I don’t want to sound dramatic but it feels like Torchlight 3 is a game staring down an existential crisis of its own making.
Back when the first Torchlight came out in 2009, Diablo fans eager for a fix didn’t have a whole lot to choose from. Those days are long gone. Post-Torchlight, the isometric ARPG genre opened up in a big way with stuff like Path of Exile, Grim Dawn and - of course - Diablo 3 breathing new life into the niche.
Since then, the resurgence of the hack-and-slash dungeon crawler genre spawned a number of ‘loot shooters’ like Borderlands, Warframe and Destiny. Where the first Torchlight arrived bold and alone, the third installment in the series faces tough competition, big questions and even bigger expectations.
Though the same could be said for the upcoming Diablo 4, Torchlight 3 feels like a game grappling with the series’ own penchant for essentialism. You can only push back to basics so far before you need to look forward and commit to a vision for what the future of games like this should look like.
That pitch might sound a little grandiose but it’s important to remember the pedigree here. Echtra Games CEO Max Schaefer is often-credited as one of the key players behind the development of the first two Diablo games and has spent the decades since tinkering with and perfecting that template.
A friend of mine recently called Hellgate: London one of the most important failures in modern gaming history and I can’t help but agree. Shaefer and the team behind Torchlight 3 have an almost-unparalleled degree of authority when it comes to staking a claim on what that next generation of this kind of game looks like.
With that prelude in mind, the version of Torchlight 3 now in Early Access on Steam suggests that the future of the series looks and plays a lot like the past. With a few modern twists, of course.
At its simplest, it’s More Torchlight. But it’s also more than just More Torchlight.
In line with predecessors, Torchlight 3 promises 4 new playable hero classes, hundreds of new items and pets to collect, a wild frontier of environs to explore and several new systems to tinker with on their path towards crafting their monster slayer of choice.
Since the first Torchlight updated the formula for the original Diablo and the sequel tried to mine the magic of Diablo 2, comparisons to Diablo 3 invite themselves with Torchlight 3. Surprisingly though, after a few hours with the current build of the game, the two titles don’t feel as far apart as I expected them to.
Like Diablo 3, levels oscillate between sprawling open space and cramped crevasses. You’re being funneled in a specific direction but it doesn’t usually feel so forced.
Visually, Torchlight 3 continues the colorful and cartoonish antics of the prior instalments. In tone, it’s very much the anti-Diablo 4. That being said, the palette here didn’t seem all that diverse or original. Thus far, the woodland environs in the first act of Torchlight 3 feel very similar to sections of previous installments of the series. Again, if you’re looking for More Torchlight, I don’t think that’s necessarily a massive problem but, if you’re looking for more, it’s not hard to come away wanting more. Personally, I've had enough of the usual swamps, forests, caves and gothic ruins. The time feels right for something new.
After being enamored by the concept behind the Railmaster, a warrior-wizard who summons trains (yes, trains) to fight their enemies, I ended up rolling with that as my class of choice.
As opposed to something like Diablo 3, each class is locked to a gender and, worse still, their initial salvo of abilities feel lacking in impact. I’m a few hours in and the best I can do is whack enemies with a hammer while I wait for my train to whittle away at their health.
Furthermore, where the ARPGs to beat run like ceaseless clockwork machines, the core click-loot-click loop of Torchlight 3 feels comparatively unpolished. There are few new mechanics in the mix but it takes a while for the experience to mature. For the first hour or two, boss fights felt like they came down to how many potions I have to burn than anything else.
In addition, my first few hours with Torchlight 3 were plagued by pretty-noticeable latency. This really took a toll on the inherently snappiness of the combat in the game. Games like this live or die on how satisfying it is to click on enemies and watch the numbers go up. I’m not sure if this is something that’ll be addressed over time or if it’s endemic to a game like this not having dedicated Oceanic servers.
Echtra says that a dedicated single-player mode will be arriving later down the line but, in the current early access version of the game, the multiplayer experience is the default.
With Diablo 3 - which I understand might feel like a tired point of comparison at this point but please bear with me - any ability could become the cornerstone of your character build. In Torchlight 3, it feels like there are good abilities, bad abilities and abilities that take a fair bit of investment to become good. It feels like the combat is geared around multiplayer and character abilities bouncing off one another, and despite running past other players in neutral towns, I’ve yet to see things really pop off.
The combat didn’t really feel rewarding until I started probably messing with the relic and legendary skill systems. In addition to your character-specific skill tree,
Torchlight 3 also offers you a Warframe-esque relic system. Different relics offer you new passive and active abilities. They also gain experience and level up with you, becoming better over time.
Meanwhile, the legendary skill system lets you equip a set of unique combat modifiers similar to the perk system in Diablo 3. New skills are unlocked and collected through disenchanting high-quality items, so it integrates into the existing flow of the game fairly seamlessly.
The same can be said of Torchlight 3’s expanded pet system. Furry, feathered or otherwise, in-game pets can either fight alongside you or be sent back to town in order to sell trash items. This was a great element of previous Torchlight games, so it’s nice to see it return. It helps keep you in the thick of things and helps you maintain momentum as you hack and slash your way through the world.
In line with the more-is-more methodology underpinning the design here, there are more pets to collect and each brings new combat skills to table. Taken together, the legendary skills, relics and pet system in Torchlight 3 have the potential to offer an enormous long-tail appeal to hardcore players who want to collect em all.
Of course, the most interesting addition here comes in the form of forts. After a few introductory quests, you’re able to explore, upgrade and customise a forward base of your own using materials collected in the wild. Essentially and over time, your fort replaces the role played by hub-like towns in previous games.
What’s more, as you journey through the world, the game seamlessly weaves in forts constructed by other players. Coming across a settlement crafted by another player for the first time was a genuinely delightful and probably the most memorable moment I’ve had with Torchlight 3 thus far.
More than that, it’s the first compelling suggestion that I've heard in ages for where the ARPG genre could go next. Diagnosis: the problem with ARPGs like the original Torchlight and Diablo is that the only verb the player has at their disposal is to destroy. Smashing through those limits and giving the player an avenue to express themselves and build something for a change is, in theory, a radical innovation.
Modern ARPGs rely on a vocabulary of disposability and transience. Finding a sense of home, influence on the world and ownership might just be the thing that forces Torchlight out of Diablo’s shadow and pushes the genre as a whole forward.
However, after a few hours with Torchlight 3, I’m starting to suspect that the forts system alone doesn’t cut it. It’s not that it’s the wrong solution. It’s that it doesn’t go far enough.
The interface for construction is a bit clumsy and while placing a discrete loading screen between player and developer-crafted environments probably makes sense from a technical perspective, a version of Torchlight 3 without such arbitrary barriers is one that’s fascinating to imagine.
Forts need only be the beginning. Letting those construction mechanics run wild across the fantasy world that Torchlight 3 is set in hints at a far more exciting future that goes just a longer loot grind. Beyond just tinkering with what already works and developing deeper character customisation systems, I hope that Early Access ends up giving Echtra the opportunity to realise that.
Torchlight 3 is available via Early Access on Steam now