. It's a fairly fast-paced game with plenty to do, pretty simple controls, and a very appealing aesthetic.

Diablo, for clarity’s sake, I gave up on after many hours quite near the end, when it turned out that the build I’d been using throughout the game could not physically complete it. Arguably my fault for building a fighter with a lot of magic, but in my innocence I had no reason to think this was a bad idea. I didn’t really fancy playing the entire thing again (and I mean, I’d played the first few levels a number of times with various characters before settling on a favourite) just to see if my new build would do any better.

Uncharacteristic praisey-bit

Runic have clearly learnt some lessons from Diablo. I assume some of this stuff may have come from the intervening versions of Diablo as well, rather than being their inventions, but as those aren't what I'm playing it's no odds to me. I'm interested in the game, rather than dispensing due praise, and it's not like anyone's desperately keen for my approval of games they made in the past that made them untold riches.

One of the major, major improvements - by which I mean, actually made it possible for me to play this game for more than a few minutes - is letting you hold down the mouse button to keep attacking. Diablo I, I'm 99% sure, did not have this feature, and it was all about constant clicking on absolutely everything. Me now having RSI, and doing most of my computing on a laptop, this is not a great combination. However, with button-holding I can cleave my way through lots of enemies with abandon. Now, I’m not going to claim it’s perfect: an optional WASD-type control scheme for the game would have been very welcome and almost certainly better, and sometimes the button-holding left your character attacking suboptimal targets or simply blasting away into empty space in the opposite direction from the mob of frenzied monsters. But it was okay.

There are other really sensible conveniences too, which to me showed a lot of awareness of the game they're actually writing, rather than the one Diablo apparently though they were writing. Major features of Diablo were detailed inventory control and detailed looting. If you wanted something, you had to spot it on the screen, which was typically a dark, corpse-strewn mess on which the sought-after ring or dagger showed up like a snowflake in a packet of Persil. Then, you had to try and work out what series of devious Tetroid manipulations would let you cram it into your overloaded backpack, which had already been emptied of all but the most valuable of treasures, because lugging even one load back to the village would be deeply inconvenient. Coins piled up in great mounds that didn't remotely approach realistic levels of inconvenience, but nonetheless got in the way of cramming loot into your pack. By the time I gave up on it, there was a swathe of village piled high with gold, unreadable spellbooks, scrolls, potions, and treasures that were too good to sell (or occasionally, had sentimental value) but nowhere near good enough to keep using. You had to take it, though, because on the astronomically-low chance anything you actually wanted cropped up in the shops, you'd need every penny you could scavenge. Mostly I wanted spells, because obviously.

Torchlight, in contrast, realises that it is not in fact a gritty exploration of what it means to delve sinister crypts beneath a church to cleanse it of demonic taint, emphasising every practical consideration and concern, but a cheerful fantasy hackfest of slaying monsters and taking all their stuff. To that end, they've dispensed with basically all that. You have limited inventory space, but any item from a scroll to a suit of armour takes up just one slot, rather than overflowing into six. Gold, to my immense relief, is some kind of non-spatial substance that simply exists in pure numerical form. Loot lying around has little floating labels that not only mark it out (no need to pixel-hunt here!), but also flag up immediately whether it's magical (and therefore worth taking) or mundane (and therefore, after about three levels, not). You can toggle them on and off if you like.

Moreover, Runic, in their vast wisdom, have realised that while opinions on longbows or staves may vary, there is virtually no situation in which anyone does not want to pick up the large pile of shiny gold pieces, and therefore allow you to do so simply by walking somewhere nearby, saving huge amounts of clicking. The one downside to this is that you can’t place gold into the shared stash to smooth the path for follow-up characters. If you’re someone like me, replaying the early missions with your rusty and inadequate starting equipment isn’t especially rewarding, because replay value arrives once you’ve had a chance to actually pick up some of your new class’ powers, so being able to just buy something decent right off and burn through the first few levels would have been nice.

Heavy Petting

On top of this, Runic have added a pet to the game. Just for starters, this allows you to wander around looting dungeons with your pet ferret, which is frankly enough for me. Said pet is unkillable, so no worries about that (thanks, Baldur's Gate!) but will flee if it gets badly wounded. But in practical terms, it's both a vicious fighter and a pack mule. The pet doubles your inventory space, and can even be sent back to town to sell unwanted loot, although once I discovered the crafting mechanics that basically fell by the wayside. Plus, it's a wizard! You can't control your pet in detail, but teach it a couple of spells and it will use them at appropriate junctures, which is particularly handy with healing spells.

