You Have Gained A Task: Torchlight Hardcore Mode Adventures Pt1

It’s Friday, it’s 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and I only woke up three minutes ago. I have the day off work and I’m really hungover. It’s been 72 hours since my last cigarette and I am angry, confused, upset and slightly hungry. I decide to buy Torchlight on XBLA.

Ah, some old-school PC-style dungeon crawling, just what the doctor ordered. I hit ‘New Character’, I make an Alchemist dude who I try to name Simon Fightman but text limits scupper me at the first turn. S Fightman (in my head, a distant relative of M Bison) will have to do. His pet is a dog called Dpt. Gundo. I assume this is the correct shortening of Deputy Gundo, but I’m happy with Department Gundo too so no harm done either way. I shall have to remember this trick if I ever create a new character IRL that requires naming. [Ed: I dread to think of the progeny of such a cavalier.]

After choosing name, class, pet type and pet name, I make the first truly important decisions in S Fightman’s life: Difficulty level and Hardcore Mode.  Difficulty level is Normal, I’m in no mood for any extra frustration. Hardcore mode is an interesting choice though. This is chosen during character creation and once decided it cannot be changed. It has only one effect on the game: your character becomes mortal, any and all death is permanent. I think “cool, I’ve heard this game is pretty easy so that’ll be a nice challenge”, so I tick ‘Hardcore Mode’, and the game starts.

At this point Simon Fightman is born. Not like in a normal game where I get some character to play as and that’s that. Simon is fragile, he is frail. He could entirely cease to exist. Yet by simple virtue of being potentially non-existent in the future, Simon starts to exist in the first place in a way that most game characters never do. But Simon is no philosopher, he’s a fightman, so he wanders off to the first level of the dungeon, picking up a story quest and an optional fetch quest on the way. Oh, how quickly they learn. Only a couple of minutes into life and he’s already accepting fetch quests. I am quite the proud father.

The first few steps into the mine are intimidating. At this point the whole ‘hardcore’ plan could go out the window. If Simon were to get beaten up too badly it would be a sign that this may be too difficult. Luckily, the game is as easy as everyone says it is. He crashes through mobs of goblinny things and spiders quite happily, rarely taking too much damage. Dpt. Gundo eats a fish and permanently changes into a troll which was an unexpected turn of events, but Simon takes it in his stride. I have yet to see Gundo actively troll him so that is OK. Adventuring with him would be a nightmare otherwise.

It annoys me when people post reviews or articles about RPGs and don't provide a screenshot of the character sheet. I will not make that mistake.

Eventually, Simon and Gundo reach the fifth level of the dungeon, labelled not as ‘Level 5’ but ‘Dank Chamber’. Simon detects a boss fight: this is the first real challenge. The normal mobs were no big deal. This could go either way. There’ll be no ‘damn he killed me but I’ve learned his attack patterns’ approach. Simon will have to learn the pattern during the fight and adapt first time. No second chances. At this point an interesting game mechanic is emerging, notably that I care more about Simon than any other game character in recent memory, purely because he is mortal.

As a result, every level up stat distribution is considered very very carefully. Every armour or weapon swap is deliberated upon. I need the best equipment possible, so I make sure my inventory is well-organised to facilitate full understanding of all currently available options. The ability to quickly shove unwanted items into Gundo’s backpack is so incredibly useful, it helps make the traditionally either satisfying or tiresome act of inventory management fall squarely and confidently into the ‘satisfying’ bracket. A self-sustaining process has begun: I must keep Simon alive, therefore I become more invested in him. As I become more invested in him, it becomes even more important that I keep him alive.

Simon portals back to town to fill up on health potions, he grabs a couple more side quests and some identify scrolls, does some housework of the buying, selling and equipping variety. OK, deep breath, back through the portal, one incomprehensible cut-scene and then it’s the boss fight. I’m slightly panicked. I have one eye on my health bar at all times, which is a shame because as I’m not cross-eyed having one eye on it means I have two. Which means I’m not looking at the actual fight on screen. There’s a lot happening at once; lightening and exploding crystals are everywhere. The boss is fast and has quite the health bar on him. I’m not quite used to combining melee attacks with my magic missiles spell (yes, it has a different name in Torchlight and it works differently. It’s still Magic Missiles). Gundo is useless: he flees to nowhere, even though he has the privilege of invincibility. Simon has no such safety net but fights on bravely.

