Torchlight III has endured a rather rocky journey to its initial release. The project originally began as a free-to-play title called Torchlight Frontiers, which was all set to finally deliver on the grandiose MMO plans that Runic Games has been building towards since the first Torchlight. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as early reception to Frontiers was lukewarm and the game design wasn’t coming together quite how the team wanted it to. After nearly two years of development, Frontiers went through a big shift in January of this year, in which it was officially rebranded as Torchlight III and changed into an experience more in line with the previous two entries. The final product, then, proves to be worthy of the Torchlight name, but it also highlights that the series is in desperate need of a refresh.
The story picks up a few centuries after the events of Torchlight II, in a world where the empire is in decline. The Netherim are trying to take advantage of this weakness by attempting a take-over of Novastraia, so it’s up to you and your friends to repel the threat and save the day. As is typical for an ARPG, the story proves to be virtually nonexistent for most of Torchlight III, merely serving as a light means of giving context to your endless dungeon crawls. While it would be nice to see a little more effort put into telling a compelling narrative, the lack of emphasis on storytelling here actually proves to be a move in the game’s favour. Torchlight III is all about balancing stats, comparing gearsets, and offing goblins by the truckload, and frequent stops of exposition or cutscenes would only serve to get in the way of the main draw of gameplay.
Those of you familiar with the ARPG genre will find yourselves right at home with Torchlight III, as this release adds almost nothing new to the tried and tested formula. You begin by picking one of four classes of warriors who will then embark on a long journey through dungeons and environments packed with enemies and precious loot to improve the character. Cutting through the masses of monsters is sure to see some choice pieces drop which passively raise your character’s stats, and every now and then, you’ll level up and get an upgrade point to invest somewhere in your skill tree to deepen your build. It’s the sort of thing that’s almost mind-numbingly simple on a moment-to-moment basis, but the long-term planning that goes into picking skill progression and equipment loadouts is a huge part of the draw. There is an overwhelming amount of ways to spec out a build, and plenty of satisfaction is gleaned from teasing out an effective build and seeing how well it holds up against swarms of enemies.
Through this, the gameplay is less focused on player dexterity or skill than it is on overall resource management. You have a basic main attack which you can use indefinitely, but the majority of your combat effectiveness is pulled from how well you manage the cool-downs and limitations of the various skills you can fire off. For example, the archer class has an ‘ammo’ mechanic wherein arrows can be either picked up from the environment or slowly regenerated. Many of the archer’s skills will expend a certain amount of arrows in the quiver, so you must constantly balance your needs in battle against how many arrows you can reasonably use. In practice, this gameplay system works quite well, as you slowly come to better understand your build and how to best ramp up damage in a typical combat encounter.
This is all well and good, but one area in which Torchlight III notably drops the ball is in the disproportionate amount of importance it places on the very beginning of the new player experience. Those first few minutes in which you’re tasked with picking a class and subclass can be enormously overwhelming as you’re expected to read through all the densely-written class and skill descriptions to best figure out which are to your liking. Whatever you choose, you’re permanently locked into that decision, which can lead to scenarios where a few hours of play are wasted when you realize that the class you picked just isn’t your thing.
Matters are made worse by the fact that your only means of taking back spent points in the skill tree are governed by an extremely scarce consumable resource, which punishes experimentation. It’s all too easy for a new player to learn that they’ve created a build ‘wrong’, but the options for fixing it late in the game are unfortunately hard to come by. We would’ve better appreciated a more flexible system that allows for new players to freely try out several build types, as the current system only proves to be frustrating in the long term.
One new feature (which seems to be a holdover from the free-to-play days) is the ‘fort’ mechanic, in which your character has a small castle you can decorate to your liking with materials you find out in the wilds. It’s a neat diversion, but one which feels awkwardly inserted into the main quest without much justification. Aside from some decorations which grant you passive stat boosts, the fort just feels like an aspect that’s sort of undercooked, as there isn’t much reason to spend time there other than for the sake of it. You can build some decorations which offer passive stat buffs, so there is some incentive to come back here every now and then, but there’s a lingering sense that the fort was meant to be a much larger part of Torchlight III than it actually is. Still, the developers deserve some credit for attempting to include something that breaks up the traditional ARPG game loop, and though the fort is disappointing, those of you who enjoy decorating a personal space like this will likely find some mild enjoyment in it.
As far as replayability goes, Torchlight III fortunately doesn’t disappoint. The main quest should take you about twenty hours to clear, and then there’s the virtually endless endgame to take your character to the absolute limit. Here, you’re presented with a series of cards which will modify existing dungeons in both positive and negative ways. If you can clear the modified dungeon, you’ll then be treated to some shiny new gear, which enables you to take on further modified dungeons. Beyond that, you can always start over with new characters to try out different classes or different skill builds within your chosen class. As you’ve likely surmised, all of this revolves around that same central conceit of grinding enemies and dungeons to get gear that lets you grind harder enemies and dungeons. Your mileage may vary, then, depending on how hooked you are by the ARPG gameplay loop, but rest assured that Torchlight III clearly demonstrates it understands its genre well.
That being said, the flipside is that Torchlight III introduces almost nothing new to notably iterate on its predecessor or the genre at large. Those of you that have played the previous Torchlights, Diablo, Path of Exile, or any other stalwarts in the genre will know exactly what to expect here, as the gameplay in Torchlight III does nothing to carve out a unique identity for itself. Whether this is a good or bad thing is ultimately a matter of opinion. Those of you who enjoy just putting on a podcast or Netflix show while grinding through this sort of game will find that Torchlight III nicely fills that role. Those of you looking for something that builds upon what came before, something that brings in some exciting new innovations, will be left wanting. In short, Torchlight III can be best defined as a ‘more of the same’ release. Make of that what you will.
In terms of its presentation, Torchlight III manages to satisfy, even if it doesn’t impress all that much. The Blizzard-esque art style with exaggerated proportions and bright colours works well in the game’s favour, although it feels a little bit uninspired as a result. Still, the various dank caves and hostile locales you trawl through are nicely detailed and feel well put-together, even if this is muddled a bit by performance hitches. Whether docked or handheld, the framerate stays consistent for most of the experience, but notably hits some snags when a lot of enemies pour onto the screen at once. These drops were never bad enough that it affected gameplay too significantly, but they still showed up enough to be a frustrating nuisance.
Torchlight III is the sort of game that we can only describe as genre filler. It does absolutely everything that you would expect of an ARPG, and it often does these things extremely well, but it also doesn’t do anything particularly interesting or revelatory. Those of you that love a good ARPG will find plenty to love here, then, just don’t come into it expecting to be blown away by anything on offer. And while we’d sooner recommend that interested newcomers jump on Diablo III for their first experience, it’s pretty tough to go wrong with Torchlight III. Despite some of its shortcomings, Torchlight III is a rewarding experience that we’d say is certainly worth your time.