After spending some time in Early Access, Torchlight III is finally entering this weird world as a fully-fledged 1.0 experience. However, long-time fans of the Torchlight franchise will immediately notice that something seems a little off about the whole thing. The situation is akin to a filmmaker rebooting an established, successful franchise by another director several years after the first two installments; yes, it takes place in the world you love, but nothing really clicks the way that it should. Torchlight III may carry the Torchlight name, it feels a little too different for it to stake its claim as the third entry of the mainline series. I still rather enjoyed my time with the game, but I have a feeling that hardcore fans of Torchlight and Torchlight II will have more than a few bones to pick with the title when all is said and done.
Torchlight III picks up roughly a century after the events of Torchlight II. Although the Netherim were wiped off the face of the planet, it seems that they’ve returned once again to wreak havoc on the poor, unsuspecting residents of Novastraia. Players will assume the role of a hero who, with the help of their trusty pet, must put an end to the menace before — you know what? Chances are, you know this story already. Simply put, you play a guy or gal who travels from one location to the next, wiping out hordes of enemies while collecting, equipping, and selling the insane amounts of loot you’ll gather along the way. And, on occasion, you’ll level up, spend skill points on new abilities, and use these new-found abilities to take down harder, more ferocious monsters you’ll meet along the way.
And that’s all fine. Torchlight III handles the basics pretty well, though ARPG fans who want something fast-paced may find this one a little clunky and low-energy for their tastes. Beyond that, it’s a perfectly serviceable addition to the wealth of like-minded endeavors on the market, but it doesn’t feel very much like a true Torchlight game. However, I can’t quite put my finger on why, exactly, the game seems to fall short of the mark. That said, Torchlight III often feels like something pieced together by people who played through the first two games once or twice before setting out to develop the third installment. I haven’t played the first two in years, but even I know everything feels off.
When I eventually learned that Torchlight III began its life as Torchlight: Frontiers, it finally all made sense. The way NPCs dish out quests, the “gambling” system to possibly obtain top-tier weapons (which show up very rarely), the fort-building system (complete with unlocks and resource-gathering) that doesn’t really add anything to the game — it all has the hallmarks of a by-the-numbers smartphone game. Once upon a time, Frontiers was supposed to be a mobile Torchlight game, though, at some point following the closure of Torchlight developer Runic, the decision was made to kick out many of the mobile aspects and create a linear pay-to-play adventure. For the most part, the developers managed to ditch a lot of the offending free-the-play elements, but some of these irritating aspects still remain. It never hinders your progress or prevents you from mildly enjoying Torchlight III, but you can tell the game began its life as something else.
The biggest problem involves just how much grinding it takes to level up. You’ll need to slaughter dozens upon dozens of monsters to gain any experience, and the elites and bosses don’t add as much as you’d think. And when you do gain a skill point to spend, increasing your skills/abilities rarely feels satisfying. My character’s ability to cast spinning blades never felt effective or helpful, even when I maxed that sucker out. And while I’m not looking to feel grossly overpowered, maxing out an ability should make it feel satisfying, especially when you need to grind for so long to make it happen. Even teaming up with a friend doesn’t help matters any; co-cop, while enjoyable, stills feels like a poorly balanced slog. Sure, playing with someone else looks nice and handles well, but you never feel like you’re heroes in your own story.
Torchlight III also makes the curious decision to automatically scale your equipment based on the level of the area you’re currently in. I know, right? This caught me totally by surprise; my decent long-range firearm suddenly lost about a third of its impact between one section and the next, leading me to initially believe I’d somehow screwed up my entire loadout. This auto-scaling ultimately robs you of feeling overpowered in early levels, which, in turn, makes it harder to grind for experience. Again, this seems to be a lingering side effect of the game’s mobile roots, and it’s something that ruins the flow of the game. Even when your character has a nice batch of great gear, you always feel like you’re on an uphill battle against weaker, insignificant enemies. It’s not a lot of fun to struggle against goblins after seven hours of gameplay.
What makes this descent into mediocrity so bothersome is that Torchlight III actually looks pretty good. Sure, it’s got that exaggerated Fortnite-style art design that every other game seems to have nowadays, but Torchlight always rocked a particular look. The game also runs pretty well — minus a few frame drops here and there. The third installment certainly looks and feels like a competent action RPG, but unfortunately, there’s not a lot here that you can’t find in other titles. When you’re entering such a crowded market, you can’t rest on name alone. Torchlight III may be the next entry in the series, but it feels hollow, frustrating, and just flat-out mundane when compared to everything else. It’s just kind of there, and for Torchlight fans, “okay enough” just doesn’t cut it.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Perfect World Entertainment.
Torchlight III, while clearly wearing the franchise's skin like a badge of honor, never hits the marks of the previous entries. This is a very basic ARPG that frequently shows its free-to-play roots, and in a market overflowing with action-packed role-playing games, being a mediocre sequel isn't going to win you any favors -- especially from hardcore fans.