Torchlight III first launched in early access on Steam back in June, and I thought it was a bit of a disaster. It had numerous issues left over from its original MMO design, no singleplayer mode to speak of, and a general sense of lag to its gameplay that made it less enjoyable to experience compared to its two lauded predecessors.
I didn’t think that developer Echtra Games would be able to turn the title around without some serious and lengthy re-development. But, to my surprise, they’ve done that and more! In only four short months they’ve radically overhauled the game and released new versions this week on the PS4 and Xbox One. It’s available now for a price of $40, and it’s coming to the Switch next Thursday, Oct. 22nd.
The list of changes made is gargantuan, so I’ll just hit some of my personal highlights. The game now has a true singleplayer mode that doesn’t require a constant server connection, alongside co-op multiplayer. The feel of the game is much snappier regardless of mode, and in a brilliant move, difficulty choice now affects movement speed of the enemies. The skill tree system has been redesigned, bringing it more in line with the classic system featured in the earlier games. Performance is faster all around, with improved framerates and much faster load times.
Most importantly, thanks to a million small tweaks, this game now feels like a fun action RPG, with the satisfying player feedback, large enemy encounters, and constant movement/attack/skill loop that some of the best examples of the genre have to offer.
Players choose from one of four classes in Torchlight III, and each one offers something different. There’s a ranged Sharpshooter, the melee-focused Railmaster, the jack-of-all-trades Forged robot, and the complex Dusk Mage. The robot is the most fun to pick up and play from the beginning, because it’s equally effective in melee range and from a distance, thanks to its powerful weapon abilities and large chest cannon. The Dusk Mage feels the most ornate to me, with its dual magic affinity system encouraging players to use a balance of light and dark spells in equal measure for maximum damage output.
Torchlight III doesn’t waste too much time on story. There are some short basically-animated cutscenes throughout the game and you can run away from most of the quest givers mid-dialogue. Their voice clips will continue to play audio-log style so you won’t even miss out on what they have to say. This is a game all about fun action and loot rewards. The main campaign’s three acts should take you around ten hours to beat depending on difficulty, and after that there are also random “mapworks” challenges, and an endgame random dungeon system to tackle.
Still, the game feels a little lighter on content than its cheaper predecessor. I’ve played an extensive amount of it throughout its PC development, and I’ve played about a third of the game on both the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. The console versions seem roughly comparable to each other, and sadly, both of them target 30 frames-per-second performance without any resolution options to hit the 60 FPS level of Torchlight II’s console port. I’ve also had a few minor sound glitches, and sometimes when I use a portal a couple of times in a row, my pet companion disappears and I have to re-select them in my fort.
In spite of these small issues, it’s still amazing that the console version is even out considering the state of the game on PC four months ago. I thought the console releases would slip into next year. The console ports have received some small patches already, so the same iterative development pedigree that Echtra has shown on PC during early access seems to be continuing.
Presentation-wise, III is the best-looking of the franchise. It has a bold, colorful, cartoon art style that feels like a hand-painted wood diorama. Although it might seem like a “basic-looking” game at first glance, it’s full of excellent particle effects, animations, and important visual player feedback that make it both fun to play and impressive to watch. All of the graphical effects come through to the console versions, and even though the frame rate target is reduced, it mostly holds up even when there are tons of guys and effects on-screen.
The sound in the early access version had a number of small mixing issues, and some of that is better in the launch version. The very first piece of music you hear in the game still has some weird aggressive stereo panning going on, where instruments fly at random from left to right, giving it a cacophonous feel that seems more like an accident than a creative decision. The overall mix of the sound effects is also still a little bit bright and harsh, although it has better stereo placement and a little more bass punch than it did before. Series composer and industry veteran Matt Uelmen returned to write the music, and it’s a vibrant orchestral take on many of the classic motifs used in the earlier entries.
Torchlight III is one of the most enjoyable action RPG’s I’ve played in a while, with a satisfying quick gameplay loop that provides tons of fun feedback and makes me want to keep playing for hours. And that’s such a relief after the state the game started in. The clean UI and thoughtful control layout work equally well on mouse and keyboard or with a gamepad, and the smooth console targeting system recalls the excellent Xbox 360 port of the original game. I grin every time a monster explodes into loot or a quest-completion rewards chest hurtles out of the sky. It still has a few of its free-to-play MMO design tropes present in its map design, random loot gambler merchants, and carrot-on-a-stick fame rewards system…but these are also just common modern design tropes for the genre now and not that dissimilar from elements featured in the much shorter Minecraft Dungeons.
If you’ve never played Torchlight II, you might still want to start there. It’s a bit beefier in terms of content, it runs more or less locked at 60 FPS even on the Switch, and it’s only $20. It doesn’t have anywhere near the level of visual refinement or quite the same satisfying feedback loop or UI design as this new game, but it has aged remarkably well for an older release.
I feel somewhat confident that Torchlight III will grow in size over time, as the development machine that got it this far shows no sings of slowing down right now. I think it’s wonderful that the game is a one-time purchase and totally devoid of microtransactions. I also think this is an excellent second or third pick-up for those that are investing in a new console this fall, filling that space that Serious Sam 4 would have done an excellent job with had it not gone for Stadia exclusivity. I’m hopeful that the new consoles will receive a locked 60FPS mode, because I think the game is really enhanced by that extra control feedback. I can easily get that level of performance on my now-aged 6700/1070 rig by lowering the resolution below 4K, so I imagine the new consoles should have no trouble.
In a few short months, Torchlight III transformed from a messy pile of different half-finished design decisions into a game that feels reasonably like a final product, and also has finished console ports. That’s a remarkable development achievement during a global pandemic, on-par with that time many members of this same team made the original iconic game in under a year. If you’re eager for a charismatic action RPG adventure that’s brand new and not just a millionth run through Diablo III, this will perfectly scratch that itch.