At the end of the first of three acts in Torchlight III, there's a boss character who repeats two of the same barks over and over. One is "This should be fun." The other is "Let's make it interesting." I couldn't help but hear both as the ignored voice of a quiet developer at the back of a Torchlight III planning meeting.
Torchlight III feels an awful lot like what it is: a free-to-play multiplayer game that thought better of itself, and decided to become a proper full-price microtransaction-free primarily solo release. If I didn’t already know the path it had taken, I’d have spent my entire time playing the game being gnawed at by wondering just what it was that made it all feel so off.
Because despite its Damascene moment, it doesn’t feel like it ever quite shook off its Sauline roots. Torchlight III (TL3) feels an awful lot like 2012’s Torchlight II, except massively spaced out, featuring the corner-cuttingiest static cutscenes of all time, with a bunch of leftover F2P ideas that don’t seem to do anything any more.
I recently replayed Torchlight II, and found myself embroiled in a confusion of ennui. While the game had been well loved on its release, including by me, something was wrong. Something was missing. It’s in playing TL3 that I’ve finally realised what it is: it’s the last decade of gaming.
The Torchlight series, originally created by the founders of Diablo and Fate, has always been plagued by the same failed ambition to become an MMO. The original game by Runic was supposed to be the precursor to an online multiplayer world. Then Torchlight II came out, and was, er, a test for that future, they claimed. Then with Perfect World investing to finally have that MMO realised, well, two of the company’s founders left and Runic made Hob as their final game instead. Oops. That left only Max Schaefer of the original Diablo team still interested in realising this dream, and so Perfect World-owned Echtra Games was formed by him and some Runic colleagues. Which brings us to… oh, yeah, another single-player Torchlight game. And one that is, tragically, driven only by a failed desire to be a gaming format that had already had its time ten years back.
In an alternative timeline there’s a version of Torchlight III that’s inspired by the decade of roguelites that have dominated PC gaming, that has learned lessons from the evolution of the ARPG and the massive breadth of a genre that spans from Dark Souls to Hades, and brings in the best of these new ideas to a solid core action role-player. Meanwhile we live in the timeline where Torchlight III is some more Torchlight, but you have a fort for no reason.
What’s surprised me most, beyond the lack of imagination that’s gone into advancing the formula, is just how poor the opening to the game is. An all-too common curse of Early Access-developed games, Torchlight III is a game that’s clearly spent too long being iterated for people who’ve already played Torchlight III. And that’s going to be a bit of an issue considering the game’s coming out cross-platform, onto consoles where “Early Access” has only ever meant getting a game a day early because you pre-ordered it. From the opening desultory cutscene, it barely cares to explain a single thing that’s going on, presumably relying on decade-old memories of the previous (equally poorly told) games, or just assuming people who play ARPGs don’t care why they’re clicking on goblins, just that they’re clicking on goblins. They may not be wrong.
The issue is, the small number of things that have been thrown at the game presumably when it was still intended to be emptying whales of their life savings. There’s a central hub littered with stalls, but none of the stall owners explaining their wares (which might seem trivial until you learn that the weapons vendor uniquely ‘sells’ the worst possible items for 0 coins each - uh?). There’s very soon a player’s fort to develop, new to this series, that is dumped on you while full of debris, although you’re told to build in it (but not why), and then the next time you visit it’s suddenly an empty rectangle with your built items stood in the middle of nothing. There’s the four character classes, each of which has you instantly pick three different sets of skill tree paths in the most inaccessibly overwhelming way. Seriously, here’s the entire chunk of introductory text for the “Adventurer” chain of skills:
“Adventurer skills use artifacts the Sharpshooter has collected to debuff enemies. Each Adventurer skill gives an Adventurer’s Bonus buff that applies to the next 3 Precisions skills.” [sic]
So having committed to a class type, and their progression types, without ever having played the game, you then get to discover at your leisure that it’s not what you wanted, whereupon you can enjoy starting the entire game over. Where I so desperately wish TL3 could have smartly learned from the myriad rogue-ish games that let you restart or resume with different classes, pushing further in as you discover your ideal builds, here it’s all or nothing, with nothing to go on. (It's worth noting that one of the three skill chains was once a separately levelled Relic, an intriguing idea that let you switch it between your characters, offering a glimpse of those ideas I wish we could have seen. Sadly it proved tricky to balance, so it was pretty much abandoned as a concept, and just used to make character skill picking more frustrating.)
I rather fancied playing as a meaty melee type, because I usually play these games ranged, so I picked the Railmaster. He has a train that follows him around, increasingly armoured and powerful! A literal train! However it turns it’s a colossal pain to play with, the screen smothered in tracks and trains where you want to see enemies to aim at, and I was quickly done with it. Sigh. So I started over as the more familiar Sharpshooter, essentially the ranger character, not particularly loving her bland attack, but then getting too far in to be able to bring myself to do it all yet again to play as the other melee, the metallic Forged.
Because, extraordinarily, TL3 really doubles down on the linear traditions of the genre. You go through the corridor-shaped regions, doing the single quest that’s available, until you fight the boss at the other end. It’s fine. It’s some more Torchlight, and that’s mildly distracting. But there’s so little variety, so few extras, that playing it a second time offers nothing new. Which makes its habit of forcing me to play things a second time a smidge galling.
