There is no doubt that Diablo III has been a massive sales success, but the subsequent criticism of the game has been enormous, on point and constant. It can not be easy working on a game with such high expectations placed on its shoulders, but conversely that only makes the developer's decision to radically change the series' fundamental mechanics more questionable.
Such considerations doesn't seem to have troubled Runic Games. The small developer, that has partly been founded by the two Schaefer brothers who helped create the Diablo series, has instead concentrated on refining and expanding the solid foundation they created with the first Torchlight.
The developers experience can be felt immediately. Despite not having a Call of Duty-budget in or a development team of more than a hundred people, Torchlight II immediately shows itself to be full of confidence. This seems to be the sort of game where the developer has been given the proper time to work on all the details in a way you rarely experience on the PC, and not once have I encountered problems of either the technical or gameplay-destructive kind - this is clearly a project of passion.
From the start you are given the choice between four different types of characters. It is up to you do decide their sex and how they should look. The Embermage is the game's version of a sorcerer, while the Berserker and Outlander takes care of the barbarian/melee-expert and ranger/longdistance-fighter-roles.
For me though, it was the Engineer in particular that caught my attention. In fact, with this character I think that Runic Games has created one of the genre's most interesting classes, because he can be played both with focus on melee and range, while still making use of everything from electric grenades to awesome looking steampunk-robots.
A new feature added to each of the four classes is the so-called Charge Bar, which can be charged by slaying monsters and using different kinds of spells. The Charge Bar works differently for each character and ability, and can for instance be used to give some extra magic damage to the attacks of the Engineer, while the Berserker can launch into six seconds of unstoppable rage and crit-happy attacks.
The game is structured in a way that will seem welcoming to fans of the genre, and cities full of personalities with different problems are ready to reward you with experience and magic trinkets if you decide to help them. The quests usually involve mowing down leagues of monsters, but with skillpoints, fame and experience waiting around the corner, you seldomly find the time to complain about this. Here is one of the areas where Runic Games have listened to their fans though.
Two chests have been added to each city, one of which is dedicated to saving equipment for your current character, while the other is free to use by all the different characters you create. If you are adventuring with your Embermage and find a magical sword for your Berserker, you therefore just throw in the shared chest and it will be ready for your Barbarian to pick up the next time you select him.
The cities also contains the typical merchants offering various improvements of your equipment and fishing holes, where you can relax with a fishing rod and catch magical fish that turns your pet into one of several beastly monsters. Fans of Diablo will also be happy to know that the mysterious merchant with unidentified and highly priced equipment for sale has made his way to the world of Torchlight. That means that you might get lucky and end up then with a demon killer worthy of the gods, whilst at other times, you will witness your gold disappear into a bottomless pit.
It should also be noted that cities this time, in part, allow you to respec your character, which was a huge omission in the first game. There is however a twist to the system, and you are only able to buy back the last three skills that you used a skillpoint on, and thus you still have to plan ahead how you are going to build your character.
The pet, which was also one of the most unique aspects of the first game, is even more essential this time around. With the ability to use equipment, various spells, transform into monsters and run to town and sell all your unwanted equipment, it was a welcome partner in the past. The pet has become even smarter though, and can now buy potions and scrolls. This in part, seems to be Runic Games way of finding a middle road between the health orb-system of Diablo III and avoiding having to send the player back and forth between cities to restock, and it works brilliantly. In fact, it is hard to imagine a future game of this kind that does not somehow mimic Runic Games' cunning system.
The biggest news though is undoubtedly the addition of multiplayer. When development began on the first Torchlight, it was quickly decided that multiplayer wouldn't be part of the package, in part because work had already begun on a MMO-version, but also because it would simply cost too many hours of development.
What it exactly is that has changed the team's mindset I don't know, but I am very happy that they have done so, because Torchlight II is simply superb in multiplayer.
The lack of pace and challenge that you sometimes experience when playing solo is quickly replaced with screens full of enemies all sizes and shapes, a far bigger challenge and better loot. Magic spells light up the screen with all the colors of a the rainbow, and not once did I experience a drop in framerate or another technical fumble.
There is no doubt that the hectic pace and the huge number of things happening on screen is partly made possible by Runic not insisting on using the latest flashy, graphical effects and photorealistic textures. It is however hard to blame the developer, who has instead concentrated on getting the most from their own graphical style, and the sequel looks significantly better than its predecessor. A far bigger game world has made room for more diverse areas and monsters, but even so it is the silkysmooth, colorful design that makes Torchlight II a joy to look at. Also it is worth noting that the system requirements are surprisingly low, even when the screen is filled with more than 30 enemies at a time.
The soundtrack has once again been composed by Matt Uelmen, and is not surprisingly a joy to listen to. The talented musician who once gave the first two Diablo adventures their unforgettable soundtracks, again uses his guitars to create a unique and evocative score. For one reason or another though, the music is allowed to get lost in the background. It really is a shame, because Matt's music is still beautiful and has its own sound, and the potential to add more atmosphere to the game is lost somewhat.
And now that we are discussing the aspects that could have used a bit more forethought, it's hard for me not to mention the skill trees. Elsewhere on the site, you can read the review of Borderlands 2, which did a fabulous job of making sure that each of the four character's three skill trees were different from each other and filled with interesting abilities. In Torchlight II too often I encountered earlier unlocked skills that seemed more interesting and effective than the higher-leveled abilities, which ruins some of the excitement of leveling up.
Also, as previously mentioned, the game can feel a bit dull at times if you play alone, and you learn quickly how much more fun and effective it is, if you can recruit a few of your friends for some adventuring.
The criticism of Torchlight II is minimal though, and is made even minor by the face that the game retails for an extremely reasonable price. It seems like Runic Games knew exactly what they wanted with their successor. The balance, pacing and all the color-coded loot means that you can almost hear the game whisper "welcome home" to all of us who have missed a spiritual successor to Diablo II.