2022-May-24: Where Has the Time Gone? A Torchlight Article

It's been about seven months since I wrote here last. Life's been a bit of a whirlwind. I actually moved; 750 miles and a couple of states away from California. I'm a Washington resident now. So far I'm liking the change but I'm still settling in. I might do another post about that.

But this one's about video games, as are most of my posts here.

Some time ago I wrote a post about the Fate series, and how it sparked off into Torchlight. I left it hanging before saying anything about Torchlight II, because Torchlight II is a different animal than the five games before it. Well now I feel like talking about it; possibly because I've played Torchlight III. Strap in, this one's going to be full of opinion!

Torchlight II (2012)

Torchlight was a massive success. It was hailed as a fresh take on Diablo and developed a cult following. I was one of its fans at the time, having played through the game some dozen or so times. Initially Runic Games had planned to go from Torchlight straight to an MMORPG set in the world, but decided instead of create a direct Diablolike sequel. This sequel would have multiplayer support: a new feature to the prior game or any of the Fate games. Their reasoning for doing the sequel was to get more experience in multiplayer design before diving into creating an MMO.

Torchlight II was a stark diversion from the prior five games in Travis Baldree's history. Instead of having a singular linear dungeon, Torchlight II boasted an open world. This alone was enough to make it feel radically different, despite the fact that most of the world was linear with few or no branching paths or open explorable areas. It wasn't a straight dungeon where progress was measured purely in floors traversed, though. The game would, once again, hover around the general playstyle and feel of Diablo II, with a (sort of) skill tree system, attributes you invest in each level, a small but varied list of classes, and slowly regenerating mana that mostly left you chugging potions or investing in mana leech.

I say "sort of" a skill tree system in that Torchlight II dropped the "tree" part from Torchlight. Instead now you had a list of skills and you could invest in any skill you saw fit without pre-requisites. The only requirement was that each skill level had a character level requirement. You could put points into Magma Spear for levels one through three, but would have to wait until level six for the forth point, level ten for the fifth, and so on. Maxing a skill typically had to wait until the 70s or higher.

I much prefer this approach than that of a tree. It always felt bad to me to have to invest points into skills I not only did not plan to use, but couldn't use effectively because they were one point wonders that existed only to unlock something further down the tree. It does, however, feel kind of bad when you get around skill level 15 and start having to wait a dozen levels before you can power up your bread and butter skill again.

This installment is four acts with radically different environments in each, much like Diablo II. It even follows a rather formulaic opening of a woodsy Act I, a deserty Act II, and a gloomy Act III. Many Diablolikes seem to follow this formula; I'm not sure why. Each act has a central town you can town portal to, waypoints, and a boss. Pretty basic fare.

The plot involves chasing the Alchemist from the original Torchlight across the land as he attempts to siphon power from elemental deities to somehow purge the world of Ember. You ultimately fail to stop him, always falling a step behind, and in the course of all of this a portal to the Nether World is opened and you have to go in and murder some evil Nether beast. It's not the most original plot in the world, but it carries the game well enough and is a fair shred more deep than any of the prior games.

Torchlight II tends to be a fairly easy game if you build the "right" way. It has a wealth of newbie trap and useless skills and attribute allocations that can leave you underpowered. Making this worse is the inability to respec fully. Instead you are only allowed the respec the most recent three points you allocated; a system that completely misses the point of why players want to be able to respec, in my opinion. This is an old and tired call back to systems that didn't respect the player's time and required rolling alts (or save hacking) to try new builds.

If you're not at your peak, bosses can be a frustrating slog of chipping away before you die and resurrecting to start the cycle over. This was more okay in prior games where either you could level infinitely to fix your oops, or the game was so short and you retired so it didn't matter much.

Upon finishing the game, you have two options available to you: continue into the endgame or invoke the New Game+ system. This, like everything else, is similar to how it was done previously but also different.

The endgame system is no longer "continue the linear dungeon forever" as there is no linear dungeon. You instead get a new waypoint in an endgame-only town and have the ability to buy and run maps, much like Path of Exile. Each map has a region and a level and opens into a dungeon you can rush through to get rewards. You're still also gaining experience and fame, of course. You can continue this forever, though there's now a level cap keeping you from scaling into infinity. I believe there was in the original Torchlight too.