The class choice offers reasonable options for different playstyles. I picked an elementalist for my actual playthrough, and quickly found I could focus on summoning minions to do a lot of the fighting for me. On the downside, it does occasionally feel a bit unsatisfying to have your minions killing everything before you get a shot at them, but it hugely reduces the amount of clicking needed, and provides a buffer for unskilled players like me with unoptimised characters. In contrast, the fighter-type has to basically punch everything to death and is far more vulnerable to getting in over his head (although I did find having a backup shotgun and picking off zombies at long range quite good). The rogue always seemed like the fiddliest one to play, being an agility-dependent glass cannon, and I never went there.

They’ve also incorporated sidequests and bonus areas that aren’t simply part of the main dungeon. An entrepreneur in town has a book that allows him to open portals to disparate areas, giving you a chance to explore a different kind of level as a short self-contained mission, and there are also infinite supplies of portal maps from a shop in town, offering much the same. You can use this for grind-levelling as well as looting, which makes the main dungeon easier.

The game is really quite pretty; it’s bright and cheerful (a deliberate attempt to distance itself from its predecessor, I imagine) with cartoonish graphics that quickly convey a variety of styles, from jungle temple to (apparently) Dark Elf palace. Slain enemies can be satisfyingly blasted right off the map into various bottomless pits, the weapons are pleasingly over-the-top, and the enemies varied and entertaining. I also enjoy the way you can stack up titles by enchanting items to preposterous levels, though there’s an increasing risk of nerfing your items entirely.

On the whole, it is a very compelling game in many ways. You can log in and out at any time, so it’s easy to drop in to just run one level or side-map, or to quit mid-combat if you’re interrupted, without losing your progress. On the downside, there is absolutely no backtracking of any kind: knocked over your drink, attacked by a wasp, forgot you were talking to a vendor and accidentally shift-clicked your ultra-rare level 90 armour rigged out with two top-rank shards to transfer it to your pet but accidentally sold it for 10gp... doesn’t matter why something bad happened, you can’t claw back what you lost.

Okay, the strain of being relatively nice about something just got too much for me, so let's move onto what I do best most. Griping!

In which Shim is bad at games

Starting off small, the town of Torchlight clusters the key NPCs fairly close together – no five-minute jogs over to the witch’s hut to find out no, she doesn’t have anything you want. However, because of enthusiastic hitboxes, I did find myself constantly starting the same conversation with a Miner and the ‘adventurer’ Syl when trying to open my stash, buy stuff or just run through town. Not a major problem, but mildly irritating.

Targeting was okay, but not fantastic. It was all-too-easy to run around in circles when trying to target an enemy, and end up in the middle of a mob. A number of terrain features selectively blocked wands but not mundane weapons, which is a problem if you play an alchemist or other wand-user: cue frustrating bits where I’d be launching lightning bolts into a small pillar or low table rather than the cluster of skeletons on the other side, and it sometimes took a while to notice. Bonus points if they responded with a hail of arrows that sailed right over the terrain and into my character.

The skills and spells are pretty fun, but not being a MMORPGer I found myself overwhelmed by the number of options, as well as the shortage of hotkeys to bind them to. I ended up avoiding taking new powers, simply because I couldn't see any way to use more than a handful effectively: you get ten quickslots, but most are quickly taken up with potions and core abilities. It’s relatively fiddly to use any power or item that isn’t on your quickslots, and I also tended to forget their existence entirely. I genuinely don’t see how you’re supposed to manage at higher levels with fifteen-odd abilities, four spells, a couple of dozen kinds of fish and your potions. In a game like Baldur’s Gate, I used a swathe of different spells for all kinds of purposes, but here I restricted myself to just a handful out of sheer practicality. Some powers also seemed like minor variations, and therefore not worth burning a slot on.