At some point during the fight I experience my first Near Death Experience (NDE). Having now known the sweaty screamy psychological torment of a 20+ hour Torchlight NDE, I look back at this formative 45-minute light bump the way Charlie Sheen must look at Lemsip, but foresight doesn’t make it any less of a jolt at the time. They tend to be sudden: you think you’ll be fine, your health is in a good way then suddenly BAM, you’re at 1 or 2%. You start working the healing potion button like you’re playing Track and Field. You sit up, you make some form of verbal expression of surprise, regret and agony, but a different one each time. You run the fuck away, regardless of whether that’s the best thing to do or not. Often you run away into larger mobs of monsters. Sometimes, when all is said and done, it turns out that you’re standing up but you have no memory of doing that.

Eventually the boss falls to Simon’s two axes. It was shaky a few times there. Supplies are low. But Simon’s alive, and there’s a waypoint back to the safety of town at the back of the room. One boss down. From here, the game starts proper. Simon has now reached the stage where real advancement begins to open up. He gets increasingly powerful as time goes by and those early nerves disappear. Good thing too, because otherwise the entire experience would simply be too stressful to maintain. What never goes away is the passionate desire to keep Simon alive, and so the investment in maintaining a strong character stays with me.

At about 10 hours in I pass an invisible milestone, which is simply the realisation that I’m in too deep to back out easily now. I’m too attached to be blasé about anything any more. For a start, I realise now that this is my only Torchlight game. I’ve put too much work and passion into making Simon the man he’s become to start again with a new fightman should he die. He is my first and likely last character. Frankly, it’s emotionally exhausting. No matter how easy the game is, every time I switch it on I have to be ‘present’. It’s surprisingly demanding. Once this realisation has settled in, it becomes apparent that Simon’s continued existence ultimately goes hand in hand with my fun. If he died I’d stop playing, halfway through the game that I’m really enjoying, before I’m ready to stop. That would suck.

Each NDE feels like my Xbox is about to roll under a bus and subsequently become unplayable, and I react accordingly. I’m desperately clinging on to life, aware that my entire experience and all the potential fun I’m yet to experience is at stake in this risky gamble.

The second side-effect of this milestone realisation is that I suddenly come to terms with the idea that there is an end boss at the end of all this. What if Simon dies during the end boss? His life is defined by his death. It’s only because death is inevitable that his life has any meaning, so I’ve come to terms with the fact that he will one day perish, but I console myself with the idea that it will be narratively satisfying. But the final boss may well be unexpectedly hard: if Simon died during, that would most definitely not be satisfying in any way. I would not see the end of the game. I wouldn’t get my achievement. I would get no closure.

This was also a distinct possibility. As time marched on the game was getting more comfortable throwing tough enemies at me. NDEs were becoming more frequent, if not actually expected in some later dungeons.

On Saturday night I have two separate, distinct anxiety dreams about accidentally leaving Simon alone to die.

My end-boss dread is a positive though. I am genuinely intimidated by the concept; it is this dark and serious cloud looming threateningly on the horizon, the way end boss fights should ideally be in every game, in a perfect world. That must be most game designers’ ideal emotional sweet spot for a gamer to find themselves in, but few games are so well-suited to putting the ultimate gauntlet down on the table as Torchlight.

I am confident I can handle the ‘standard’ dungeons now. Simon has reached new levels of awesomeness, specialising in combat arts and dual-wielding magical weapons, with a sideline in summoning lightning strikes at will and casually flinging bolts of poison from his fingertips. Also, his left shoulder is now a robot that shoots laser beams. But for all my confidence regarding the ‘everyday’ dungeons I can feel the weight of that final battle growing with every floor I clear. Numerous times the game pretends it is about to start the end-game rolling but it turns out to be a fakie. Eventually, inevitably, I reach floor 35, and the honest-to-goodness final boss is one quick portal journey away.

You can read part two of Simon’s adventures here – when it’s published on Wednesday!