Torchlight 3 Review
Shallow boss runs and empty forts
It is hard to believe it has taken eight years to make a sequel to Torchlight 2, one of the best action RPGs from the last decade. But the delay makes sense when you realize the developers, Runic Games, closed down three years ago. Runic lost key personnel after Torchlight 2 released. Some of those developers went on to form Echtra, and they began working on a free-to-play Torchlight MMO years later. But as things often go in game development, especially one in early access, Echtra eventually pivoted back to create a more traditional entry in the franchise and renamed it Torchlight 3. Given the events, one might assume the end product would be more memorable. Instead Torchlight 3 is a rather uninteresting action RPG that has competent action but not enough depth or variety.
The story link between Torchlight 3 and its forebears is tenuous. Set 100 years after the events of the last game, an entity named Mother is searching for a Void ember and a magical gateway. Her three subservient daughters are helping. One daughter has command of the goblins in the forest, another controls the insects in burrows deep in the swamps, and the last one is searching for the gateway entrance hidden in the mountains. The players’ job is to follow the sisters, across three acts, and stop Mother. However the story is not interesting, and the most memorable quest was rescuing pet alpacas taken prisoner by skittering bugs. Many quests, especially in the second and third acts, just follow on from each other automatically as though the game was afraid of sending players back to town.
Each of the three acts has a main town, but none of them have much personality. A couple of bland characters give you quests. A few nobodies offer random magical weapons, or pets, for gold that is part of a dysfunctional currency system. But these towns never become a home. Near the end some of the townsfolk are taken prisoner, but you won’t care. Torchlight 3 tries to buff the flimsy narrative with random audio logs, which can be found in both town and dungeons, and these are a good way of delivering back-story while you hack away. Without these audio logs, there would be almost no meat to the story and even less reason to care about the fight.
Players can fight as one of four classes: Sharpshooter, Dusk Mage, Forged, and Railmaster. The Sharpshooter is a classic ranged archer with the ability to call forth spirits. The Dusk Mage is a sorcerer that embraces light and dark, able to cast holy bolts and summon hellish creatures. The Forged is an automaton that can open its torso and unleash a rapid-fire cannon. And the Railmaster can summon a train that follows and fires mortar rounds automatically. Most of my time was spent as a Railmaster, using the flamethrower from the train to burn foes and lobbing dynamite clusters into groups. Each class has their own form of energy; for the Forged class, it’s heat generated when using the cannon, although this can be exploded off like a pressure cooker.
Every day is bring-your-train-to-work day for the Railmaster
Every class has 14 skills each spread across two groups, one of which feeds off their primary energy resource. Most classes are fun enough on a basic level, but some skills are not interesting or effective, which is a problem with so few skills in total. Aside from throwing more points into each skill, to buff damage or unlock boring perks, there are no branching options that alter how they work. It would have been nice to have some last longer at reduced damage, or vice versa.
All classes can select from one of five permanent Relics, which is another skill group that grants elemental type abilities: poison, fire, lightning, blood, and cold. Relic skills use another form of energy gained from damaging foes. There are similar skills across the Relic types but they do encourage different weapon choice. For example, one poison skill will randomly spawn two spiders if you damage a diseased enemy, thus encouraging the use of a weapon that poisons.
Pets return as companions and they are given as rewards for defeating bosses. They come in different colors and types, with different starting skills. Four skills can be equipped for each pet and these provide player buffs or increased damage. Pets keep the heat off you a bit, until they flee after suffering spike damage. And your pet can still return to town to sell items, but this takes too long and they cannot buy you potions.
The good news is that combat is relatively enjoyable. All classes are good at dishing a lot of damage in bursts, so the flow can become a loop as you push out the powerful skills when you need them. Players will battle goblins, spiders, vultures, skeletons, zombies, netherim beasts, and automatons. And it’s nice to crunch through these fodder enemies quickly. Even the breakables in the environment crumble nicely in the carnage, revealing shiny (albeit mostly worthless) gold. But the combat rarely gets tactical. It is more like pressing the number keys whenever the cooldowns end. If anything, the player becomes a slave to how the game wants you to play. This is not much of a problem when dealing with lowly mobs, but it becomes stagnant against bosses.
Bosses become a chore
Many action RPGs become boss runs, since they’re usually the most efficient way to find loot and can be satisfying, but Torchlight 3 makes the entire game a series of boss runs without the fun or reward. Several major bosses get doubled up across the campaign. Many bosses in dungeons also have stronger allies nearby, be they gold legendary types or groups of elites. And these sub-bosses have a lot of health too so you loop around, going through your skill bar, pressing the buttons as they come up. Yes there are floating poison clouds to avoid, and meteor strikes to dodge, and fire trails to run over, but the bosses are such a drag because not only do they look the same, they require the same strategy without forward momentum you get dispatching trash mobs.
