Game Name: Diablo
Platforms: Windows 95
Publisher(s): Blizzard Entertainment
Developer(s): Blizzard North
Genre(s): Action RPG
Release Date: Dec, 1996

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. And 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.

In typical Blizzard fashion, an elaborate and intense backstory has been created for what is ostensibly a fairly simple, short game. You play as one of the adventurers looking to explore the monastery, and will battle your way from surface to Hell across 16 levels. But don’t expect too much in the way of quests or storytelling. The dungeon is the entire game, and the action is fairly limited – to paraphrase a quote from The Blues Brothers: “We serve both kinds of gameplay here – hacking and slashing!” You’ll start to appreciate the story more as it becomes one of the shrinking reasons to keep pressing through some pretty mind-numbing gameplay.

Puny skeletons! Your arrows mean nothing to me!

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 fire spells by arming them from a spellbook and right-clicking to cast. That’s it. It’s called an “action RPG;” they’ve been around since the early 80s, but Diablo is generally credited with bringing them to the mainstream. Along with the basic combat, these games strip the RPG down to its lightest elements (limited character stats and magic items that boost them) and have you thunk your way through waves of enemies while looking for loot. Some people love that. Some people love Diablo. I personally am having trouble getting behind a game whose clicky clicky action is frequently less challenging than the fly swatting minigame in Mario Paint.

Skill is almost irrelevant. You can’t block. Timing is not a factor. Your abilities are entirely 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 and 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.

The stats on your weapon determine how many times you must click the mouse to defeat each baddie. Meanwhile, dodging, awareness, or really using 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 fifteen axe-wielding centipedes and twenty 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 forgiven if you had some options. You don’t. There are no unique combat/defensive skills for each character (as there are in later games, namely Diablo II). There’s the free left-click melee attack that never changes and a handful of magic spells you have to train for the right-click attack. Hotkeyed potions instantly bring you back to full health if you get in trouble and stock ahead. Enemies 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 impersonation. 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 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).

Groups of levels start to look more Hellish the deeper you go. As do the enemies.

The trouble is that, because of the way the system is designed, it’s impractical to follow these career paths religiously. 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 two for distant foes. As the sorcerer, you’ll take the full brunt of how weak magic’s implementation is. There’s a limited set of spells. You have to learn each one by reading a book (which are random drops) and can only increase their level by reading the same book again (if you happen across another one). You’re limited by mana, which doesn’t regenerate for any character, and requires potions to keep up.

This alone is good reason for the sorcerer to beef up his physical abilities and keep a dagger around, especially since physical attacks are totally free. But we’re not done yet. Later enemies are immune to magic. Not certain types of magic, not “resistant,” immune to all magic. So if you want to beat the game as a sorcerer, you have to train your physical stat as much you can, which naturally means you have fewer points to put toward being a magical master. It’s good for a challenge, I suppose, but don’t buy Diablo for the sorcerer.

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 it sounded boring. Playing through it now, I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. Diablo is a strictly average experience, 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 and monsters around for you). But you may slip ahead there and notice 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. There’s more of it in the manual than in perhaps the entire game, 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 quests would have been keen, but I do like that you can learn about a boss, kill him, and get your reward instantly without having to drag his head back to the questgiver or whatever.

I really should buy something.

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 can sometimes set you up with limited quests. You’ll even learn a bit of backstory (and foreshadowing) if you choose to gossip. This apparently is nothing particularly new or revolutionary, but it does work well here. 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 later levels 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. 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, by the end game you usually can’t buy items better than what you already have. 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 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 particularly 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.

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 blood splashing on the dirt after every kill. If you really wanted to split hairs, you could go after the campy voice acting. Every book or conversation is spoken along with scrolling text, and every voice actor hams it up big time. I don’t think it takes away from the game though, even though the crazy witch and slurring drunk characters will likely get those eyes a’rolling.

You may notice that the click-based combat and stat-based core system sound awfully similar to a modern MMO. You’d be right. The same addictive gameplay based on simple combat and 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.

And as a footnote that further sells the MMO connection, you could (still can) join Battle.net and play through the game with a small party of other players for free (just like old MUDs). Not required, and plagued by cheaters, but it was a huge selling point in 1997 and a pretty clear forerunner for what Blizzard’s most popular game would become (I speak, of course, of Norse by Norse West).

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.


The Good

Easy to play, great music, great graphics. Offers nice replay options (randomization and difficulty levels) for those that get hooked.

The Bad

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.

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