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It’s been a while since players have been able to visit the humble town of Torchlight because, spoilers, it was destroyed in the first game. The latest entry in the series has had a bit of a storied development. It was originally teased as a free-to-play MMO called Torchlight Frontiers that would be rife with microtransactions, but Perfect World Entertainment and Max Schaefer’s Echtra Games announced they were shifting their approach. At the beginning of 2020, we saw a trailer for what is now Torchlight III, and after an extensive early access with fans helping to shape it, the final product is live. Despite a polished presentation and return to form, however, this adventure may lack in vigor for some.
The tale continues 100 years from where adventurers left off in Torchlight II. Moving on to new frontiers, players must help tame the wilds alongside the declining Ember Empire as the Netherim threaten to overtake the entire world. The story ties in well to previous entries, though for those who haven’t played either of the first two games, it functions sufficiently on its own. Plus, you may stumble across tomes that offer some history of past events. As before, much of the exposition comes from wonderfully drawn cutscenes that bring the tertiary cast to life, but the entire tale is rote and a simple vehicle to keep you clicking on the next mob. There are attempts to drip-feed some character development through interactive enemy audio logs called Echo Nodes, but they feel out of place. Why the bad guys are leaving monologue journal entries throughout the world elucidating their predictable plans, we’ll never know, but there they are. Aside from the unremarkable and linear tale, one notable change is the life injected into the various creatures you decimate. In the first region, for example, the different goblin tribes get additional flavour, which makes their deaths matter just a little more. Chances are, though, most folks aren’t playing Torchlight III for its story.
When you start a new game, you need to decide between multiplayer and single player, as you cannot mix the two. Out of the gate, this is frustrating since any investment you’ve put into some of the side content or loot can’t be passed along between experiences. What’s more, trying to communicate and set up play with others in multiplayer is a less than perfect experience as you attempt to get the attention of other players, who must be set to the same difficulty as you. Once you’ve figured that out, you have a choice of four classes with two unique skill trees apiece that feel somewhat similar to the characters in Torchlight II. A third skill tree brings diversity with five new relics that use specific elements, like poison or ice damage, to add to your skillset.
But that’s all a prelude to what really matters: pet selection. Players are presented with fewer pet options in the beginning, which seems like a shame at first. But Torchlight III allows you to swap pets nearly at your leisure as new pets with different abilities are rescued throughout the game, ranging from more common wolves to rare, fantastical creatures like small dragons. While you can no longer transform pets, this is a nice change that arguably allows for more flexibility with your characters. Finally, players can settle on a difficulty, but the curve is only noticeable as the time it takes to kill things, so it’s a question of how tedious you want the game to be. True, the payoff of increased experience and loot is nice, but it’s just more padding added to an already drawn-out game. But we’ll get to that.
The classic point-and-click formula is Torchlight’s gameplay bedrock, and little has been done to invigorate it in this third entry. The most obvious change is that the game has done away with the concept of mana, and instead each class has its own consumable resource that either refills or charges. The Sharpshooter has ammo, for example, which is expended by certain abilities, allowing for ranged attacks regardless of the weapon you’ve equipped, while the Forged builds up heat, like a boiler, and uses it to bolster certain attacks. Relics use Relic Energy gained from felling foes to execute active abilities in their respective skill trees. Between these two mechanics, each class plays a little differently, but since anyone can equip anything, you’ll likely find yourself going with what does the most damage regardless of class flavor.
The other issue with character diversity is the simplified levelling system that feels like one of several holdovers from Torchlight III’s origins as a free-to-play game, pandering to more casual audiences. When characters level, you no longer allocate attributes, just skill points. It’s the hoards of loot that alters stats, but again, it seems like this is also pared down from the robust list of affixes and equipment pieces that existed in Torchlight II. Despite the fanfare that comes from hitting your next level, it’s easy to forget to assign your one skill point. The simplified skill trees themselves are blocked by character level, meaning you have only a few basic combos at first, though you of course gain more options as you level if you wish to generalize. Alternatively, each skill has various tiers that grant bonuses if you assign additional skill points. However you wish to build your character, you can easily respec using a consumable known as “respectacles” to redistribute skill points in your Fort. Despite this flexibility, without the more robust interactivity of tweaking stats, the magic of levelling a character feels lost. The game’s scenario progression does little to help, either.
This is because the world of Torchlight III is broken into acts, like the prior entries, though each seems to offer a “flavour of the moment,” with most every enemy in the region using the same element. This eliminates a large amount of strategy in gear tweaking to take advantage of enemy weaknesses or elemental abilities. It’s unclear whether enemies have resistances to specific conditions in a given stage, but you get pretty tired of seeing the same skeletons or spiders, where the only difference is just that some spew lightning instead of fire. There are a few unique mobs amongst the enemies, but most stages just throw waves of the same few models at you until the next stage. Then a few new ones crop up beside some palette swaps of previous ones, because fighting goblins never gets old, apparently. Add to this the fact that dungeons randomize after you’ve been away from them for a while, and you end up wading through all the same foes again as you try to relocate the path to progress. It’s like the grind is forced on you, instead of something you can pursue by finding side quests or dungeons. The repetitive gameplay at the core of Torchlight III is such a drawback to what could otherwise have been a fun game if they had only eliminated a few dungeons along the way; frankly, its not like any of them matter much to the story.
