What is it? The third game of a beloved ARPG franchise.
Reviewed on: Windows 10, Intel Core i7-9700 CPU @ 3.00GHz 16.0 GB RAM
Release date: Out now
Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment
Developer: Echtra Games
Multiplayer: Online co-op up to four players.
Link: Official site
Torchlight never wanted more than a little of your time. The first game arrived in 2009 during a relatively quiet period for action RPGs, and was praised for its clever class design, colorful dungeon crawls, and cock-eyed personality. This was three years away from Diablo 3, and four years from Path of Exile, so most of us were thrilled to annihilate legions of gremlins from an isometric perspective again. 11 years later, the franchise is back with a new developer and the same svelte design philosophy. Torchlight 3 remains a tight, low-stakes, click-heavy Diablo-like, but it doesn't quite have the same magnetic allure it did a decade ago.
Torchlight 3 does hit all the action RPG checkpoints. You will globetrot through the frigid peaks and dank swamps of this universe in search of glory. You will cast massive AOE burn spells to cut down the unrelenting legions of skeletons, goblins, and interdimensional beasties who emerge out of thin air to block your path. You will soak up thousands of different items, coded by rarity, which will inevitably prove to be attritious upgrades to the stuff you are currently wearing. And occasionally, you will stumble into a boss with a few more attacks than the average garden-variety enemy, which will unlock the progression to a new, higher level-gated arena of foes.
This is all executed adeptly. Torchlight 3 is nothing if not mechanically sound. But in 2020, there is a prosaic quality to its priorities that feels bland compared to the other options. More directly, it was about the 12th time in a row that I found myself delving into a cookie-cutter dungeon in order to finish yet another uninspired quest that I began to notice what was missing more than what was there.
Torchlight 3 takes place a century after the events of Torchlight 2, but the narrative is almost entirely ancillary to the core gameplay experience. There are a few cutscenes and audio recordings to find throughout the main quest, but specifics about the existential threat on the horizon are scarce. Instead, Torchlight gets by on the elements that have always been the franchise's strengths. The world of Novastraia radiates with a rich, playful aesthetic; the swirling riptides of the ocean, the rugged pastures of the outer forests, and the gleefully overworked Halloween trim of the graveyards do a great job at grounding the player in this frivolous, folkloric fantasyland. That attitude is carried over to Torchlight 3's class choices, which throw the D&D rulebook out the window. You can be a "Railmaster," a barbarian engineer who's followed around by a literal train, which can be augmented with different speciality cars that unload hell on anyone in your way. But I spent most of my time as a "Duskmage," who is saddled with a complicated magic system where you're constantly synergizing spells from both the "light" and "dark" schools, offering a surprisingly high skill ceiling for an ARPG that's always prioritized newcomers to the genre.
When Torchlight 3 gets rolling, the results can be spectacular. Every character chooses their own personal "relic," which are class-neutral, and offer a third skill tree to the player that uses a resource outside of their traditional mana or whatever. I chose the Electrode, which gave my Duskmage access to a torrid array of electric powers. My battles began with dark clouds crackling with purple lighting, indiscriminately buzzing through the hordes who were unlucky enough to be in front of me. If a good, old-fashioned dungeon-crawling power trip is what you're after, Torchlight 3 delivers that sensation in spades.
But unfortunately, the fundamental soundness of Torchlight 3's combat lacks the infrastructure to support it. If you scroll back into the archives, you'll learn that Torchlight 3 (then called Torchlight Frontiers) was announced as a free-to-play product. Publisher Perfect World Entertainment changed course earlier this year, making the game a "premium" full-priced piece of software, but the bones of its scrapped identity are everywhere. The story progression is laughably linear; I pick up a quest in town, it asks me to find a dungeon somewhere in a named region. I enter that dungeon, kill a boss, and go back to town to learn that I have a new quest that will grant access to the next named region. The spirit is missing. There are no oddballs to befriend on the road, or eccentric tasks to pick up off the bounty boards, and that leaves the game feeling hollow. Furthermore, there is a personal fort that you use as the basecamp for all your characters, but some of its systems seem downright incongruous with the game Torchlight 3 claims to be. For instance, I installed a smelting pit that allowed me to turn my raw ore into refined metal bars, but it's guarded behind an entirely unnecessary timer. (Want to smelt 25 units of iron? Wait 90 seconds.) That is the sort of system you'd expect to find in a predatory mobile game, and somehow, it's migrated over to a numbered Torchlight sequel.
There's a spark that's missing across the total Torchlight 3 package. Those regions I mentioned? The ones where you find the dungeons? They're pretty much wastelands outside of a few minor boss battles and a couple hovels of loot. The dungeons themselves? They're occasionally expressive, but I found myself in two near-identical spider caverns in the first hour of play. The combat is tight, but I also hit a number of substantial bugs along the way. My pet—a crucial fixture of the Torchlight franchise—just kinda disappeared a few times, hanging me out to dry. There is fun to be had here, but Torchlight 3 still feels like it's in early access. Probably because, in some ways, it's dealing with the growing pains of a mid-development pivot in scope. It isn't easy to make a retail RPG out of the scattered debris of a free-to-play quarter-eater. Perhaps Torchlight 3 will go down in history as a cautionary tale.