When you get tired of mapping endlessly, you can invoke the New Game+ system to start over. This time, though, the retire system has been removed. You take your same character, with their gear, and reset your quests. When you do, you get put in an NG+ mode and base levels of all the enemies are scaled appropriately. There's four significant NG+s, from NG+1 up to NG+4. There's also an NG+5 but it's identical to 4, and exists only to indicate you finished 4. Beyond that, beating NG+5 loops you around to NG+5 again.

You're level capped at 99, maps in NG+4 can go up to 120 or so, creating a massive numbers spread you can't overcome. However long before this, mapping becomes a game of rocket tag. Even fully kitted out in Vitality, you won't survive a strong hit from a monster in the 70s. The best strategy is to build to do damage and hope they go down before you. I imagine most people (like myself) eventually decide to move on from the game when no amount of cheating in respecs to tweak stats lets them survive a hit or two from the monsters.

Don't get me wrong, Torchlight II may be the game in this series I put the most time into, eclipsing all four of the Fates put together by a fair margin. I've played through the entire game in friend groups half a dozen times on top of it since it's the only game thus far in this pedigree to provide multiplayer. It's great, but it's also another (big, different) step in an evolution that's been going on for six games now. It's real neat to see it that way.

Torchlight III (2020)

After Torchlight II, Runic Games somewhat broke up. Perfect World, interested in the eventual Torchlight MMO, invested enough in the studio to gain majority control. I am uncertain if this was a hostile takeover or not; I lean toward yes as shortly thereafter Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer left to form their own studio. With the main driving talent behind Fate and Torchlight gone, Runic Games pivoted to releasing a different project titled Hob. I've never played it so I can't say much about it.

Meanwhile Max Schaefer started up another studio, Echtra Games, to continue development of the Torchlight IP. Echtra and Perfect World announced Torchlight Frontiers in 2018: the long-awaited Torchlight MMO that Runic assembled to make all those years ago. There was a problem though: it was slated to release under a free-to-play model, under Perfect World, one of the poster children for abusive freemium bullcrap.

Frontiers was a shock to the system. Freemium stuff was everywhere, entire systems were overhauled to fit the free to play MMO mentality in. Fundamentally it wasn't Torchlight. I'm being a bit vague here because, to be completely and totally honest, when Perfect World slapped their name on it I tuned out. Reviews of the alpha were abysmal, complaining about slow game play, pay-to-accelerate being pushed, pointless grind, even more pointless systems, and oh gods the bugs.

Fundamentally though it felt like a betrayal. I could write a million words on the behavior of taking a beloved franchise and pumping a new installment full of invasive monetization in the hopes that players will swallow it just to get to play another installment in their favorite series. Just imagine me slowly turning to look at Star Wars: Battlefront here. In this case, Torchlight didn't have the star power to float this, and it began to show as the project took shape.

So in 2020 Perfect World announced Torchlight Frontiers was being busted back to a proper Action RPG and re-branded as Torchlight III. Good. Except here's something I've learned in many years of being a gaming nerd: once a project has been tainted by freemium content, pay-to-accelerate, gameplay impacting microtransactions, or whatever, it's almost impossible to walk that back. It's baked into the very fabric of the game, in things as important as progression pacing and curves, combat calculations, etc. That seems to have held true for Torchlight III.

Initial launch of Torchlight III was met with harsh, harsh criticism. You can assume a chunk of this would come from angry fans who were still stinging over the attempted put-over of the freemium MMO. It may have been Runic's intent all along to make an MMO, but after two games of something different, players had an expectation and that became a problem that Echtra had to solve. Not all of it was emotional though: a lot of the criticisms from Frontiers survived. Pacing was glacial, progression and balance were all over the place, systems that used to be supported by the freemium model were left half implemented leaving weird obtuse mechanics in their place. This would be the legacy of Torchlight III: another free-to-play game that removed the free-to-play hooks leaving rough scars in the experience.

But enough of that, what about the game itself?

Torchlight III still wears its Torchlight and Fate influences on its sleeve, but the systems have been overhauled. For the first time, there are no attributes. This removes one of the less fun decisions to be made in Diablolikes, in my opinion. I never liked figuring out stat allocations and especially didn't enjoy getting them wrong. Especially since these games have a pathological obsession with never letting you respec them. I don't miss attribute points.