What’s most disappointing are the bugs and sloppy design choices that persist even after early access. Animations don’t function at times, shift-clicking for ranged attacks can be confounded by elevation, and your character can be confused between moving to higher ground or targeting an enemy hidden behind a higher obstacle. Sometimes assets hang outside their UI window, the game freezes, enemies that are meant to spawn in can be seen hanging frozen in the air waiting to be activated, or your AI creatures ignore enemies attacking you. Echtra Games is, of course, addressing fixes as often as they can, but the experience is rough at times, which feels completely avoidable given all the player testing they received.
In an effort to freshen up the loot system, there are new pieces of legendary equipment and the Legendarium. Starting at level 3, you can assign one of the affixes from your legendary gear as an interchangeable perk, regardless of whether you keep the equipment or not. As you gain levels, more slots open up for greater flexibility, and this eliminates the fear of missing out that comes from selling a low-level piece of gear with neat bonuses. Though there seems to be less variety in loot, you come across powerful pieces quite often, meaning you rarely need to return to town except to acquire potions or continue a quest. For all the frills put into the pseudo free-to-play side content, the towns are largely useless and a missed opportunity to inject life into this threadbare setting.
As mentioned earlier, there are a few other spots in Torchlight III‘s construction that hint at its origins. One is the Fort, unlocked by your first character after a few quests to store your gear or respec your characters. What’s fun about the Fort is that you can customize its entire layout with a simple builder tool as you unlock assets throughout play to make it your own. You can refine resources with certain buildings to increase your cosmetic assets. Other structures can be upgraded to provide bonuses, and like the timer-based refineries, these reek of free-to-play content and their bonuses are quite paltry for the investment. There isn’t much else to the space until journey’s end when you unlock two new placements: the Enchanter’s Alter to add affixes to certain equipment, and Fazeer’s Dun’djinn that offers an endgame grind with randomly drawn rules to mix up the gameplay for greater rewards. All in all, designing your Fort’s layout is a surprisingly fun distraction, though it’s not hard to imagine that everything built with timers could originally be sped up with freemium currencies. The other ghost of the game’s free-to-play origins are the contracts that slowly unlock boons as you accrue fame. The three contracts offer the same types of bonuses, but collectors will want to work through each of them to get all the unique assets for your Fort and recipes for the Enchanter’s Alter. It’s an incredibly mindless system that adds little to your earnings, but it hits that pleasure spot in the brain that likes opening presents.
At the very least, Torchlight III is vibrant and colorful to explore. From the wilds of the frontier that refuse to be tamed to the piecemeal scrapyard villages of the Vultura in the mountains, everything fits the iconic animated style of Torchlight, amplifying the fantastical nature of this steampunk world. Many of the randomly generated maps have named locations that showcase more interesting set pieces to take in, but they bear no significance to the story or lore, which feels like a missed opportunity to flesh out this new world. As previously mentioned, the gear and enemies are in shorter supply, but the design work is great regardless as you wade through the hordes in the fanciest of vestments. Spells and skills are also necessarily flashy, though your foes have little in the way of spell variety outside of the boss battles at each act’s end. The game’s UI maintains its simple, unintrusive ways, though players can adjust its size according to their own needs. However, toggling the map to overlay the play area clutters the screen, especially in some of the more congested battles.
Filling out the rest of Torchlight III‘s aesthetic, the soundtrack offers little in the way of standout arrangements during play but creates the right ambience for each location. One nice touch, though, is that there seems to be subtle notes in certain tracks using a forlorn flute and guitar picking that feel like an homage to Diablo‘s Tristram, which more or less started it all for this series. Adding to the ambience is the sound library, and the solid voice performances do their best to elevate the sparse storytelling. If nothing else, Torchlight III puts up a strong presentational front.
In the end, the return to Novastraia is not so triumphant. The changes made to perhaps refresh the experience seem misguided and a step away from what made the series fun. All the new side content feels like an attempt to distract from the tedium of an overlong gameplay experience that runs its course but just keeps on going for its own sake and gives little back in terms of tangible content. If you’re just here for the gameplay, then you’ll get a lot out of Torchlight III. But the balance is askew if you’re wanting a substantial story and cast to support the wending journey from point A to B with no deviations in between. Perhaps future updates will refine the weaker points in the game, but at the moment, Torchlight III is far from the definitive entry in the series.