And it’s not like the rewards are great. Gold is basically worthless aside from allowing you to revive in the dungeon for a quicker return to the action. Gear has four tiers, but the bottom tier is not even worth picking up after about 15 minutes. And the top tier drops so often with the latest patch that it was common to get two of the same item within an hour. Gear can be annoying to compare too—some armor has health instead of defense—and the item price for each tier is exactly the same so value is no indicator. The weirdest part of armor and weapons is that they cannot be customized with modifiers (no gem slots here) until you actually complete the game with that character, which is about 10 hours too late to save the gear system.
When you finish the game, you can go back through levels or try some random challenge dungeons. Returning to low-level areas will automatically nerf your weapon, but the loot drops are low-level too so it is not worth doing. The only reason you might try it is to find phase-dungeon monsters which transport you off against a boss at your level, but by the end of the fifteen hours you’ll have had enough of that. Random challenge dungeons are more interesting as they have modifiers that might mean mobs split into two after death but you’re granted faster movement speed. But these all sadly end up with another boss battle.
It looks pretty nice though
Despite the boss grind, one of the best features of the journey is the environments you get to explore. The world and creatures are stylized like a cartoon with plenty of color. There is great depth to the world with dynamic light casting shadows on the dense ground foliage. Intermittent fog and a changing time-of-day also add to the atmosphere. Grand ruins are interspersed with moss-covered rocks, tree stumps, bridge walkways, and piles of bones. Dungeons are framed by spider webs, goblin structures, and cocoon sacs. With so much detail, and so many enemies on screen, it is amazing that the game runs so smoothly.
The levels are randomized and this is good for replay value. The second and third time through an area will bring a change to general direction and the pieces within each level get jumbled around. In the forest, it puts goblin camps, waterfalls, or stone ruins randomly about. In tunnels, you’ll have different winding routes and minecart tracks in the background. The seams between pieces are hard to spot but repetition is still present. Many places had the exact same corner, with the same treasure chest, one after another. It might be that only certain pieces fit together, which produces this funny duplication. In any case, while there is duplication it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as in Warhammer: Chaosbane and some tweaks probably would reduce it even further.
One place you will see over and over is your Fort, although it is unclear why. The Fort is a small zone that you can customize with decorations. You can mine steel, rock, and wood to craft more items and drop them on a fairly small plot of land. It’s hardly on the Minecraft level when it comes to creation, so it’s unlikely to appease anybody for long. There are only a couple of functional objects to place in your Fort, like a hub to reset skill points, a luck tree, a pet stash, and the end-game djinn that lets you play those random challenge dungeons. No vendors are available. And yet the Fort keeps appearing in the single player, over and over. Every second area on the world map is a ‘passage’ that has your Fort, like the game is begging you to play with it.
Day 21: Nothing much to report about my fort
The Fort could have had a real purpose. Maybe as a defensible area where you could set up turrets and play a tower defense game like The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2 did so well. Or maybe it could have transformed into a town, with rescued alpacas grazing the fields and the heads of defeated bosses mounted on the walls. Instead it just detracts from everything, taking functionality that should have been in towns, and returning like a nightmare that wastes the player’s time. Maybe the end boss should have been the Fort, as it would be satisfying to demolish. Multiplayer has to be why the Fort exists, because those passages become rotating lobbies as people run through them. Other players see my poor excuse of a Fort and can type in chat how it breaks the Feng Shui design guidelines. Most Forts by other people were quite empty, again raising questions about the purpose of their existence altogether.
Online and single player modes have separate characters, and they cannot be transferred over, so you’ll need to start from scratch when moving online. Players on different difficulty levels cannot group together either, which makes playing with others harder than it should be. The multiplayer does not have a server browser, unlike similar games. Towns become active hubs, a bit like in Guild Wars. Sometimes towns were empty and only by zoning out and in did it populate. Once you’re out in the combat areas, you will see chat from others, even if you are playing by yourself. Don’t play by yourself though because moving as a group works quite well, as regular enemies fall rapidly with many skills raining down. It is easy enough to portal to other players so you can zip back to town for a quick sell off and then catch up. No item trading is allowed online and it’s strange that character locations are not shown on the map unless you are close together, leading to a few situations where players momentarily lose each other.
The general online play is fine, even if the lag is prohibitive. Skill and projectile delays during action makes it hard to survive spike damage from bosses in the tougher modes. Load times are much longer than in single player, with two second loads turning into thirty second affairs. Plus there were a few quest bugs, where the game would tell me a quest was complete upon returning to town every time. Another quest broke completely and the game had to be restarted. But even the single player has technical issues, like looping audio, load screens getting stuck, and various minor UI errors.
Towns only feel alive when you go online
While Torchlight 3 has some good aspects, it does not hold a candle to its forebears. On the plus side, the environments look awesome and most creatures crumble cathartically in the crunchy combat. Randomized levels add good replay value, even if there are a few too many repeating corners. Boss runs become the aching backbone of the experience, and the general linear grind makes it hard to find much fun during long sessions. Of course you can play online with others, but the extra long loads and network delays tend to cancel out the fun. Maybe with some patches and tweaks, Torchlight 3 will find its place among the mid-range action RPGs. Until then it might be best to consider that Torchlight 2 is still waiting for a sequel.