The "list of skills" system from Torchlight II remains but they removed the staggered point allocations by character level. Instead, every five levels you get access to six new skills you can immediately take to cap if you have the skill points. You also can buy respecs now, thankfully. The skills themselves are radically different in how they're approached though.

Most passives are gone, replaced with one or more passive bonuses you can unlock by placing a certain number of points into each active skill. These are things like the Light Magic tree having skills where, upon investing six points in them, you unlock passives like "Light spells get a +10% chance to crit". It's interesting... You have a reason to invest in skills you may not necessarily use, but they become available to you as an effect of diving for these passives.

What skills you have access to is largely a function of your class, but not entirely. You have three trees of ten skills each. Two trees are chosen by your class. The third is chosen by which relic you take on character creation. Your relic choice is entirely "What third skill tree do you want?" as the relic itself does nothing else to your character. This allows for a deeper level of mixing and matching skills. Each relic seems to cater specifically to a playstyle, preferred status affliction, and preferred buffs. In fact, the relics align with the afflictions of shock, burn, poison, bleed, and freeze. They also fit in with preferred approaches to combat: the poison relic has traits that spawn minions. The bleed relic benefits from melee. The shock relic is all about clustering enemies to let shock's pulsing damage AoEs popcorn them.

While the main trees are devoid of passives, half of the skills on the relics are passive, but cater only to the relic's namesake affliction and its own skills. You won't see a ton of synergy here first-hand, but you can utilize these abilities to their fullest by understanding how they work and pairing them with class skills most likely to utilize them. My favored approach has been a Dusk Mage with weak, high hit-rate attacks and the "chance to shock on attack" passives.

I think the relic system is really neat.

Fame is still there, but heavily reworked. It's still a bar that increases when you finish quests and kill bosses, but now is account wide and goes into one of four different tracks at your choosing. Each track gives different rewards at each level, but none are significantly game-impacting. Instead these are loot drops, cosmetics, and the like. There's about 40 of these rewards, and then the cycle repeats from fame level 1. You get no skill points for fame, so it's largely a non-factor in the actual progression of the game.

On the other hand, you now sometimes get two skill points for a level; I believe every fifth level. This makes up for the lack of fame-based skill points.

In Fate/Torchlight tradition, Torchlight III has shamelessly stolen several mechanics from other games. In this case Kanai's Cube from Diablo III. Kanai's Cube lets you take three unique mods from legendary items and just apply them to your character without equipping the gear. Torchlight III lets you just do this, without limitation, and change any time you want. The legendary traits are weaker than they are in Diablo III to compensate, but are still build-making.

Torchlight III has also "borrowed" base building from Path of Exile. You get a fort you can fill with your own decorations and useful workstations. Unlike Path of Exile, though, you can't really fully live out of your fort. The utility items you can place in your fort are limited, and don't include (at least so far) shopkeepers. Then again, you don't really need shopkeepers: they don't sell gear and you don't want to sell gear to them for gold. You want to instead sacrifice that gear to a tree in your fort that passively increases your magic find for all of your characters.

Forts are a weird directionless feature, clearly intended to be the linchpin for the freemium experience of Frontiers, but a shell of what they were before when all that stuff was removed. You can see hints of what they were planning in the form of building materials. You can mine and chop stone, metal, and wood from around the world and use that to build features; rarer features need those materials to be crafted into better ones at a specialized workstation. This crafting process takes time, but it's seconds. You can see where they planned for this process to take longer, and let you pay to speed it up. It's strange they left this in, and just cut the crafting time down to a second per material, or some-such.

Forts also form a bit of what's left in the online experience. Between every actual zone of the game is a straight path that represents a road between zones. This road always passes by a fort. In online mode, it's likely a random player's (or so I've gathered, I only played offline). In offline mode it's always your fort. The first road early in act one passes by your fort, the last road in act three also passes by your fort. It's ... very strange feeling to see. Online, if I knew players would stumble into my fort, I'd put some effort into the design. Offline? All my stuff's shoved in one corner for ease of access.

The weird thing is I spent a lot of time designing my hideout in Path of Exile despite effectively playing that game as a solo experience (yes it was painful, thank you for asking). Torchlight III's take on this feels hollow, forced, and pointless. It doesn't feel like a home base to me; it feels like a place to go to dump items in the tree and that's it.

