I began playing Torchlight on XBLA at about ten o'clock in the morning, which was the first time I'd ever touched the game. I rolled up a Vanquisher, explored the mines, did a couple of side quests, and started feeling like I had a good handle on its systems and gameplay. It was all right, I figured; it was cartoony and simple, and I wasn't having a bad time, but I didn't see why anyone would get really excited over it.
Then I noticed it was about six hours later, I'd skipped two meals, I hadn't gotten up from the couch, and my legs had both fallen asleep.
Oh, I said to myself. That's why.
I'm not quite sure what it is about a good dungeon-running game that can suck up time like this. You're constantly exploring to find more stuff to improve your capabilities so you can kill larger monsters and reach a deeper level of the dungeon where larger monsters and more stuff can be found. It's a bizarre endless treadmill.
Of course, Torchlight has a proud history of this kind of thing. Runic Games is made up of a bunch of Blizzard and Flagship Studios veterans, including a lot of people who worked on Diablo. Torchlight sold well as a direct-download title on PC before its release on XBLA, and it's not hard to see why: it's an addictive game in an addictive genre, made by a team that knows what it's doing.
The game is set in a town of the same name, which is founded around the mining and transport of the magical mineral Ember. There's a rich vein of Ember under the town, but close proximity to it tends to make people strange. The vein's also attracted a lot of attention before now, so the lower you go from Torchlight, the more you find; the mining tunnels break through into three different kinds of ancient ruins and the inevitable temple to absolute darkness.
There's also a slight emphasis on how Ember corrupts people, because this is a game by ex-Blizzard people, and apparently working at Blizzard engenders some kind of lifelong obsession with plots that involve being corrupted by evil entities.
Overall, the plot's pretty slender, which is fine. The emphasis is squarely on exploring the randomly-generated dungeons under Torchlight, collecting randomly-generated loot, and returning to town to sell what you don't need. Everything is very streamlined compared to the dungeon-crawlers of the past; you find town portal scrolls every time you turn around, your character has an unkillable dog with a backpack who can run back to town on your behalf, there are waypoints in the dungeon that you activate every five floors or so, and you can carry a flat limit of fifty items without having to worry about playing "inventory Tetris."
It's not a bad port, either. The framerate tends to stutter when a lot's going on at once, particularly on later floors when you often turn a corner and find yourself eye-to-eye with sixty different monsters, ten of which are summoning more. There's also a relative lack of ability slots, with only eight to choose from, but Torchlight rewards specialization; if there are actually more than eight abilities that you're using often enough that this becomes an issue, you could legitimately be said to be doing it wrong.
The worst thing you can say about Torchlight is that it's easy. I played through it on the Normal difficulty and never came close to dying, even as a brand-new player, until I reached the thirty-first floor of the dungeon. On Hard difficulty, things are a little more interesting, and if you're at all experienced with dungeon crawlers, I'd recommend that you start there.
For fifteen dollars, you get a lot of gameplay with Torchlight. It's very much made for people who are already fans of the genre, but I could see a new player having fun with it too; on Easy or Normal, it begins slowly enough that just about anybody could get up a good head of steam. It's not the kind of thing you play if you're looking for a strong, unforgettable narrative, but it'll keep you busy for at least a few days.