Terror has gripped the land of Khanduras. Once benevolent King Leoric has succumbed to insanity and lain siege to his own kingdom. Leoric’s son has disappeared. Knights and priestly orders lay in disarray as they battle shadowed creatures mounting attacks from the depths of the night. The tiny village of Tristram has become a flashpoint in this conflict, as an elaborate system of catacombs is discovered spiraling endlessly beneath its ancient monastery. Adventurers come from across the land to raid the labyrinth for treasures, or to assist in the search for Leoric’s missing son. And unbeknownst to the villagers above, Diablo, one of the three Prime Evils of Hell, preys upon their fears.
Blizzard’s Diablo is often credited with creating the Action RPG genre, but that’s not entirely true. The genre has been around in some form since the 80s, but Blizzard absolutely was the first to set light dungeon crawling to mouse controls and cutting edge graphics (for 1996). You’ll play as one of three adventurers looking to explore the monastery, and will battle your way from surface to Hell across 16 levels. The promise of randomized, gear boosting loot lures you through repetitive combat, and the relatively new ability to thunk your way through all of it online with up to four friends builds the beginnings of a structure that would go on to define Blizzard’s most popular game (I speak, of course, of Norse by Norse West).
You play as one of three adventurers looking to explore the catacombs, and will battle your way from surface to Hell across 16 levels. Story definitely exists, but comes mostly through repeating conversations with villagers on the surface, or narrated tomes found down in the depths. Quests also exist, but in an extremely limited, randomized fashion. It encourages replayability, but also means any meat on the bones of a single playthrough is pretty lean. Put simply, Diablo’s gameplay can get pretty mind-numbing, and it has more in common with an old combat-focused dungeon crawler like Wizardry than it does with even its own sequel.
Granted, Diablo is easy to understand and jump into. You move your character by left-clicking where you want them to go. You attack monsters by left-clicking on them to swing your sword. You launch spells by arming them from a spellbook or four swappable hotkeys and right-clicking to cast. That’s it. RPG stats are paired down to just four – Strength, Dexterity, Magic and Vitality – which roughly define equipment restrictions and how many times you’ll need to click to kill a monster.
Skill is almost irrelevant. You can’t actively block. Timing is not a factor. Your effectiveness is largely defined by your equipment, the discovery of which is left entirely up to chance. Whether you’re waiting to see what randomly-generated items are in stock at the village shops or popping out of treasure chests, your only concern is to compare a new item to the one you’re currently using, then pick the one that makes your stats go up. During actual combat, you need only make sure you don’t get surrounded. Drawing enemies through a door and picking them off individually becomes an excellent choice, and the basic AI readily cooperates.
Meanwhile, dodging, awareness, or really needing any particular level of care is negligible. Defense, again, is determined entirely by your gear’s stats and invoked automatically. You can find yourself surrounded by ten axe-wielding centipedes and fifteen goat-archers, all attacking at the same time, and high armor stats just mean their arrows and slashes will bounce off your medieval superhero. The fact that you never should have stumbled into that situation in the first place is cast aside by your Plate Mail of +25 to Awesome.
The click-based gameplay could be better forgiven if you had some additional options. You don’t. There are no unique combat/defensive skills or spells for each character (as there are in later games, namely Diablo II). Every character has the free left-click attack based on equipped weapon, plus a book of magic spells you can train for the right-click attack. Hotkeyed potions instantly bring you back to full health if you get in trouble and stock ahead. You can outrun most enemies to either flee or get a better position.
Monsters either attack up close or fire from a distance, and how you handle them depends on your character. Their AI is not particularly sharp, though ranged enemies do excel at running from your axe, making for a frustrating Benny Hill chase. Weapons only get generically “better.” There’s nothing like a silver weapon that’s more effective against specific enemies. You may occasionally have to consider if a weapon that boosts some extra stats is better than one roughly equal that does more damage, but that’s about as deep as the strategy goes.
You have three characters to choose from: warrior, rogue, and sorcerer. The warrior is proficient at physical combat, the sorcerer at magic, the rogue at bows and arrows. Each character has stats capped in areas where they’re supposed to be weak (so the sorcerer can never raise his strength over a certain limit) while they have higher potential in other areas (that same sorcerer can raise his magic skill 200 points higher than the warrior can).
The trouble is that, because of the way the system is designed, it’s impractical to religiously min-max these career paths. As the warrior or rogue, it makes sense to spend points on some low-level magic to give your right click something to do. At the very least, a healing spell in that slot can give an extra edge, or maybe a fireball or stone curse. As the sorcerer, you’ll want to be at least a little dangerous with your free left-click attack so you’re not completely at the mercy of mana. If you run out, you’d better have some scrolls to fire off “free” spells, or turn and run as fast as your little getaway sticks will allow.
In fact, playing the sorcerer highlights how weak magic’s implementation is in this game. Mana doesn’t regenerate for any character, meaning you’re forced to buy potions and are limited by what your inventory can practically hold. Since you’re constantly buying mana, you have less money to spend on better gear. You can only have one spell active at a time, so you’ll be juggling hotkeys or the split-screen spell menu frantically in the heat of battle. You can only learn a spell by reading a book (which are random drops) and can only increase its level by reading the same book again, if you happen across another one. You can certainly build up to a point where high level spells gently sip from your vast reserves of mana, and deadly lightning effortlessly drops rooms of foes as it arcs between them, but starting out is so tough you’d be forgiven for not making it that far.
