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'Torchlight 3' Salvages an Old-School Hack 'n Slash from Online Limbo

It's no successor to 'Torchlight 2' and it's hardly a Diablo rival, but it can still play the hits.
October 14, 2020, 4:04pm

I was ready for Torchlight 3 to feel like a game without an identity. It's been less than a year since developers Echtra canned plans for an online-only, shared-world successor to Runic's dormant loot 'em up, after all. In many ways, Torchlight 3 might very well be the shell of a game I feared it to be—a hollow retreading of Torchlight 2's quest that's missing nearly a decade of genre improvements. And yet, I can't say I haven't had a grand old time with it.

Today, the first Torchlight is practically quaint: a budget 2009 action-RPG from veteran Diablo devs, released at a time when the genre was poorly served. It expanded on those ideas with an all-timer of a sequel. A genre classic in its own right, Torchlight 2 was further aided by the fact that Diablo 3 was losing goodwill over online requirements and its infamous real-money auction house. 

There's a light irony, then, that Echtra's planned revival for Torchlight would skew closer to Blizzard's oft-maligned online approach. Torchlight Frontiers, as it would be named, was planned as a Destiny style twist on top-down looting with its own multiplayer hubs, battle passes, and a more lateral progression_._ It'd even have its own Diablo 3 styled paid auction house. 

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It seems like Frontiers' earliest players weren't having it, though, and while the social town hub and co-op play stayed, most of the shared-world features were scrapped. Torchlight 3 picked up a $40 price tag to become something you could play without ever seeing another human being.

On release, Torchlight 3 finds itself once more up a traditional loot 'n' slash action RPG in the vein of its predecessors, visibly wrested from its online trappings at the eleventh hour. It is in danger of being conservative and derivative, but fortunately, the game's lineup of daring adventurers is anything but predictable.

In my main run, I am a Railmaster—a hammer-wielding brute of a lass who summons magical trains (the rails automatically form behind you so that your little death-cart can follow at your heels), each skill on my action bar adding a deadly new carriage to my deadly locomotive. Other classes are equally inventive, from steam-powered Forged automatons that build pressure to unleash devastating blows to the Dusk Mage's careful balancing act of light and dark spells. Only the Sharpshooter, whose unique trait is "gun ownership", strikes as a bit naff. Combined with my relic, an elemental aspect chosen at the start of the game that gives me access to an entirely separate skill-tree of fiery death, I am unstoppable. 

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Torchlight 3 is a looker, too. The series has always had this Warcraft-adjacent look, all bold colors and massive shoulder pads, and this might be the best rendition of that look to date. Underground caves shimmer with heat, forests are lush with vibrant fauna, and deadly foes crackle in an explosion of loot when felled. My quest tears a destructive, bloody path through a stunning new world in a haze of gunsmoke, cinders and broken bones. It feels phenomenal.

About that new world though: . while Torchlight 3 may not be Frontiers by name, it sure is by nature. The game's story is largely functional, a forgettable affair that has you stopping a returning Netherim invasion (your typical ancient, Eldr-ish enemy) a century after the last game locked them away. In practice, your crew of colonial heroes sure did just rock up on exotic jungle shores and start slaughtering a native population of "savage" goblins. In tone and frequently aesthetics, Torchlight 3 is Heart of Darkness and Kipling with an item drop table. For a game with such creative character classes, I do wish the setup wasn't firmly rooted in tropes pulled out of Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks from the 80s.

It's gross, and unfortunate considering that framing only really exists to funnel you towards the next fight. That, at the very least, is something Torchlight has always been good at. Cutscenes, when they show up, are terribly simple and spread too thin, and I'm sprinting through dialogue to point me at the next thing to kill.  But after learning the ropes, I'm thrown straight in the deep end, with every new brawl featuring incredible numbers of foes. I might not know or care why I'm fighting the latest malevolent tree or giant spider, but I'm having a blast. 