I was also somewhat frustrated by the game’s lack of guidance for some quite important things. Early on it’s great for throwing up hints: how to use the traders, how to use your first magic item and so on. However, several things could do with more explanation. Some of my issues were fluffy things, like understanding the interplay between skills, gear and progression; realistically you probably won’t find this in a manual. Other stuff is crunchier, like working out what status effects actually do to your enemies. The main thing I’ve actually noticed, though, is transmuting and enchanting; these get a mention early on in the game, when it tells you not to worry your pretty little head about them for now, but eventually you want to give it a whirl. It took me quite a while to learn two crucial things: enchantment is a mug's game, and you can transmute magic items into Ember shards. As a result of this omission, I spent about the first fifteen levels selling off magic loot for cash, and it was only when I really started scratching my head as to why they’d bothered with the Transmuter that I discovered his other abilities on a wiki. Given the sub-Tory-privatisation-level resale values you get, you can imagine I was frustrated to have wasted all that magic loot.


The Ember system is, in theory, a nice way to give you some customisation of items, by slotting in various types of magic gem with their own properties. There are gems that absorb or deal energy damage of various types, and some that boost your stats, but to be honest there are only three really worth bothering about: shards that steal life when you hit enemies, shards that steal mana, and shards that provide constant healing. Compared to that stuff, which keeps you vertical and powered-up, a bit of extra lighting damage is basically nothing.

However, it has some complications that I don’t think Runic quite anticipated.

Ember shards are relatively uncommon, and therefore precious. Getting even a mid-tier shard calls for you to collect 8 shards of the same kind; you typically acquire about four shards per level in total, chosen randomly from a dozen types, which means you’re looking at around a dozen levels to get (say) an intact Life Ember. Getting a top-tier shard should, I think, add up to 512 shards of that colour; in reality it’ll be less because you can grab the odd dull or even intact shard, but even on a wildly optimistic view, you’re still looking at gathering well over a hundred of the buggers.

A key point is that it’s impossible to unslot shards once you add them to an item: you can use an NPC to recover either the shard or the item, but not both. Magic items are common, but it’s very rare to find gear that is actually better for your purposes than what you’ve already got; this is typically Unique gear, which turns up about once per level, has a 2/3 chance of being aimed at a different class, and may not offer the kind of boosts you want for your build. Even more unusual are items that have two sockets for shards, which is particularly key for weapons: Ember shards provide different benefits depending on whether they’re in a weapon socket or a clothing socket, and only weapons provide the crucial regeneration powers I mentioned. Genuinely good Unique gear with two sockets and powers that you really like is astronomically rare; my 60th-level character was still using weapons I picked up around level 12, with a few added enchantments and some mid-tier shards, because I simply never found anything better to replace them with.

The end result is you don’t want to put good shards into your good gear, because you can't upgrade either without losing the other, and both were hard to come by. The higher-level the Ember you’ve got, the more reluctant you get to actually slot it into a decent item, because it could be dozens of levels before you finally find that precious high-level class-appropriate Unique two-slot item that’s actually better than what you’re using in terms of your character’s skillset, and trash your old gear; by that time you'd probably have had the chance to meld this shard and upgrade it. Of course, it’s also a bad idea to use low-level shards, because they block slots for virtually no benefit. And you certainly don't want to use suboptimal gear just to use a high-level shard!

In other words, if you’re like me, you end up with an obsessotastic game of gathering, hoarding and melding Ember without ever actually using it outside a bare handful of cases. In fact, I (unexpectedly) finished the game before achieving even one top-tier shard, with almost all my gear shard-free.

In mild fairness to myself, I think this is a case of confused expectations. I'd assumed that you were supposed to get high-level shards, would be able to do so reasonably readily, and had no idea how far into the game I was, so I kept hanging on for a slightly better option. I also ended up spending quite a lot of time running side-maps, which may have thrown off their calculations on what kind of gear I should be getting when, since it turns out the main map is fixed-level while side-maps scale with you. Again, I didn't really have any sense of how much I should be doing maps, but they were infinitely available, so I vaguely assumed "often". On reflection, though, I think they really are intended as an occasional diversion, not something you do frequently. I finished the game at level 60, fighting an ultimate boss of level 35ish. It was about as tough as you'd expect. I didn't actually realise I'd finished the game until someone in town suggested I retire.