So now clearly there’s a problem, because everybody else in the world loves Diablo. That’s what Metacritic says. 100s and trophies all around. I chalk it up to personal taste. I didn’t buy Diablo in 1997 because its clicky-clicky action sounded no more exciting that the fly swatting minigame in Mario Paint. Playing through it now, I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. This first Diablo is a strictly average experience today, and one that doesn’t offer much of a reason to go back and try another character (other than the fact that the game is short enough to allow this without much fuss, and some limited randomization will change the levels, available quests, and monsters). But you may have noticed that Diablo pulls off an above-average score. That’s because I do want to acknowledge what the game does right.
I like the story. It gets parceled out kind of restrictively, but it does some excellent scene-setting. I really wanted to see what Diablo had done with/to his new host, and after seeing the surprising level of gore in the room of the early Butcher boss, a proper level of foreboding was achieved. I think the ending was a little brave too, regardless of whether or not they had a sequel planned. A little more focus on traditional quests would have been keen, but I do like that they come naturally and usually offer unique rewards for completing.
I like the way the town is used as a base of operations. Everything you need is there in the form of village shops, and speaking to characters will sometimes set you up with those limited quests. You’ll even learn a bit of backstory (and foreshadowing) if you choose to gossip. It can be a bit of a pain to have to trek back to town to unload items from your limited inventory, but new passages that open up as you progress help this, as does the cheap town portal spell. By the third level, it felt like they basically give the town portal scroll away in every other chest.
I do wish that you had a chest or locker in town to store your excess stuff across multiple sessions. It would also be nice if gold wasn’t a physical item that takes up inventory space. It’s bad enough that you have very little to spend it on – at the beginning you can’t afford much, then by the end game you usually can’t buy items better than what you’re finding. Having a place to hold your sacks full of coin becomes an issue toward the end game. I mean, you’re buying and selling to the same people – can’t they work out a bank, or even a line of credit? They should know you’re good for it.
I like the graphics. They remind me of Fallout, not just in the perspective, but also in the level of detail of the textures. Characters appear to have been designed in the computer, and have their animations and sprites derived from those models. It looks nice, and every monster looks befitting of a emissary of Hell. I’ve already talked a bit about the gore, and the effect of burying an axe into a demon’s chest is pulled off well, despite the fact that every monster plays their own single death animation regardless of the attack. All corpses stick around on the ground for the rest of the game, which is a nice touch.
If I had any complaint it would be that the levels are quite dark, but this is by design, and there are items and spells within the world that increase your sight distance. There’s also an in-game gamma slider to adjust if you’re having particular trouble. You’ll also want to be prepared for some pixel hunting, because there’s no way to highlight dropped items without running the cursor over them. This isn’t too much of a problem if you grab dropped loot quickly, but in a large battle – or if your inventory is full, and you have to come back – you’ll really need to search to find everything.
I love the sound. I don’t think there was a music track I didn’t like, and it’s refreshing to hear some real instruments like acoustic and electrical guitars. They’re not all “creepy” like you might expect, but those that are give the right sense of unease. I especially like the ambient noises some of them contain, namely the screams and laughs. It took me a little time to realize that they were part of the music and not coming from some approaching monster in the gameworld. Crunches of axes, whistles of arrows, and various effects of magic all work well. A special commendation goes to the blood. It sounds like a Blizzard employee throwing a bucket of paint on the ground, but for sheer cheese factor, it replicates the noise of gallons of demon gore splashing on the dirt after every kill. Voice actors ham it up big time here, but it kind of adds to the charm.
As said earlier, the click-based combat and stat-based core system sound awfully similar to a modern MMO. The same addictive gameplay based on simple combat and the promise of phat loot is present here, as is the same excitement of being able to rumble with a group of monsters that would have stolen your lunch money three levels ago. The sense of accomplishment is there as you effortlessly drop the last few enemies in a level, until you take the stairs to the next level and find your skills lacking again. Now you want to go out and find better kit and a few more experience points to get back to where you were. The carrot is given and taken away. Repeat until the end of the game. If the shallow gameplay of MMOs doesn’t work on you, you’re correct that you won’t enjoy this.
Multiplayer is also worth a special mention. You could (still can!) play local or online across Battle.net, co-opping through all 16 (remember, randomized) levels. Friendly fire is always on, making PvP an unintended – but definitely common – option (gotta collect those ears!). It came at a time where it was new enough to be revolutionary, and the idea of a chat room (Battle.net even has A/S/L profile entries!) that also has a semi-persistent game around it was obviously appealing. Again, I didn’t play at the time, but looking at the games that came since, it’s easy to see how influential this side of Diablo was.
Is Diablo everything you’ve heard of? If what you’ve heard is “addictive,” “short,” and “click-fest,” then yes. I admit that I was turned off by the game when I heard that it shares the same stat focus and control scheme as Microsoft Excel, but the execution turns out better than it sounds. It’s certainly not the best game ever made, and it’s probably too simple these days, especially considering that its core gameplay has been raided by MMOs. This obviously wouldn’t have been an issue when it was released, but you certainly don’t require hindsight to see the game’s deficiencies. It’s also not quite as replayable as you might have heard, as characters are forced to homogenize, and monsters and levels don’t randomize in any fundamental way. Still, Diablo is a fun little side game for a rainy weekend.
Easy to play, great music, great graphics. Offers nice replay options (randomization and difficulty levels) for those that get hooked.
With the number of clicks you took to get here, you could have killed two skeleton archers. Fun, but about a shallow as they come.
“You drink water?” — Farnham the Drunk