As I guide my Railmaster, my dragon pet, and my ridiculously cool personal murder train set through what feels like the umpteenth goblin-infested dungeon in the first act of Torchlight III, one nagging thought keeps popping into my head. “Why am I doing this?”
It’s certainly not the story. The third installment of the Torchlight series—which began in 2009 as a bright and shiny single-player Diablo-clone of an action RPG, and then graduated to multiplayer with 2012's Torchlight II—feels like the flimsiest of the bunch from a narrative perspective. Centuries since the events in Torchlight II, the world of Novastraia is once again under attack by the evil purple Netherim. Now go kill goblins, skeletons, and spiders in samey dungeons. Blaze a very linear trail across the game map. Build your fort, for reasons that probably made more sense before the game switched from the free-to-play Torchlight Frontiers to the “premium” Torchlight III.
Let’s talk about the fort for a moment. It’s a personal space where players can place collected decorations. Some, like the Peeking Worldgnasher, are functional, adding fire defense to all of your characters (it’s a shared space) that grows as you donate an item called “Goblin Fury,” which drops from the aforementioned goblins. It’s got a pet shelter where all of your collected pets can hang out while not in use. There are special buildings used to process ore, stone, and wood harvested in the field, which is then used to build more fort stuff. I can turn 24 stone rocks into 12 stone blocks in 36 seconds. Why? Because this used to be a free-to-play game, where all of this made more sense. Fortunately, it’s mostly optional and doesn’t mess around with the good parts of the game.
What then are the good parts of the game? Why the parts of Torchlight that have always been good. Inventive character classes getting powered up by wandering the wilderness and clicking on hotkeys. There’s my precious Railmaster, whose pet locomotive follows wherever she goes, spitting bullets, raining cannon fire, generating shields, and all sorts of cool steampunk nonsense. I call it my “Shoot You Train.” Say it out loud. Fun!
Then there’s Stina, my Sharpshooter. She’s my second single-player character (the two modes are separate), a bow-user with a pet cat and an electrical relic giving her arrows a little zing. During Torchlight III’s earlier days relics were powerful items that players could level separately from their characters. Players could equip their low-level characters with powerful leveled-up relics, screwing up the balance of power, so developer Echtra Games switched it up. Now relics are a choice made during character creation, effectively giving characters a third skill tree on top of the two they get with their class. Remember back when Diablo III had a very cool and complex rune system for augmenting skills and then changed it to something much more simple before release? This is Torchlight III’s rune system.
Simplified as it is, the relic system does effectively give each of the game’s four classes five different tertiary skillsets to choose from. That’s a whole lot of skills to juggle, and there’s plenty of potential for experimentation. My Sharpshooter, lower level as she is, is having a blast when her electrical arrows proc, blowing those goblins, spiders, and skellingtons to bits.
Killing things in Torchlight III is pretty satisfying. Swords swinging, guns firing, trains filling the screen with cannon fire, spells blasting out of the Dusk Mage’s bizarre oversized hand weapon—it’s a spectacle. With a full group in multiplayer, things can get pretty crazy. Even in single-player mode, taking out an overwhelming horde of critters with a well-chosen set of skills, it’s exciting.
And then it’s less exciting. As my characters progress and the space between experience levels grows larger, I get less enthusiastic about this adventure. Is it an adventure, or is it a series of overland maps dotted with similar-looking dungeons, connected by a flimsy narrative? I shouldn’t be perceiving the game like this. I should be too wrapped up in the tale of Eugene the Railmaster’s triumph over... over... who were we fighting again?
Torchlight III feels like less of a full-fledged action role-playing game and more like a character progression simulator. A character builder. Whatever you’d call a game where the sole motivation to play is watching your created character gain new skills and dress up in increasingly fancy gear. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of thing if it’s what you’re into. The pursuit of power is one of the greatest motivators in human history, even if that power ultimately means nothing.
If you love the activity loop of Diablo-style action role-playing games (clicking the mouse), you’ll probably enjoy Torchlight III. The question is, how long will you enjoy it? I’m just finishing up the game’s first act with one character, halfway through with another, and the thought of starting up a third and murdering my way through hours of goblins again is not a pleasant one.