I somewhat noted that Torchlight II, despite being open world, is still linear. Torchlight III takes this to an extreme. Every single zone links to two other zones: one before and one ahead. Moving through the world is a straight line; the world map doesn't even try to hide this. Each zone can have one or more dungeons in it, but these too are approached extremely linearly. There are no areas you are not sent to as part of the main quest, and you cannot enter a zone or dungeon until the quest sends you to it, rendering your movement through the world rigid, stiff, and scheduled. There aren't really side-quests at all. Every now and then you may have more than one quest, but these are usually tutorials and system unlocks. There are no trivialities in the plot and quest-line, everything is main quest. There are no 'extra' locations.

I suddenly really miss The Hole from Diablo II Act 1. It served no purpose; it was extremely side-dungeon. I liked it.

Torchlight III has stepped quite a bit away from prior games in combat cadence. Resources regenerate quickly, movement feels snappier, bosses and large enemies throw Final Fantasy XIV style AoE fields on the ground for you to avoid. It feels like a modern Diablolike in this way rather than lagging 5-10 years behind this curve like the prior games did. You also don't have mana potions at all and your belt of health potions has a cap of 20, so you can't just fill your backpack with potions and not need to worry about health or mana.

The feeling of the game being rocket tag is still there though. A constant curse through the entire existence of Fate and Torchlight, I feel. But that's a curse almost every Diablolike ultimately encounters. With no attribute points, and hence no Vitality to pump, it can feel especially frustrating here. If you're dying too often, your only recourse is to wait for more protective armor to drop, especially since the shopkeepers don't actually sell usable gear.

All in all though, Torchlight III feels like it tried to be Torchlight but everything is just a little off. It's got the slick, compact, no frills tight game loop of a modern game, which actually works against its favor here. Fate had a very tight and simple game loop, but it felt rough around the edges and filled with trivialities you were free to dive into like alternate skills, stat allocations, gear you could re-roll shopkeepers to try to buy, sidequests... Torchlight III has none of this: just run forward, smash face, allocate skills on level up.

It does, however, have some of the more diverse character classes in a Diablolike. Each one plays entirely different and even has a different resource system including one class who summons trains by placing a train track resource on the ground. If you want non-standard playstyles in a Diablolike, this may be worth looking into. I stuck mostly with a mage and their bog-standard mana bar, myself.

I'm only about half way through but I looked into the endgame system: it's basically maps, but with random mutators. I might have to edit or follow-up when I get there. What I did read that was maximally disappointing, however, was the complete lack of a New Game+ or retirement system at all. Given the six games prior and the "account" wide features of the fort system, I feel that's a crying shame. You can't even try a higher difficulty without rolling a new character.

Then again, Torchlight III's level cap is 60, and you get most of the way there in the plot. They didn't really design the endgame system to be the massive time sink that the prior chapters carved it out to be. At least I don't think so.

Some thought was likely put into expanding the game. It did start as an MMO, which means its initial experience was likely intended to be limited and expansions to come at a regular cadence. Even when scaled back to a non-MMO action RPG, there was talk of expansion content and such. However, that's no longer in the cards as in 2021 Echtra Games was sold to Zynga. The Torchlight IP fully reverted to Perfect World but, as far as we know, no one is working on it. Torchlight III hasn't received an update in about a year and still has several nasty bugs (the worst I've encountered being your pet simply vanishing for the rest of your play session).

That's a lot of words but it boils down to this: it feels a lot like someone took the basis of Fate and Torchlight and built a new game from the ground up they could call Torchlight III and not be laughed at (unlike... Sacred 3). They then took that sort-of-Torchlight and tried to tighten the game loop on it so much you were forced to pass by the big neon signs shilling freemium stuff as often as possible-- then took the freemium stuff out when people complained. What's left is a fairly tight and simple experience you can just dive into, but is shallow and hollow at any depth.

Or, as my nerdy arse would put it: it feels like being handed a Mac after a lifetime of being a Linux user, then trying to figure out how to change the color of the windows. A lot of searching around for the thing you know is there only to find its not, then deep sad confusion.

To add insult to injury, Torchlight III dropped for a $40 price tag, compared to the $20 for Torchlight II, $15 for Torchlight, and $10 for Fate: The Cursed King. It's not a terrible game by any means; I'd probably put it right in the middle of the Diablolikes I've played between the original Titan Quest and Sacred 2, but it's not Torchlight and it's not worth $40.