Torchlight 3 Early Access Impressions: Limiting & Unorthodox Gameplay Design

Torchlight 3 officially entered early access on Steam last week with a series of server issues that reportedly made gameplay quite a frustrating experience. Perhaps it was for the best that I only managed to join a few days after because following the addition of new replacement servers, Torchlight 3 (for me) has so far been running satisfactory. The online lag has been minimal and most often nonexistent, and the servers have only booted me once for whatever reason.

Past the connectivity concerns, Torchlight 3 can best be described as a more simplified version of Torchlight 2. While developer Echtra Games has incorporated some new features to keep the franchise fresh, the new installment looks to have lost its way somewhere between the acclaimed Torchlight 2 and the scrapped Torchlight Frontiers attempt.

Torchlight 2 was never a perfect game but it did expand and improve on its predecessor to be a fun and satisfying role-playing game. Torchlight 3 takes a step back from building on that cornerstone, and several steps back from how Torchlight Frontiers was supposed to be a re-imagining of the franchise for the better. The major shift in design is something that Echtra Games will have to eventually address during the early access period if the developer wants to please not only Torchlight veterans but newcomers as well.

Starting with the classes; each one has been designed around a unique mechanic. Unfortunately, those unique mechanics matter little since the classes have been limited to only two skill trees with only seven skills in each to choose from. Hence, each class can offer just two different builds at most. The way Torchlight 3 treats its classes also means that players are forced less encouraged to side with one of those two proposed class builds in entirety.

Forged, for example, builds up heat when using skills. Once overheated, Forged has to use other skills to cool down. The damage done is based on the amount of heat produced or vented, making Forged quite a unique class. However, most of the skills, already few in number, are hardly impactful. It boils down to only a couple of rinse-and-repeat skills, taking away any notion of a tailored build.

Railmaster, as another example, can lay down tracks for a train to follow which can be upgraded in several ways. Railmaster depends on that train and even then, most of the offered skills have no significant power gains. Hence, like Forged, Railmaster has to side with a single train-focused build for the most impact.

In summation, Torchlight 3 offers no real build choices. Each class has been designed to operate in a singular fashion. That still is no reason for the developer to design the worst possible user interface imaginable for a role-playing game.

The Torchlight 3 HUD accommodates only six skills, half of what the Torchlight 2 HUD did. The keybindings are a mess in the current state of early access. There is no other way to efficiently try out more skills than by replacing the current ones. Torchlight 3 already offers a handful of skills; players now need to literally decide which ones to use and which ones to leave out. Not to mention that relics, new to the franchise, also come with active skills. Hence, players will need to make room for their relics as well on the in-game HUD.

Something else that may bother players coming in from previous installments or the genre for that matter, Torchlight 3 has lost the in-game arena map. Even the new Diablo 3, much like its predecessors and Torchlight 2, allowed players to move around in real time with an opaque map on the screen. In its present state, the game has players switching to a static map that opens separately and only shows the current location.

With all of that said, there is one crucial gameplay element that makes Torchlight 3 a hard game to invest hours in: the abysmal loot. Torchlight 2 had issues with loot as well where majority of drops were trash. The new installment carries forward the same problems. Every treasure or boss chest nearly always produces underwhelming loot. The problem actually runs deeper since the developer will need to do more than just raise the chances of finding rare loot.

The randomized stats on every item are hardly noteworthy. There is no fun in deciding between two shields where one offers +2 defence and the other, recently looted, offers +3 defence. The lifebound items jump in to offer better stats and affixes, but these items are immediately destroyed upon death. The only way for players to secure them is to find scrolls of unbinding, which just adds to the grind and overall frustration.

Then there are other aspects, minor but all adding up in the end to make Torchlight 3 feel soulless. The reduced inventory space. The cap on number of potions players can have. The absence of attributes like strength and agility. The inability to switch between two weapon types. The horrendous time it takes to harvest resources. The pointless notion of saving randomized pets. The dumbed-down enemies and bosses. The clunky and sometimes lack of item comparisons.

The early access period confirms that the transition from a free-to-play model was not smooth. Torchlight 3 lies somewhere between what Torchlight 2 was and what Torchlight Frontiers was trying to be. While most of the little things can be expected to be addressed before the early access ends, it remains to be seen what Echtra Games will do with the classes and bare-bones combat.

Torchlight 2 was great because it was rewarding. Torchlight 3, in its present state, hardly tries to reward players.