At the end of last week, Torchlight III surprise-launched on Steam in Early Access for $30. The game has been in closed testing for what feels like forever, though for most of that time it was a “different” free-to-play MMO called Torchlight Frontiers.
I put different in quotation marks up there, because wow, this release sure does feel like a free-to-play online game that had some hasty design changes slapped in which was then thrown onto the Steam store. If you click that store link up there you’ll notice that it has mostly negative user reviews. They are fully justified.
Take a quick scroll through the Torchlight twitter feed and you’ll start to peel back the curtain on the mountain of issues here. The account is replete with posts like “we fixed the server!” and “this time we fixed the server!” and “no, really, we definitely fixed it this time!” In spite of promising that Torchlight III would be an offline game with online multiplayer options like its predecessor, this current Early Access build is still very much an online-only affair. That would be fine if the servers weren’t on fire, but they were complete mush for the last several days.
Even when I can get into the game, it’s chock full of server issues and strange progression bugs. I’ve left and re-entered the game only to see my progress roll back one full map segment in spite of the fact that I made sure to activate a waypoint. I’ve used a town portal and ended up warped into a late-game zone made for characters ten levels above me. Sometimes the area chat feed is full of activity but other times it goes silent for a half hour for no apparent reason.
I know that every big online game has server issues at launch, but Torchlight has a large fan base that has been waiting with bated breath for this new game. It should have been easier to see these troubles coming, especially after the lengthy closed testing period. I also know that it’s not necessarily fair to pick on an early access game for being glitchy, but this game has already had years of development. And many of its issues are actually core design problems, not glitches from a busy launch.
The original version of the game concept prominently featured user-built forts, back when it had a more open world MMO design. These forts are still in the game, but now they’re shoved onto paths that sit between the levels you progress through in linear fashion. Forts contain lots of useful functions that were in the town in the previous games, and although plopping down stuff in the fort is fun in a Sims-like way, I’m not sure why they’re still here in what’s supposed to be a “traditional” Torchlight game. Similar to my wrong zone bug above, I’ve also been randomly thrown into other people’s forts for no reason when I’m trying to navigate to the next quest.
Combat is simplified over the original entries in the series, with fewer skills to choose from in each class, the removal of mana potions (at least for the archer class I chose), a hard cap on health potions you can carry, and less finesse required to play in general. It’s much more about watching your numbers slowly go up and the other guy’s slowly go down, and although some lip service is played to player positioning with occasional big area attacks, they’re so easy to dodge that it’s never a problem. The vibe and pacing is much more casual than the earlier games, and indeed more casual than most other big games in this genre. There’s nothing wrong with that in a vacuum, but it’s probably different from what most ardent fans of the genre and this series will expect.
Instead of vast skill trees, the game now has a big focus on special “Relics,” which are generic magical items you can craft and level up. The small pool of available relics all focus on different elemental attacks, and they remind me of the Dragonborn powers in Skyrim. The developers of that game wanted to give every player some magic to play with regardless of their class, and the relic weapons here work just as well whether you’re a warrior, a mage, or the weird robot guy. But the fact that they aren’t really tied to your class makes them seem like a strange ancillary addition…almost like something that was meant to be micro-transacted in the future.
Free-to-play design tropes are still all over this game. In spite of the more linear progression to the world, zones are large and aimless and offer no real design or unique encounters. They’re made of somewhat wide corridors that are randomly slapped together by the game’s generation system, and then occasionally a powerful enemy spawns in. The vendor in the town doesn’t sell specific items but instead sells blind item bags that might have a better thing than you already own, but you won’t know till you buy them. Crafting is similarly obfuscated, allowing you to craft a random item instead of exactly what you want. Loot progression is slow, bordering on boring, with tons of trash you can feed back into the blind box merchant and only occasional meaningful weapons.
Some of the better weapons are “lifebound,” which means that they’ll disappear permanently the second your character dies. But don’t worry, you can grind against bosses for a tiny chance to find a different item that removes this restriction…but by then you’ll have probably found a slightly better weapon. Good luck actually finding those bosses in the lifeless world, too. The quest signposting isn’t always as clear as it needs to be, beyond telling you that you need to go to a specific zone, so plan to spend more time wandering the map finding the objective than you’re used to in other games.
The only thing I’ve really enjoyed so far in Torchlight III is the visual style. It leans into the cartoon look first tried in Torchlight II, and the quality of character models and textures is a dramatic step up from the earlier games. Unfortunately, the sumptuous effects animation that I loved in the first two games isn’t really present here, though characters still animate well and combat has just enough visual feedback to be fun. Still, I miss the swirling smoke plumes and hand-animated explosions of the previous games.
The music does a good job of evoking the acoustic style of the earlier games, but punched up with some more orchestra instruments. However, it seems to constantly be in the background, and never commits to an ear worm theme like that found in the original Torchlight. The sound mix is not very exciting, with a lack of visceral bass presence and a light, slightly limp tone to combat sounds. Though the noise when gold floats into your inventory is very satisfying. And the fun Gauntlet-like voice guy from the first two games is still here to shout at you when you level up.
I don’t really like this game right now, but it might be better someday. Maybe if it’s ever actually redesigned as a true purchase-up-front experience it’ll have more of a satisfying flow to it. But right now, it’s a little bland to play, and I just have so many questions pop into my head every minute. Why are there random cannons everywhere I can fire for no reason? Why is my basic attack so much weaker than my skills, which recharge super quickly? Why are pets now a loot item?
The developers have announced that they’re going to delete all progress at the end of the early access period in a server wipe, which is once again highly at odds with the big promises they made about turning this into a traditional Torchlight game. And if they’re doing it now, there’s nothing to stop that again in the future. I’d recommend waiting till this is out of early access before plunking down your cash. You’ll have a lot more fun with either of the first two games, which regularly go on sale. Or you could play Path of Exile. Or Wolcen. Or Diablo III. This is already the weakest link in a once-proud franchise, and without a total design overhaul it won’t feel like a proper third entry.
As a free-to-play game without a number in the title this still might not have lived up to the legacy of the franchise, but at least the weird design decisions wouldn’t sting as badly nor stand in such stark contrast to what came before. This early access release feels a little like the game reached a point where it had to start making money and so they kicked it out there. I don’t think all the negative feedback it’s generating on the Steam forum, Twitter, and elsewhere was worth the sales success it’s having right now. Max Schaefer has written a lengthy blog post summarizing some of the issues and promising fixes, but I’m not sure if they can swing the narrative back on this one.