Play Journal: An Evening with Torchlight II

Or: Ruining A Good Sleep Schedule but Making the Most of it

The last few weeks I’ve consistently clocked over 60 hours per week spent on school and self-driven personal projects related to game development and design. I’m happy to be hitting over 50, and was surprised when looking over September’s numbers to see how much time I’d been spending working without setting time-clocked goals. I’m having a lot of fun with the design work I’m currently doing, but more importantly I think I’ve nailed my Trello workflow and stopped feeling anxious about my BitBucket repositories looking inactive after spending a few days doing work on paper, in spreadsheets, and writing/revising design documentation.

Needless to say I’ve taken little time to do much more than sleep and fool around on the Switch (last weekend involved playing co-op Overcooked with family which was a delight) but in revisiting my Steam library to download a few modding tools I’m looking at playing around with I ran into a classic PC gaming situation. I rediscovered a game I had been looking forward to playing, had waited forever for a sale to buy, had bought it, and had then contentedly watched it collect digital dust in my library before forgetting I even owned it. Today, it was like finding an unwrapped gift that somehow got lost after Christmas morning. I figured I could take a little break and install it, and then try it out before getting back on task to see if I’d want to keep it on my laptop for a while.

I’d played a bit of the first Torchlight, it was free on GOG at some point and I tried it out for a while. Unfortunately it was during my netbook phase, and without access to my rig the poor little computer chugged when trying to run the program. I’d heard more about it’s sequel because of the controversy regarding Diablo III‘s launch and online features, with many critics praising Torchlight II as an excellent alternative and worthy of it’s place in the genre by it’s own right. However, it’s still easy to dismiss Torchlight II‘s success as being solely attributed to the frenzy around Diablo III‘s launch hiccup. I’ve played my share of Diablo II but truth be told I really cut my teeth on this kind of game on the PSP through one of its launch titles:  Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade. I didn’t think I had a great deal of affection for ARPGs of this type, but figured it would at least be fun to get in there and click on a few baddies before bedtime while taking some notes on how the game played, to try and find some design insights.

SpongeBob2HoursLater

Well shucks, turns out Torchlight II is a really good game! Even Zelda: BOTW, a game which I’ve considered to be one of my best contemporary gaming experiences in years from both a consumer and developer perspective (a portable game embodying immersive sim design tenets, never what I would have expected from Zelda!) did not suck away my time the way Torchlight 2 did tonight. Well, best to make the most of the experience and write what I observed about the game’s design and myself as a player when I was wrapped up in the playing experience.

Straight to it

Torchlight II knew why I was really there, despite what I may have been telling myself about taking design notes. Character creation involves no initial skill spending, you just pick a face, a hair color, a name, a class and go. I expected to start in town and have a simple tutorial that introduces the local folks and their reasons for selling me things, and was surprised to find myself in the forest having just fled a town no less!

Awesome, my gaming brain thought, I can test these skills immediately, check out the skill tree, and see if this class is right for me!

I have full control of my character, have plenty of space to mess around, and I’m within visible distance from an NPC with a ‘!’ over his head (a quest giver almost certainly) all from the outset, I noted. Good stuff.

First impressions are important. What this moment said to me was “Torchlight II isn’t going to waste a second of your time if you don’t want it to.” So, I started clicking.

My initial choice was a gunslinger DPS character but after only about thirty seconds of looking at the skill tree I realized there were no immediately available summons.

I want summons, my gaming brain thought. Time to start over.

I didn’t even know I wanted summons, but it took less than a minute to get to a point where I realized that and that I was in the wrong build, I noted. REALLY good stuff.

Restarting RPGs is something I can actually find quite fun, but an introduction poorly suited to introducing player quickly to what their character build entails is a drain on the experience. Torchlight II does away with exposition aside from a brief, and totally skippable animated cutscene unlike some of it’s predecessors. I love taking in the ambience of an RPG town and getting to know the people in them, but if a player is going to take control only to walk around and speak to people in a game where their build choices have nothing to do with their experience in that regard I think it is best to really consider introducing them to the gameplay first. Within thirty seconds I knew my first choice was wrong, and within one minute from then I was clicking baddies like crazy and totally set on playing an Engineer class character. Engineers in Torchlight II are effectively a tank with some interesting summons in it’s skill tree, such as a healing bot as it’s first available skill in a defensive/healing branch, a skill which ultimately sold me on the class.

Early Environments

I find these kind of games are the most enjoyable when I feel like a deadly gold-fueled hummingbird. All the information I need in the reactive part of the game, that is: attacking, looting, dodging and casting, should be easy to obtain from a glance so I can always rapidly reposition the cursor to complete my next action. The UI in Torchlight II is good, or is at least good for the early game, because I can honestly barely remember anything about it. I didn’t need to memorize a thing, because everything felt exactly as it should be. What I do remember is the level and encounter designs, partially as I was forcing myself to but also because there were genuine moments of surprise and intrigue sprinkled effectively within the starting areas.

Torchlight II is not unlike Serious Sam or other 3D polygon model action games, where relatively tight, though often natural-seeming, corridors with few enemies funnel players into larger arena areas for huge encounters. The arenas are without any sort of distracting details to improve visibility and more succinctly provide the most relevant information regarding the combat of the game, and Torchlight II hits this point home by always illustrating the parts of enemies otherwise obstructed by foreground geometry or decorations in a highly discernible red.

Running around on my first quest I was surprised to see a glowing shape at the edge of a cliff out of the corner of my eye just a few short minutes from my outset from the immediate starting area. A thing! I need to CLICK, said my hummingbird gaming brain, already all warmed up on the early easy-to-one-hit enemies populating the area.

It took a somewhat winding path to finally get there, but lo and behold there was a chest glowing with a pale blue light. I clicked it.

Four ghostly apparitions appeared from the ground and almost killed my character. After making it through the battle, my clicking was still fast and precise, but just that much more cautious. Thankfully, the drop from the chest greatly improved my character’s defense stats.

Ah yes, I made a note, a quick intro to the idea of side content with the warning that it may bring greater difficulties but also greater rewards.

Flow

To be frank, the flow was something I didn’t expect to find so early into an ARPG of this sort, especially considering I’d cranked up the difficulty to make it a more tactical, thoughtful gameplay process to consider from a design perspective. I thought the fact I was purposefully playing in an observant manner would hinder flow from occurring at all, but all I did was play into the games hands. I became lulled by the clicking, the looting, and became proficient at recognizing the value of new gear based on what I understood about what made my character effective in only a few minutes, and the hours that followed were an excellent selection of pure game. I killed 4 bosses and finished two quests over the course of my time tonight. Each moment felt distinct, but the time just flew right on by.

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