There is either a really weird design decision, or the most egregious of bugs, where once you return from a boss’s dungeon after clearing a large section of the aboveground map, the entire map has blanked and reset. It’s astonishingly annoying, the whole sprawling route wiped, all minibosses revived, as if you’d never been there. It feels like a punishment for clearing a dungeon, being stuck in the middle of a blank map that you only just finished exploring, right down to story elements you’ve already listened to getting remarked as unheard. Often I’d deliberately gone on past a dungeon entrance, filling out the map, playing for maybe another half hour or so up to the next exit, before then finding it all erased. Sure, you keep the XP and loot, and then get it all over again, but what a tedious chore being made to replay great sections for no discernible reason. It then tells you to go to the next destination, but with a void where your map once was, you just have to assume it’s going to be to the right. (And note this is very distinct from that odd ARPG tradition of having zones repopulate after you’ve quit and reloaded the game.)
As I say, when you’re just clicking through the battles, it’s OK. That’s a damningly faint praise to be sure, but it’s not an unmitigated disaster. It manages to be another ARPG. But because of this averageness, it’s hard not to notice the really damned weird nature of what it’s tried to add. Which is, really, Forts.
Forts, as I mentioned above, are the badly introduced areas that are said to be your home. In this bland brown square you can build various things, most decorative, some “useful”, that really only serve to allow you to build other things in your fort. Don’t get silly pretty ideas in your head like these becoming a place where you can refine your weapons or armour, or tweak your equipment to match your playstyle. You can build a sawmill to turn wood you chop during the game into wood you can use to build more decorative nothings for your ghoulishly pointless home. And yes, that’s right, as you’re playing there are now trees to chop and boulders to pick, which give you the resources for what was clearly meant to be the monetisation aspect of the F2P ghost that perpetually haunts proceedings.
Now, you’re just given everything cosmetic for free, simultaneously making it feel worthless and conspicuous. Where I’d far rather get a juicy weapon drop, I’m more likely to be told I can now unlock a brick type for my fort. Oh gee whizz, what a day! You can, it proclaims, see other people’s forts, go see how pretty they’d made theirs. Which was, of course, meant to be a thing to have you want to spend more money on your own. But now the only thing you could possibly think to yourself on seeing another player’s fort is, “Why?”
So you’re stuck with an assault of cosmetic loot, rewards and goals, despite those holding no appeal in a game where they’re all infinitely available. Which as innovations to the genre go, well, it’s not up there.
Then it makes mistakes that are just plain weird. Torchlight II, especially, was notable for its amazing variety of enemy types. Torchlight III’s first act is notable for the unbearable number of goblins and spiders. Oh God it’s just goblins and spiders forever and ever and ever. And rather crushingly, their AI is pretty dreadful, making battles a scramble rather than a tactician’s delight. Goblins just tend to run toward you, often straight past you, flailing with no apparent goal. The most tedious enemy, the Goblin Hound, has what should be a cool charge attack, but it more often wanders in the wrong direction while you’re attacking it. And I swear it’s more surprising when a treasure chest isn’t a Mimic than when it is.
By the time you finally, finally reach Act 2, there's the desperate hope things will change, and yet the new insectoid foes behave almost identically to the goblins and spiders that came before. And showing just how blind it is to its own issues, it almost immediately has goblins back in the mix.
But most problematic, I think, are those skill trees. Levelling feels like it’s also part of that F2P that once was, grindy and slow, dinging all too rarely. Then when it does you’re given a single stinking upgrade point, which allows the most miniscule incremental changes to your abilities. I noted at one point that when I improved my right-mouse skill next, Tight Grouping (which fires three arrows together), it went up from +20% to +25%, along with the Tier 1 Bonus: “Tight Grouping now Slows enemies for -40% movement for 2 sec.” Those aren’t skill upgrades in an ARPG! They’re the sort of bullshit you see in grindfest MMOs! And no, min-maxers aren’t going to be rubbing their trousers with delight - it’s all nothingness, the game not offering that depth of tweaking many will have hoped for.
It’s worth noting there’s one significant improvement over TL2: you can change difficulty. Although in the strangest way. I set off on Normal, because you always review games on Normal, but it was just ridiculously easy. When I found there was yet again no option in-game to tweak that, I got ready to be very mad. But it turns out if you quit to the main menu, then reselect the same character, you can change the difficulty there. So thank goodness, but blimey, what an odd way of going about things. And trust me, if you’ve played any ARPG before, start on Hard. I say this as a person who never, ever chooses Hard on anything.
What else do I like? It drops loot splendidly. Win a big fight against a boss or bosses, and it rains down in a spectacular fashion, with noises and lights, and feels like exactly the celebration it ought to be. Oh, and my Sharpshooter has a team of ghost goblins she can deploy to help her fight, and they make an excellent Gremlins-esque jibber-jabbering sound as they monkey about, and that pleases me.
Oh, and the Lifebound idea is nice. You get spells that you can cast on favourite weapons or armour, that increases their stats by 20%, but means if you die, they’re destroyed. That’s an excellent gamble. Or at least would be if dying felt like an ever-present concern.
The game just feels weary and leaden and bored of itself. I’m not sure who it’s for, since it’s so peculiarly unwelcoming at the start, and yet so shallow and uncomplicated for those familiar with the genre. If you’re after something to click at on a second monitor, while watching YouTube videos of sped up recipes or what have you on the first, then it’ll do that job just fine.
I went through the whole of Act 1, almost all on Hard, and didn’t die once. The most dangerous thing to happen was a knock on the front door, and with no option to pause in single-player, it was somewhat risky to leave the PC. Turns out it was fine. That final boss, the one who laments with me about how it should have been fun and interesting - she barely took a dent out of my middling character. Although she did somewhat help by spending the last quarter of the battle stood completely still, staring off to the left, while I battered her to death from the right.
What a big stinking shame. It begins mediocre, and then wallows there until it starts to feel stagnant. Yes, you can idly click your way through it, barely paying attention, and there's definitely a crowd that's after that. But not only is this a massively missed opportunity to update Torchlight for 2020, but it's a backward step for the series, dragged down by the shackles of a genre it abandoned.