Written by: Stoo

Date posted: May 13, 2016

Many years later, I still haven’t remembered to take any screenshots after the first 2 levels.

This year is the fifteenth since this humble site went online. The occasion has prompted us to look back on some of the reviews we wrote way back in the early days. Some could probably be more comprehensive or insightful. Others could be updated to reflect how our opinions have changed over the years.

I don’t plan on redoing all of my old content, but a few games could do with a fresh assessment. So today we’re looking at Diablo, the action RPG from Blizzard North. When I first wrote about this, it was about six years old, a relatively recent title with one sequel. Nowadays it lurks almost two decades in the past. As well as this series spawning a third incarnation in 2010, it also inspired the likes of Torchlight and Titan Quest. So Diablo can really be viewed now as an ancestor of an entire subtype of RPG. It’s interesting to go back and look at it again, having now seen all that followed.

The setting is one of dark medieval fantasy; there are no elves or dwarves around, but supernatural horrors frequently lurk in the dark places. You take on the role of a brave adventurer, who comes to the aid of a town called Tristram. The residents are being terrorised by demonic creatures, that are emerging from catacombs under the local cathedral and rampaging across the countryside. It’s up to you to venture into the dungeons and put an end to the evil forces. You must make your way to the lowest levels and defeat the demons’ overlord, Diablo, the Lord of Terror himself. Well, temporarily defeat him anyway. He’s come back twice so far.

It’s very much a game of hack and slash, furiously slaughtering your way through endless ranks of demons. Lots of monsters charge at you, you frantically click to swing a sword, or fire off spells, until they’re dead. You search their corpses for gold and equipment they may have dropped. Then move on and repeat the process. It’s all about that intense monster-slaying action mixed with a constant drive to upgrade your gear. Occasionally you go back to town to sell stuff, chat to the locals and see if the blacksmith has anything to sell. