The first rules of real estate are location, location, location. Just as you don't want to build your house on haunting burial grounds, it's probably a bad idea to build your quaint village on top of a vein of the magical ore Ember. Bad things tend to happen.
In Torchlight by Runic Games (available on the Steam online game service), you're an adventurer drawn by the Ember to a quaint village that is rapidly becoming corrupted by the ore that is mined beneath it. While you'd really like to track down the real estate agent that sold them this track of land, instead you grab your sword and delve into dozens of randomised dungeons built by civilisations that long ago fell to the power of the Ember.
Despite being a relative new company, Runic has assembled a heavyweight cast of creative talents, including Max and Erich Schaefer, the co-designers of Diablo 1 and 2, and Travis Baldree, designer of Fate. Based on the credentials of the designers, you might guess that Torchlight is halfway between Diablo and Fate. And you'd be right. The visual style will remind you of World of Warcraft while the gameplay is reminiscent of Diablo.
Torchlight is likeable because it's very, very familiar. The randomised dungeons, constant pet companion (that can never die but only flee), choice of where to spawn after you die, and paper-thin plot can all trace their origins back to Fate. Fate, incidentally, is often credited as being one of the best "Diablo clones" out there. Torchlight is even better. You'll journey through dozens of randomised dungeons, collect loot, level up, defeat an assortment of monsters and eventually come face to face with an evil that lurks deep below the town of Torchlight. Obviously, you'll stumble onto cliches about as often as you find new items.
The Diablo series is known for its many classes while Fate only offered one. Torchlight not surprisingly splits the difference and has three: the Destroyer, the Alchemist and the Vanquisher. The Destroyer is your typical melee-focused tank, the Alchemist is a ranged conjurer that uses powerful spells and summoned beasts to defeat foes and the Vanquisher is a ranger DPS class that uses bows, guns, and traps. Depending on what skills you select and what weapons you choose to arm yourself with, the three classes play pretty similarly. My Alchemist initially used a lot of melee weapons until I switched him to duel wielding wands or pistols. His class-specific skills allow for lots of magic use, but the Vanquisher and Destroyer skills aren't revolutionary enough to fundamentally alter how you play. Click on a baddie or unleash hotkey ability, either way, the baddie goes down.
The town of Torchlight acts as a central hub where you can attain side quests, sell or buy goods, and store loot. Like in Fate, when you're deep in a dungeon you can send your pet back to town to sell your goods. Otherwise, you can use a town scroll portal to get out and personally sell/buy goods. I found myself heading to town anytime I ran out of identify scrolls (used to identify mysterious objects) and this routine was one of the more annoying chores of the game and one of my main criticisms of Fate. I have no idea why they decided to keep this portal system, because the portal/hub system are some of the most inconvenient and frustrating aspects of the game. Transportation to the town immediately takes you out of the action and artificially inflate the game's length due to sheer time spent loading screens and running errands. You came to Torchlight to kill things, not be a used parts salesman.
Your character is loaded with so much loot, a great deal of which is unidentifiable initially, that you're forced to leave your dungeon crawling to identify and sell the dozens of axes, maces, and wands you find. I'd routinely sell my goods and then spend the next ten minutes going to the various townspeople that independently performed one function towards augmenting my armoury with gems. The gems grant you bonuses like protection against fire, additional armor, and faster health regeneration. By combining their fragments, the gems become more powerful and can be slotted into weapons or armor. You can destroy equipment to use the gems for later use or destroy the gems to retrieve the equipment (thanks two to orcish smithies in town). You can also augment your armor by going to the enchanter and spending money to enchant or add gem slots to your equipment. For those who like to micromanage their character, the gem, enchantment, and levelling systems provide plenty of options to upgrade your character. For those who tire of spending a significant part of your adventure leaving the battlefield to go shopping, the system gets tedious.
The soundtrack and voice acting are pretty forgettable, as is the tired plot of some kind of evil that lurks beneath the town of Torchlight. The fact that the dungeons are varied is explained by the idea that it's a "layer cake" of past civilisations and the deeper you go, the further back in time you go. The characters in the story simply exist in the hub to give you quests that usually involve collecting an artifact or killing a beast on a particular level. Aside from obtaining more loot, fame, and experience, there's really no reason to undergo any of the side quests. They don't expand the world or story and often require you to backtrack through dungeons you've already fought through.
Like Diablo, the view is isometric and uses a point and click interface. You'll want to use your hot keys to assign spells, potions, and other abilities during gameplay, as these come in handy during intense combat. As an Alchemist, I assigned a lightning spell in one key, a fireball in another, and finally a focused beam in the right-mouse button, the combination could take out pretty much anything, regardless of its elemental strengths and weaknesses.
On my Core i7 iMac, Torchlight looks fine. This isn't a game you play for the graphics or for the realism. It's a dungeon crawler and the lightning, fire, and gore effects are all pretty satisfying, on the whole better than Fate and the Diablo series and comparable to World of Warcraft. I didn't experience any frame rate issues, though the constant load-screens when jumping between town and the dungeons can be a drag.
Dungeon crawlers are a niche within the larger RPG genre and not surprisingly, appeal to a smaller audience. But Torchlight is a really good introduction for novice role playing gamers because it combines intuitive hack and slash combat with an obtrusive levelling system. Sure, you can get lost looking for gems, artifacts, and jumping to town to embark on the many side quests. But you could also just always remain in the dungeon, level grind, and stay in the action. Torchlight is a more enjoyable world and better tuned game than Fate and offers a more casual approach to role playing than Diablo, making it a great gateway for gamers. While it doesn't offer much that hasn't been done before, Torchlight borrows just enough from the right places to make it an entertaining venture.