SEATTLE — The appeal of the Torchlight series is easy enough to understand: slay monsters, earn loot, level up your skills, slay even bigger monsters. Rinse and repeat. If you grew up on the Diablo series, it’s like that, but with more cartoonish graphics and a more easygoing tone.
Unlike Diablo, though, Torchlight has generally been a single-player adventure, with very limited multiplayer features. Torchlight Frontiers aims to change that, by casting you as one adventurer among hundreds in a huge, shared world.
I went hands-on with Torchlight Frontiers at PAX West, where I learned that it plays a lot like previous entries in the series, even if a lot of the character-building has changed. I got to experience two brand-new classes: the Dusk Mage, a ranged wizard who employs both light and dark magic; and the Forged, a steampunk robot armed with a sword and shield.
First and foremost, Torchlight fans can rest easy; the core experience is roughly the same as you remember. During the course of my demo, I accepted a quest from a woman in town, journeyed across an overworld map littered with goblins, then delved into a dungeon populated with much meaner foes. The journey culminated in a boss fight against a huge goblin warchief, where I had to consistently deal damage while fighting off underlings and dodging area-of-effect attacks. So far, so good.
The character classes are varied, too. The Dusk Mage slung both light and dark spells at enemies, then waited for his mana to recharge in-between volleys. Light spells tended to target one enemy at a time, whereas dark spells could attack multiple foes, at the cost of damage and precision.
The Forged was the more interesting of the two classes, though. The plucky little automaton could launch missiles or draw in enemies for an area-of-effect swipe, but rather than draining mana, each special skill generated “heat.” When its heat was maxed out, it would have to vent steam, which was actually a handy way of burning nearby foes to cinders. Balancing special skills with venting heat helped combat maintain an interesting rhythm.
The bigger changes are related to the new multiplayer features. In Torchlight frontiers, the towns and overworld are persistent, meaning that many players can occupy them all at once. This will probably lead to some impromptu team-ups and player interactions; how that will affect the overall game is anyone’s guess. At PAX West, there were only about a dozen or so players sharing the world at any given time, due to a limited number of demo stations.
Quest areas and dungeons, though, will be instanced, meaning they’re unique for you and your party members. You’ll have to explore them thoroughly and contend with procedurally generated layouts, just like in Torchlight and its sequel. If other players are at higher levels than you, they’ll be automatically scaled down to a level just above the dungeon’s recommended cap. They’ll still have an advantage, but one that makes the dungeon easier rather than a complete pushover.
Character levels are perhaps where the game is most different from its predecessors. Instead of gaining experience and leveling up, character level is determined solely by the items that you equip. That means that if you luck out and grab a legendary sword off the first goblin you slay — as I did — you could have a much easier time with an upcoming dungeon. Granted, the reverse could also be true — you could grind for hours and not necessarily improve your character all that much.
In addition to loot, though, characters will also earn skill points from defeating enemies. This is how they’ll level up individual abilities and improve their characters over time. The system seems a little less traditional than what the single-player Torchlight games offered, but they’ll hopefully balance out well enough to keep people invested in a long-term MMO.
Torchlight Frontiers will be out on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, although there’s not much by way of price or release date yet. However, as before, you’ll be able to recruit an adorable animal companion to carry your gear for you, and that seems like the most important thing.