It’s House Party time on the Xbox 360 and everyone’s invited - well, anyone with an Xbox and subscription to the Live service, that is. Fortunately, it’s the kind of party where you don’t actually have to speak to anyone and can just sit down and get your game face on instead. As part of the Microsoft platform’s biannual celebrations, developer Runic Games has made a version of its 2010 PC hit Torchlight especially for the Xbox 360 and its available to buy from 9 March 2011 at the price of 1200 points - roughly equivalent to a tenner. Why should you care? Well, because it’s really good fun.
Torchlight is an RPG dungeon crawl in the best sense of the term largely because the plot is more or less completely immaterial. There is a plot and it’s perfectly good but it’s basically there to explain that there isn’t one. You’re more than welcome to follow it but we very quickly found ourselves skipping the narrative to get down to some more action. It’s third person, diagonally top down view of you hacking and slashing your way through gangs of monsters and demons that comes across almost like a Gauntlet for the 21st century.
The story takes place on or under the frontier, boomtown of Torchlight so situated because it stands at the entrance to a vast and cavernous system of mines upon a rich seam of the curious, magical and slightly sinister ore known as Ember. Between this mysterious substance, the labyrinth of chambers and the small town at the top, you get all the dungeons, loot and quest-givers a game could need. No travelling the long roads of a carefully thought out world, no studying a map, meeting strangers on the way, getting lost and virtually no side quests whatsoever. This is fantasy RPG stripped down to its essentials and it’s a rollicking romp for it. Take a complex format boil it down at a careful temperature, drive off the hot air and what you get left with is a concentrated residue of all the best things about this genre still left wonderfully in tact.
It’s a familiar character creation and progression chart. You start by choosing one of three major classes: Vanquisher, Brawler or Alchemist - which translate pretty much as ranger, fighter and mage - and then add points to your attributes and skills as the levels tick by. We chose to play an Alchemist to get a decent taste of the magic for both graphics and gameplay purpose and haven’t looked back since. That’s not to say the other classes aren’t fun but we’ve certainly thoroughly enjoyed our choice, and might even consider going back to try out the others some time soon.
What’s rather nice is that within each class are plenty of choices of sub-class as provided by the talent tree for you to climb as you see fit. Three major spell/skill categories within the Alchemist path are those of the elemental-style evocter, the druidic/conjurer creature summoner and that of the fighter/mage and all the buffs that go with it. Naturally, you can pick and choose as you go but commitment pays off in dividends and rather quickly if you decided to specialise from the off.
Your final choice before you hit the big, wide world is a pet to come along with you. Given that there’s no multiplayer option - a crying shame, as it turns out - this is the only company you get, so choose wisely between the wolf, lynx and chakaway (a small cute dragon thing). Actually, you don’t have to choose that wisely because one of the more fun things about the game is that you can feed your pet different kinds of fish, which you yourself hook from small eddies in pools and streams you chance upon, and it’ll turn them into a giant bat, spider, elemental or just about anything you care to think of. If you buy the game within the first 2 weeks you also get a fish that’ll transform your little buddy into an ogre permanently. Well worth doing.
Your pet acts as a nice buffer between you and the hoards trying to jump all over your spell casting and long range rifle shooting or even just someone to compete with if you’re a Brawler running in for the kill yourself. More useful that that though, they can also carry as many items as you can (up to 50 objects and stacks) and even take them up to the shops to sell while you’re still deep in the dungeons which is an excellent time saver cutting right down on that ball ache that is the traipse up to town and back again just to lighten your load. After all, who wants to stop in the middle of a looting spree?
Should you wish to get back to the surface every now and then, you’ll find plenty of waypoint portals to zip your right up there and you can even make your own with fairly easy to come across Town Portal spells.
The loot itself also manages to tread a well-managed balance between too plentiful and not common enough. Anyone can use any item but not all items would be the right choice. It’s up to you to work that one out but the minimum ability required for each weapon or piece of armour should give you a pretty good idea at who its aimed. There are four or five different levels of gear colour coded so that you know how special each one is and all of them can be further enchanted at a cost or when you’re lucky enough to find special fonts down in the mines. Last of all, some of the items come with sockets for you to further augment your kit with various chunks of Ember that you find strewn about the dungeon floors. Better still, these can be combined together up in the town to make a small heap of them into one all-powerful nugget of enchantment.
The gameplay itself is a silky side step from the slight more strategy focused PC version down the arcade spectrum to a free flowing action adventure but without turning all of your hard earned abilities and loot into an irrelevance. Everything from area of effect for spells and swipes with your sword, to ranged shooting, is dealt with nicely and there’s all the usual console additions such as controller rumbles when you score a critical hit or the dreaded heartbeat when you’re low on health. It does feel like a bit of a cheat when you out-manoeuvre a fireball but then, presumably these things would be aimed at a point in space rather than being person-seeking if they existed in real life anyway. Fortunately, Torchlight is so thoroughly enjoyable that you never bother questioning the philosophy behind it because you’re too busy, knee deep in poison zombies and tree demons to notice.
Therein, of course, lies one of the potential issues with it though. There’s really not a lot to it. Hack, slash, cast spell, pick up loot, sell loot, keep some loot, level up, do it again. We can’t say that we got bored of it but there was a part of us that trying not to think about the simplicity of the formula either. Again, to get a bit philosophical about it, it is not really any different to any other RPG in that respect but there really are no bells and whistles to mask the fact. At the same time though, how much depth do you really expect from an Xbox Live Arcade game?
One of the main features of the game is touted as the fact that your adventures are unique. Each dungeon is randomly generated from a set of hand drawn square units stitched together in a way that makes sense. While it looks good and works perfectly well, it does rather highlight the fact that there’s absolutely no importance to what you’re doing and where you’re going. The whole thing does also tend to the rather easy. Admittedly we chose the Normal setting but one does get the impression that there’s as little of strategy about this game as there is of puzzles - about 3 per cent of the total experience if we had to pin it down.
There’s also the slight annoyance of the transfer to console system that you only get four controller button slots to map with your spells and abilities. Yes, you can change between a few different sets of four by hitting the d-pad but that’s just not an option when you’ve got a giant spider with its fangs dripping venom onto your face.
RPG dungeon crawling at both its simplest and finest, Torchlight for the Xbox 360 is really, really good fun. The modest outlay and Xbox Live Arcade headline belie both the enjoyment and value that you’ll get out of downloading this fantasy hack and slash treat. While we’d challenge anyone not to get their tenner’s worth, there will be plenty of people who tire of it before they reach the end, let alone have the patience with the retirement system that gifts you an heirloom weapon to your new character if you’re prepared to go through the whole experience again.
All in all though, it’s time to stop reading and get playing. Purists might prefer the PC experience but even the most hardened of their ranks couldn’t fail to beam with satisfaction as the XP comes flying in at the bash of a button. Most entertaining.