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I love my steampunk robot, but Torchlight 3 feels like a step back

(Image credit: Echtra Games)

Railmaster or robot? That was the question I grappled with when first starting Torchlight 3, which flickered to life in Steam Early Access this weekend. There are four character classes in Torchlight 3, but really there are only two because who wants to be sharpshooter or a mage when you can choose a train-summoner or a steam-powered robot?

I eventually picked the correct choice: Robot. (By the looks of things in the common areas, so did roughly 75% of other players.) And I have zero regrets about passing on the Railmaster because I've basically turned my plucky little robot into a train. I can launch a dash attack by speeding headfirst into mobs repeatedly. When my temperature rises high enough from firing my chest-mounted gun I can let out a steam-whistle sound and generate a huge explosion.

I can even open my chest hatch and fling burning coal into the air to rain down on my enemies. Plus, I replaced my metal crab legs with a wheel. I don't need to summon a train. I am the train. And for the most part I'm having good fun smashing through crowds of goblins and skeletons.

But as much as I love my plucky little train-bot, I'm finding myself a bit disappointed with some of Torchlight 3 so far. And I'm not alone—it's had a rough few days in Early Access. After it arrived on Saturday, it was plagued with major server issues as players (including me) had trouble connecting and staying connected for more than a few minutes at a time.

That's slowly getting ironed out. Another patch arrived today to cope with server problems, and in my last few sessions I haven't had any issues getting on to servers (Steam reviews are slowly improving, too). But there's still a decent amount of lag: Enemies will sometimes blink around and rubberband and there's little bouts of stuttering and jagginess.

And I'm not even playing with other people, I'm soloing. The lag spikes are especially frustrating when I'm facing bosses alone and they kinda blip out of the way of my attacks. Having to deal with servers at all in a singleplayer game just makes it all the more exasperating.

Torchlight 3 does plan to add an offline singleplayer mode before launching out of Early Access, but that's not much consolation if you're playing alone right now. I hope giving solo players a nice, smooth, offline experience is at the top of the fix list.

There are a few other issues with Torchlight 3 that run deeper than its servers. One of the things I was most disappointed to discover, when I leveled up for the first time, was that characters no longer have attributes to improve. No strength, no dexterity, no vitality—leveling lets you add points to your skills, but not your character.

This immediately felt weird to me. My level 78 Destroyer in the original Torchlight is basically built out of strength and dexterity because I poured points into those stats every time I leveled up. Along with a maxed-out critical strike skill, his crit chance and crit damage bonus are bumped up to obscene levels, which means even when he's not swinging around an epic goblin spinebrand the size of an airplane wing, he can still dish out a beating.

I guess there are benefits to having no attributes—In Torchlight 3 you'll never find loot that you can't use immediately (at least I haven't yet). In the other Torchlight games, you might find a weapon you couldn't equip until your strength or dexterity was at a certain level, and that could be a bit annoying. At the same time, I like being able to put points into my characters themselves instead of being a person (or robot) comprised entirely from a pile of gear and skills.

The skills themselves feel pretty darn sparse as well, only seven skills per tree, and only two trees per character. Each skill has tiers that increase their power and effects, but it's hard not to glance back at my Embermage from Torchlight 2 and see three skill trees, each with 10 skills, and not feel a bit shortchanged in Torchlight 3. With so few branches, it's hard to really call it a tree.

Torchlight 3 has relics, too, which are extremely powerful artifacts that gain experience points when you have them equipped and have their own skill trees and tiers. It's a cool concept, and I've invested in the electrode relic (you can see it above). It works well and looks great, unleashing lightning storms and blasts and charging my attacks with shock damage.

But the relics just feel kind of... general. They center around attacks involving fire, ice, poison, blood, electricity. For a mage that sounds right, but I'm a friggin' robot. I like to keep sort of a theme with my characters, my current theme being I'm A Steam-Powered Battering Ram That Flings Burning Coal On You, and I don't see how any of the relics fit in with that. Relics have some good skills, but they don't feel like my skills.

Also, c'mon—there are no gear slots in Torchlight 3 for magic rings and amulets. That feels immediately wrong. Granted, I couldn't name a single ring or amulet from Torchlight 1 or 2, or tell you what they did. They probably added, what, a smidgen of damage resistance or something? Maybe it's not a big deal.

You know what, let me boot up the original Torchlight and look real quick.

(Image credit: Runic Games)

Okay, I was completely wrong. The rings and amulets do lots of things. But even if they didn't, this is a fantasy game. We need our magic rings and amulets. They help us feel magical.

I'm only about eight hours in, so I obviously haven't seen everything Torchlight 3 has to offer—plus, again, it's just entered Early Access and there's no doubt many months of changes, tweaks, and additions to come. But much as I love my destructive little robot, and I am having fun battling mobs of goblins and skeletons, it's hard not to feel a little disappointed by how much seems to be missing from Torchlight 3 right now.

Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring stories in RPGs so he can make up his own.