I hope they change the Torchlight 3 map. That seems like sort of a sulky, entitled thing to say, and it probably is, but I'm a massive fan of fantasy maps and maps in general, and I think Torchlight 3's current map does it no favours. When you load up the game you get a screen with a lovely map - scattered land masses and age-stained ink. But in the game the map you actually use is the linear path from a thousand free-to-play puzzlers. The line muddles along like something out of Candyland and the places you visit are separated from the surface of the map somehow - it's more like a selection of novelty cakes than a map. Nothing wrong with free-to-play puzzlers at all! But this map seems to be a glaring reminder of the journey Torchlight 3 has taken to its current paid early access release on Steam.
Torchlight 3 started as a free-to-play affair, I gather. And the map tells you that. It promises stuff to do and progression that goes on forever, content without much context. The places in the game are actually much more traditionally Torchlight than this map makes out, incidentally - they feel nicely interconnected and you can imagine them slotting in next to each other in interesting ways. But there's that map. And then there's that fort you can build. Torchlight 3 is an ARPG: it's like Diablo, you wade around clicking things to kill them and unlocking skills which allow you to click with better fireworks. Want a fort in that world? Maybe, but I suspect this fort is the vestigial tail from some energy system or free-to-play currency thing. I may be wrong! I often am. But in its current iteration I unlock things and place them and buy props and stick them in there but I haven't yet had a compelling reason to really enjoy what I'm doing.
I am sure this will change. That's how I feel about every one of Torchlight 3's annoyances at the moment. Multiplayer only. That will change. Server issues that caused disconnections? That already has changed, as far as I can tell, with a tiny update yesterday. Bugs that mean a quest won't finish even though I killed the thing that should finish it? We are early, early in early access. Some of the bugs I even quite like. For a while going to a portal would sometimes take you where you wanted to go - your fort say - but would sometimes take you somewhere else entirely. Someone else's fort? A dungeon area far later in the game where things can kill you just by smiling in your direction? You always trust the travel portals in ARPGs, I think. This glitchiness was irritating if I was trying to do something, but mainly it made me think that there's probably a place in ARPG end-game design for playfully, interestingly glitchy portals. Isn't this kind of thing where neat ideas can come from?
All of this explains why Torchlight 3 currently has a pretty low score on Steam, and why its chat is filled with people grumbling about what's there and what isn't there or confused as to what's a bug and a feature. It's odd because Torchlight is one of those series that has been so poised until now. You generally only see a Torchlight game when it's slick and finished and ready for anything. Early access is a bit of a shock.
But I have faith I think. And I have had some fun here already. I've played on and off for a few days and just killed what feels like the first major boss. I have started to level but haven't hit 10 yet. At times it really does already feel like Torchlight.
There are four classes to choose from - the Sharpshooter, the Dusk Mage, which is a magic user, the robotic Forged, comical and furnace-based, and the hammer wielding Railmaster. I'm Dusk Mage at the moment, my skills divided into light and dark moves in the unlocking. They are fine. I have a bolt of light, three bolts of light, a sort of trap of arrows and barbes that erupts from the ground for a while and a neat teleport move to get out of trouble. I also have a wide arcing beam that feels like a direct theft from Diablo 3's wonderful Wizard. It's nice - but it's also a reminder of an ARPG with much more attention-grabbing skill design.
Torchlight has never been about the individual skills, of course. (Not that Diablo is either.) It's about the build and the loot and the micro-choices you make. This is the ARPG where it's much more likely that you'll notice actually hitting someone with the weapon you've equipped. I'm already having a lot of fun with the skills and the loot, dodging in and out, spike-trapping, hitting them with the Wizard beam. The only slight disappointment here is the Relic stuff, a separate skill tree that comes with each of the equippable relics you can find. I chose a fiery sword and I've leveled it up to include a new move and a critical hit chance and the possibility of setting people ablaze. The UI suggests I should be thinking of this stuff as a kind of ultimate, but at the moment, with my admittedly low level, it feels a bit weak.
What else? Torchlight's skill with landscape remains intact. Wonderful caverns and grottoes riddled with little pools of light from chunks of glowing ore or fires. A nice uneven graveyard early up with skeletons erupting from the ground. A nice rattle when you hit things. A nice glow to the better loot you collect.
The option to use a controller is really beautifully mapped too. It's almost my preferred way to play. Elsewhere pets are back and you get a steady stream of them to pick between, which feels a bit odd but if it means more animals I will take it. I can use my pet to sell the loot I don't want, as ever, but I haven't found out how to allow it to buy stuff in town for me yet. Maybe this has been removed - I did over-rely on it in Torchlight 2 so they might have a point taking it out. Also, and this is a very personal grievance and I feel sort of stupid mentioning it, I loved the names in the old Torchlight games. It's all got a touch more openly comic here. Bruce Killis was an early boss. I just finished off someone called Wideload who was involved with the Snotskins. This is a tiny thing to gripe about and I feel like a jerk doing it. But Torchlight 2 had a beautiful prolonged homage to The Goonies at one point - the quest is called Ghosts of Plunder Cove and I think it's in Act one if you're tempted to track it down - and it managed to do it without bending the fantasy tone at all. It was all pure adventure. This new stuff feels, like that map, either a little bit clumsy or like a game still dealing with an identity crisis.
I will be going back, of course. I will be clicking away tonight and tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. I'm having fun. Besides, it must be so tricky when a game changes focus so fundamentally during development. Tricky not just to get rid of the old bits, like the wrong kind of map and the currency and all that jazz. But tricky to find a new identity that feels like an identity that you would have chosen in the first place if you could have gone for it - to find a soul for the kind of game you are now making. Sounds rather mystical when I put it like that. And when I say, once again, that I still have faith.