Those Magic Changes

Coming back to practical matters, actually using the Transmuter adds a level of inconvenience to the whole Ember thing which honestly I can’t especially see a need for. As things stand, you need to:

* rearrange your and your pet's inventories to have as much magic dross as possible in yours, since you can't access pet inventory when transmuting
* walk over to the Transmuter
* click on him to open a window
* extract four unwanted items from your inventory to turn into Ember, and click the correct button
* repeat up to four times, at which point you've run out of space
* close the window, which inevitably ends up sending you running off at random for no clear reason
* open your pet's inventory again
* transfer any remaining unwanted stuff across
* rinse and repeat
* go back to your permanent stash and check for pairs of shards with the new ones you made
* collect any matching pairs, plus (if you're canny) shards that will have a pair once you fuse the lower-level ones
* return to the Transmuter, open a window, transfer two matching shards, click Transmute button
* repeat until finished
* return anything you're not using to stash

I'm not entirely clear why you can't cut out the middle-man entirely here, since this is a free service. It would be much simpler if they allowed the PC to perform transmutations:

* open a many-slotted Transmute menu
* drag in all items you want to render into shards
* click button to transmute all at once

You could do this in-dungeon, allowing you to keep going without constant trips back to town. You could include tickable options in the game settings to auto-select items that aren't better than the PC's gear for transmutation, and even highlight matching shards (at present it’s impossible to tell the exact level just from visuals). In fact, why not simplify this even further and have Ember as a separate bottomless gear tab for the PC, so they wouldn't have to keep a stash of Ember in town that occupies most or all of their storage space? There might be arguments against this stuff, but it sounds very good to me. As it was, I tended to feel like I was playing two separate games, like in Recettear: the dungeon-crawling hackfest full of explosions and treasure, and a sort of tedious pair-matching trading game.

I feel like I'm a bit lost here, without a very good sense of how, mechanically, you're supposed to relate to the Ember. I may just have the wrong kind of brain for this game. It seems like this mechanic will only really come into its own with repeated playthroughs where you can accumulate the truly vast quantities of shards needed to hit the top tiers - and honestly, I can't see why you'd bother. If the idea really is that you accumulate them over multiple characters, then the game doesn't support it with adequate storage, or by making the transmuting bit very convenient.

Much the same issues applied to the various matching item sets in the game. In theory, collecting several bits of gear from the same set allows you to get additional perks for wearing them together; in practice, even with huge amounts of side-questing, I found one item from about twenty different sets, and only found a second item from two. In both cases they were already worse than my existing gear. Some of these sets have five, six or seven pieces: I can't imagine how long you need to spend playing to actually complete one. It also seems to me that by the point you did, you'd almost certainly have unique items for each equipment slot that were better than the set, even once the set-bonuses were taken into account - particularly as set pieces don't tend to have two sockets for shards.

Capitalism, How?

Money is quite a weird thing in this game. I already mentioned the resale values: you get effectively zero money for items, regardless of their power level, and so selling stuff simply isn't a useful way of doing things. Broadly speaking, you can transmute four items into an Ember shard that'd set you back about 10n gold, or you can sell them for a total of about 4n gold. Meanwhile, one item of that level will cost 20-30n gold. Early on, at least, when I was actually buying things occasionally, I found I could afford about one item per character level; but fairly soon there was nothing worth buying, except the odd spell. You may be expected to spend more of it on things like the Gambler (unidentified magic item hawker), but I really couldn't see the point. By the end of the game I had enormous piles of cash that I couldn't do anything with, since nobody would sell anything I might conceivably want. Well, I say ‘enormous piles of cash’, but what I mean is, enough to buy ten enchants on an item. I know. I did.

Enchanting is, in theory, a way to empower existing items with extra boosts. There’s an enchanter in town, and various shrines throughout the cages that can also enchant items for free. The shrines I found fairly useful, and never got a bad result from, but the enchanter I didn’t use much. The reason is that enchanting is really a very significant risk. You fork over some amount of money, depending on the item and its existing enchantments, in exchange for a random enchantment effect. There’s a sizeable chance (around 20%) that it fails outright, but nevertheless takes your money. If it does work, you have no idea what effect you might receive: they vary from a tiny bonus to some attribute that you simply don’t use, to huge damage bonuses, to rare and precious effects like increased casting level or movement speed.

