I’ve been talking a lot for the past few days about things in the World of Warcraft Shadowlands beta that irk me. Whether it is the meandering, stop-and-go plot elements or the potential issues of balance with covenants and the design team’s fundamental misunderstanding of player apprehension about the topic, there are things in Shadowlands that need smoothing.
Today, however, I am delighted to write up that one of the cornerstone features of the expansion, Torghast, is, to me at least, an absolute delight to play.
Now, going in, it has to be said that I was predisposed to liking Torghast. I wrote at length through 2020 about how much I enjoyed patch 8.3’s Horrific Vision systems, and how the constant chase of a goal with a plateau in sight was a fun and welcome design for me. Torghast, in many ways, shows the manner in which HVs were a test drive of what the team wanted for Torghast. Torghast learns from the lessons of HVs in really positive ways – there are more player empowerments, lots of choices to make, new environments to take in, and a variety of effective strategies for dealing with the mechanics thrown at you. The difficulty scales up for as long as you play and offers new twists as you grow in power.
Where it improves even further on HVs though, it really shines. Let’s discuss the major improvements!
No Timer, Period: This one came about during alpha via player feedback, but boy, is it a welcome sight. Where HVs has the Sanity system functioning as a soft timer, with various recharge, resist, and drain mechanics made to obfuscate the true nature of the Sanity bar as timer and exert a constant threat and pressure on you, Torghast has…nothing of the sort. The closest it gets is a Death limiter. Based on group size, you are allowed to die a certain number of times. Once you hit 0 deaths, you can still die and remain in the run, however, your last death spawns the Tarragrue, a large brutish creature that will kill you on contact. Once you hit 0 deaths remaining, you have to evade him to get back to where you were on the current floor, and any subsequent death is effectively the end of the run (as the Tarragrue will now be blocking your way).
This alone makes Torghast infinitely more enjoyable as a mode of play. With random layouts, Torghast has nooks and crannies that are new to explore every time, and so without the pressure of a limited time run, you can opt to run through every corner of every floor you explore, looking for enemies, Souls, Anima power, and just admiring the landscapes.
Random Layouts: Something that I really loved about the old Diablo games (Diablo III still does this too, although it feels a bit more cookie cutter in ways) is random map layouts. What made Diablo II a game I poured hours of my teenage years into is that I could do a Baal run every afternoon with my friends, and that run was always different in multiple ways. Fully 3D, non-isometric games have often failed to capture this in a meaningful way (I was a big fan of Hellgate London until I realized that subway maps had very limited permutations). Torghast does a pretty good job so far in beta, although there are a number of recognizable room configurations and some hallways make little sense, but even that is accounted for from a lore perspective! Every Torghast run has a new corner or hallway to explore per floor, new layouts of traps, and rare enemies.
Changing Environments: When they first showed Torghast at Blizzcon 2019 in slideshow form, it seemed kind of like a bleak idea for a two-year constant gameplay loop – ICC but with 2020 graphical fidelity. However, the environments are changed with each of the different halls – and while some elements of the core design language remain, the color palette and trim change enough to offer a meaningful change of scenery.
(I had to let WordPress mutilate the preview images here so it didn’t cutoff my text. Click if you want to see better images!)
Further, there are tweaks depending on layout. Some floors are enclosed tunnels with no falling threat, where others are open walkways over nothingness, making high mobility skills and Anima Powers (there is one that increases your movement speed drastically when you are near walls!) dangerous to use. It adds a lot for me that it isn’t just all ICC grimdark blue, although the changes are mostly color and walls/no walls rather than biome changes. I would love to see special events bring weird environments in – a nature path, jungle, farmland, plains, etc. Maybe a Torghast hall with all the tileset built using assets from Westfall?
Strong Ramping Powers and Sawtooth Difficulty Model: Anima Powers increase your power in Torghast drastically. I’ve seen people already writing about how anima powers are “too many choices I have to sim out!” without really seeming to understand them, so let’s discuss. As you go through Torghast, you can pop certain enemies and pottery and get a little bubbly Anima sphere left behind. Clicking it gives you a choice of 1-3 powers at random. Powers are sorted by rarity and color-coded thusly in the UI. Most powers stack, and a quick mouseover will tell you if they do. Each power adds a lot to a run. Some of them are basic but solid (5% bonus secondary stats). Some are fun interactions that happen in the tower (a lot of “kill Mawrats and gain X bonus”). Some directly empower your Covenant abilities (as a Kyrian, I had options for my Sigil to do more damage, to heal me for a percentage of the damage, and to reduce its cooldown or even reset it on use of the signature ability Phials, and then buffs to the Phials alone like making me debuff immune or making a chugged Phial also increase my damage and healing output). Lastly, there are a ton of buffs to your class abilities. These are random, but you almost always have choices, and if the anima orbs that spawn are unfriendly, you get two chances per 6-floor level to trade Phantasma (a currency looted off everything in Torghast) for a selection of powers sold by Broker NPCs, or you can buy items for use in Torghast, or take a shot at either a random anima orb purchase (more expensive than a targeted power) or a guarantee that the next mob you kill will turn into an orb on death (even more spendy).