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The pace is relentless. Every five minutes I'm stumbling into a new miniboss or incidental dungeon, briskly moving from one region to the next. The world is packed with secret basements, rare packs, wandering bosses and "phased" beasts that'll teleport you to any previously beaten dungeon. Where the first game gave me a pooch to help carry and sell my gear, Torchlight 3 has me managing a zoo full of alpacas, wolves, owls and dragons. 

I am swimming in loot, and have more gold than I could possibly know what to do with. 

It's surprising, actually, how rarely I'm heading back to town to stock up and gear up. Torchlight 3's campaign is effectively a straight shot, its map a winding trail of various regions and dungeons punctuated by short breaks for visiting your Fort. I'm picking up health potions about as often as I'm using them, and genre staples like Identify Scrolls, once used to stagger how often you'd trade out gear, are gone in favour of unobstructed progression. The stark emptiness of hub area Trevail Point, clearly built as a social space but used largely as a pick-up point for quests, is one of the larger clues that there's a good chunk of planned game missing from Torchlight 3.

Loose strands of that Frontiers past litter Torchlight 3's landscape. Most of the time, it's in the small things. Little pains like the inability to ever truly "pause" the game or the main menu pushing multiplayer over singleplayer are easy to ignore. The Contracts system is the most blatant sign of the game's free-to-play past, though. Once pitched as a traditional _Fortnite-_style Battle Pass, Contracts have been defanged of paid tiers. Now, they act as a sort of secondary experience bar that dishes out gold, gear and cosmetics every few hours.

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I was so ready to throw forts in that pile. One of Torchlight 3's biggest new features is giving you your own castle, a permanent base with which to store your pets, stash your loot and retrain skills before heading into the next region. Without the MMO-lite frame of Frontiers, I reckoned these player houses would feel utterly superfluous. They still do, I guess but I've found that doesn't bother me as much as I feared.

See, I was worried Forts would play out like World Of Warcraft: Warlords Of Draenor's infamous garrisons: Identikit bases with pre-built slots for placing various buildings, with perhaps a few decorative objects to sprinkle around. Instead, Torchlight's Forts are a creative sandbox, a high fantasy Animal Crossing that lets you place everything from loose shrubs to fantasy outhouses however you please. They're hardly essential, but welcome respites punctuating the otherwise unstoppable progression forwards—even if my own fort still looks like trash.

Nevertheless, it's another piece of the game that feels like it's missing some sorely-needed context. I can't say if Frontiers' shared-world vision would've worked, but Torchlight 3 can't escape feeling like the reconstituted parts of another, more ambitious game. Ultimately, they're distractions more than anything—awkward, unavoidable reminders that the game you're playing once looked very different, but never so damning as to distract from the bloody romp you're actually playing. For a last-minute turnaround job, Echtra could've done a whole lot worse.

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Torchlight 3 launches following a good few months in early access, and Steam reviews from that time tell of a faltering endgame and inflexible build options that can't compare with its contemporaries_._ Where Path Of Exile will give you an overwhelming sprawl of stats and abilities from which to forge your own hero, _Torchlight 3'_s progression is extremely limited. You have three skill trees (plus one for your relic), but they're narrow, rarely threatening you with much choice with no incentive for stepping outside your spec. Lifebound scrolls let you bump at your gear's stats at risk of losing them on death, but both equipment and scrolls drop frequently enough for it to rarely be an issue. It's easy enough to always equip best armour, and always give them that little boost. 

There's always an obvious choice for progression, and I'm never scratching my head over what's best for my particular build. Your Railmaster and mine probably aren't that different.

But then, that's never been the way I played these games, though. They're popcorn RPGs, there to stimulate that extremely videogames part of your brain that loves to bash skeletons with a massive hammer. 

Torchlight 3 is no Torchlight 2. It's repetitive, hollow, and I'm sure I'll probably move onto the next thing before the end of Act 2. For now, though, I think I'm happy sticking on a podcast and murdering a whole lotta spiders.