However, there’s also a small chance that the enchanter will completely wipe your item of enchantments, which isn’t simply cumulative, but actually increases every time. I had about four or five items wiped in the time I did play around with enchanting. As I mentioned before, it’s really very hard to lay your hands on decent kit, and with a non-zero chance of destroying it, there’s simply very little incentive to risk putting the gear you actually use forward for enchantment; not only will you lose it, but you’re unlikely to have anything remotely as good to replace it with. For reference, I finished the game dual-wielding wands that dealt around 600 damage per second each plus a number of handy side-effects, and the closest alternatives I saw (over the course of about 40 entire levels) were in the 400 range. And of course, enchanting stuff you won't even use is largely pointless. Since both the cost and risk of enchantment increase each time, repeatedly enchanting suboptimal gear until it beats your current stuff isn't a good strategy either.

I'm a bit inclined to think that the vast majority of the looting is irrelevant, the enchanting and gold-hoarding are basically irrelevant, and that the Ember system is hugely more complicated than it needs to be, to the point where most of that could be dispensed with - except that then there wouldn't really be much game left. So ultimately I suspect that those are there for people with a rather different mindset.

On the Level

The XP and levelling system seemed so-so to me. You gained new abilities fairly frequently, and the Fame! track offers extra chances to get skills for finishing off named enemies. New skills unlocked as your level increased, offering more variety and different types of ability. That being said, there were a few oddities. Each skill is capped at 10 ranks, and so your power level seems to plateau as you max out favoured powers; as enemies continue to increase in power, I found this meant there was a weird difficulty curve, particularly in the auto-scaling side-maps: things get easier as you pick up more synergised gear and powers, but then ramp up again when you begin maxing out and stop finding better gear. The result was combat got slow and quite dangerous. There also seemed to be some fairly wide difficulty swings, possibly tied in to specific strengths and vulnerabilities: I found one type of skeleton would swarm me and kill me off in about three seconds, while I could shrug off just about anything else of similar level.

In some ways I was also unhappy about the way enemies scaled up to you, even though it was only on sidequest maps. As I discovered through swapping maps between characters, going into a lower-level map makes no difference to the enemies you face, only the local aesthetic, which means you can’t have a quick and leisurely plunge through a low-level area just to chill out. You also can’t level up faster by taking on higher maps (they’re not on sale, but a higher-level character can pass one to you), since you earn XP at precisely the same rate. So there was no advantage to killing a dragon that chased you repeatedly round an area in a Benny Hill-style comedy sequence as you took desperate pot-shots at it and guzzled healing potions, compared to a puny goblinoid. I’ve never been a fan of auto-adjusting difficulty of this kind, because I think it takes away the player’s freedom to find their own level and to suit their mood. Though I mostly played on Easy, sometimes I did fancy a bit of a challenge, and other times just to chill for a few minutes without having to worry too much. So I would have much preferred for you to be able to buy maps of any level you’d already encountered, with the appropriate enemy levels, and explore them as you chose.

Cause the lights they shine so bright, it's hard to see with so many around

As I’ve said, Torchlight is really a very pretty game, with exciting visuals and dramatic spell effects all over the place. One unfortunate side-effect of this, though, is that at times it is incredibly hard to tell what’s going on, especially if you’re playing a magic-heavy character and facing magical enemies. There were moments from the midgame onwards when it looked less like dungeoneering and more like a bullet hell game, when I had no idea where my character was, whether nearby creatures were minions or monsters, who was attacking who, or who was winning, and could only button mash hopefully. Sometimes I'd suddenly realise all the enemies had been dead for ten or twenty seconds and I was just mindlessly firing bolts into a wall - and possibly had been for most of the combat while my minions ate everything. At times like these I'd yearn for the combat in Baldur's Gate, where pausing to analyse the tactical situation and plan your moves was so readily possible.

Somewhere in the centre of the explosions, monsters and damage reports is my increasingly-mangled character

Final word

All that being said: did I get my money's worth out of it? Sure, absolutely. It’s a relatively accessible game even if you don’t really grasp things like Ember, enchanting and (to be honest) the entire looting thing. Playing on easy, I could probably have managed by collecting only rare items for my own use and not worrying about the rest. Enthusiasts could dig deep into the looting, enchanting, item-swapping between characters, and complicated combinations of powers. Despite the fact that I'm not really planning to play it seriously again, I'll probably end up dipping in and out, simply because it's so damn easy to spend a few mindless minutes zapping things. I quite liked the characters, the monsters were fun and varied, and there are enough differences in playstyle that I’ll likely try a few different loadouts and builds in a mild way. But there are a number of corners that could be knocked off, and concessions made to casual players, that I think would have improved it.

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at 10:31 on 2018-06-20
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