This leads to the design-intended “sawtooth” of difficulty. When running Torghast, the first floor isn’t really a threat, you loot your first Phantasma and handful of Anima powers, and things start to ramp. By around the middle of the level (3rd or 4th floor), things get more challenging as mobs scale upwards, traps become more common, and you get tested a little bit more. After this spike in difficulty, the game cools off, as your anima power acquisition gives you a lot of firepower with which to take on the subsequent floors, and usually the floor after the spiked difficulty one is a “break room” with nothing more than interactable objects, souls, and your first Broker NPC. The boss on the 6th floor is usually nothing special – there are some tactics needed, but it generally doesn’t hurt too bad and if you made it here with relative ease, the boss isn’t going to get you.
The randomness of powers sounds bad (because of that pesky word “random”) but since you always get multiple choices and you are constantly earning the ability to buy more at the Brokers, it can be a lot of fun. As certain powers stack, you start to gain ungodly amounts of power, and the synergy of effects can be awesome (as an example – Havoc DH gets anima powers that offer a 1 second cooldown timer for Fel Rush for 90 seconds after getting the power, which is meh, but there is also a power that increases the damage it deals by 400% for the duration of the run, so if you have that, you can take the mega cooldown reduction and just Fel Rush things to death like some sort of charging bull). There is also a sampling of fun “tradeoff” effects. On one run, I took a power that gave me a 30% buff to all primary stats, but made me unable to jump. This, I thought, would be fine, but not being able to jump also means missing out on DH glide opportunities, and this was on an open-walkway, multi-level floorplan in Torghast, meaning I felt that lack of movement.
In short, there aren’t really trap choices (with one exception, currently on Beta you can get Covenant power buffs for a Covenant you aren’t in), and so that means the anima power choice is wide-open. You may find yourself skewing in specific directions (defensive, offensive, preferring class specific choices, etc) but in my experience so far, the balancing of choices is pretty good and the ability to stack a lot of the traits means you’ll gain a lot from piling on your faves.
Meaningful Difficulty Increases As You Climb Higher: Each wing of Torghast has a unique Torment, which starts to apply as you climb to higher levels. Some of these up the challenge by forcing more combat (two of them summon additional mobs to challenge you under certain conditions) while others force you to work against constraints (constant damage, increased physical damage dealt by enemies, increased enemy max health) and nearly all of them have scaling factors that increase the frequency or amount of the effect as your run climbs higher. The intention is that these are strategic impediments to be worked around, however, some of them exceed at this better than others. For example, one of the wings has a 1% max health damage dealt to you every 5 seconds. Sure, it’s 1% of health every 5 seconds, meaning it would take 500 seconds to kill you on its own. However, it ramps by 1% per floor (unclear to me currently if this is “floor” as in a single floor of the 6 that make up a level, or a full level of 6 floors), which means that eventually, unless you have strong self-healing, you will die to this. Now, the pacing means that you could work around in in creative ways – self-healing via class mechanics, via certain anima powers, eating, consumables, etc – but it also means that at a certain point, you are walking a tightrope with how much damage you can take in combat. When you zone in to a freeform Torghast run, you get a choice of multiple wings, so if you’re running solo on a class with poor self-healing, you might avoid the Soulforges for that reason and instead pick something else, like the mob-spawning wings. A tank might take the wing that increases physical damage dealt by enemies since you have high armor and mitigation, and a healer might well succeed in the Soulforges at higher levels. These things are still being iterated upon, so I’m hesitant to be salty about the Soulforge example (and DH has pretty decent self-healing to make up some of that gap) but I will point at that one in particular as an example of a mechanic that has fewer strategic options for a solo player depending on class and spec.
Rewards: While the reward structure of Torghast seems very much in the air right now, bosses currently drop a placeholder “boss loot” which seems like it will be gear, and a number of Soul Essences – no idea what they are used for currently. There is also a chest after the boss with Legendary Components – how this will work also remains TBD, as all the loot is marked as placeholder. If this structure maintains, it may very well be that Torghast is an effective way to gear a character – the scaling at low levels is pretty forgiving, and it seems like a dedicated player could grind through multiple levels in a sitting and get a few pieces of loot and some possibly beneficial items. What remains to be seen are the limiters – when Blizzard removed keys from Torghast, the idea was that players could run Torghast all they want, but only a fixed number of runs per week would reward the end-of-level loot, particularly the Legendary components. Until that is announced, I can’t say I know for sure that reward structure is going to be exciting, but if you can get even say 3 pieces of loot a week from Torghast, that’s not half bad and if it scales up or lets you take your best 3 levels of loot rather than just the first 3, that is a better system than the HV loot chest (although, if you run 5 masks all the way down, you can potentially get 6 pieces of loot a week from HVs with a downward-sliding item level).
Overall, my impression is hugely positive. I hesitate to say I love Torghast, but it is definitely trending in that direction for me. It has tons of replayability, even on Beta, it rewards skillful gameplay, has lots of different possibilities for a run between map layout, rare enemies, bonus quest NPCs, anima powers, and broker loadouts, and Blizzard has heard and responded to player feedback in meaningful, objectively good ways (removing keys for access, removing limits on number of runs, removing the Tarragrue timer mechanic). If they continue on that trend through beta into launch, they might have a feature that is a slam dunk on their hands, delivering that tense gameplay that I liked about HVs without the layers of timers and bad mechanics (leaden foot, hot foot, ugh).
Something to look forward to!