Torchlight 3 review – diabolical liberty
The indie alternative to Diablo, that beat Blizzard at its own game, gets a new sequel with some new ideas about how to advance the genre.
The Torchlight franchise has had a strange history. The first outing was a mid-budget Diablo clone with a more light-hearted approach and the same loot loving heart, while Torchlight 2, which came out at the same time as Diablo 3, actually managed to be considerably better and more complete than its inspiration at launch. Unfortunately, shortly after that developer, Runic Games shut down, leaving the third instalment to a brand new team.
Torchlight 3 looks, sounds, and – superficially at least – plays much like its predecessors. Its colour palette is brighter and sparklier than most dungeon crawlers, with enemies that look and sound like tiny, fun little cartoons rather than terrifying monsters. Even the bosses are cute and multi-coloured, their explosive attacks lighting up the charming isometric scenery. Exploring feels good, even if the overworld is a strictly linear corridor of dungeons and locations, a feature lightly obscured by frequent meanderings and dead ends.
Dungeons are similarly twisty, with plenty of splits in passageways. Tunnels will often loop back together as you follow them, but sometimes not, and the mini-map handily shades unexplored areas in red to prevent accidental backtracking. The enemies you’ll meet are also pleasingly diverse, with a mix of ranged and melee attacks, as well as mid-level and much larger bosses that occur reasonably frequently during quests.
Although the game is once again playable in four-player co-op it’s perfectly viable in single player. The character classes offer you a Dusk Mage, who uses light and dark magical attacks; the Forged, which is a robot that fires hot coals from a hatch in its chest; the tanky Railmaster who attacks with a giant mallet; and the long range Sharpshooter. On your own the robot and tank are likely to be your best bets, although the game’s pretty good at letting you get away with any of the four as a solo endeavour.
You start by choosing a class, a pet, and a magical relic. It may not be flagged as such, but this is a dangerous moment, because while you’ll continually swap out your pets, once you’ve chosen a relic you can never change it. Each one has a profound effect on the skills that will be most viable for your character, and ironically many of those synergies, or lack thereof, only become apparent quite late in the game. The relic and its effect on skills is described in detail but it’s right at the start of the game and, without experience with its systems, it all means very little.
The other major issue is with skills and levelling up. Torchlight 3 began life as Torchlight Frontiers, a free-to-play game, which only changed tack relatively late in development to become a paid-for title. Sadly that change left obvious traces, from your customisable home base fort that doesn’t really do very much to a crafting system that’s a similar cul-de-sac, and levelling up that’s often so incremental you can barely tell the difference.
Skills are similarly hobbled, their first few levels proving so puny that they’re significantly less useful than your basic attack, and only start to come into their own when they’ve had a lot of skill points lavished on them. That’s a problem because it’s really hard to tell which are going to work best for your style of play until you’ve already spent many hours improving them, at which point it’s next to impossible to re-spec.
All that makes it feel as though the game actively discourages you from experimenting with its systems, and in fact the only viable way to use the knowledge you gain later in the game is to start again from scratch, which as anyone who’s played a loot-based game will know is just about the most painful idea in the world. The problems don’t end there though.
Compared with Torchlight 2, skill trees are smaller and simpler, with fewer ways of diversifying your build. You can no longer apply upgrades to particular stats either, with levelling up simply improving your character automatically. That’s mitigated to a small degree by the relics, each of which has its own modest skill tree, but it’s an intrinsically less interesting system that players of the previous game will immediately find limits their ability to create the character they want.
There are knock-on effects for loot. It’s now impossible to find a piece of armour or weaponry that you can’t equip straight away, which avoids the frustration of having to grind up a particular stat until you can wield it, but that also means there are fewer lottery winner moments where you get such a great new piece of kit that it completely changes the game. Loot does unquestionably get more exciting and rewarding to equip later in the game, but by that point you’ll be suffering from something that neither of the previous Torchlights had a problem with: boredom.
Because of its shallower systems and less involved player interaction the mechanics of the hack and slash battles lose their magic a lot more quickly. Previously you were driven forward by the urge to grind for a particular weapon or to customise your character in ever more extreme ways, but in Torchlight 3 the focus is purely on the battles themselves and as a result the game’s innate sameyness gets obvious a lot sooner.
Torchlight 3 still carves out its own more cheerful approach to loot-driven dungeon crawling, and its perfunctory, sketched-in plot at no point threatens to hold you back from the action. It also looks lovely throughout. The problem is that without the depth and complexity of its predecessors the whole experience rapidly starts to feel repetitious and braindead, leaving you hammering attack buttons and wishing your underpowered special moves offered more than just visual spectacle.
Torchlight 3 review summary
In Short: A colourful, loot-orientated action role-player let down by over-simplified systems and levelling up that often feels inconsequential.
Pros: Cute cartoon visuals, a real variety of enemies and bosses, and an endless procession of loot that means your character is continually changing.
Cons: Smaller skill trees than previous games and a levelling system that suppresses player choice. Early choices can make the end game hard or even impossible.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Perfect World
Developer: Echtra Games
Release Date: 13th October 2020 (22/10 on Switch)
Age Rating: 12
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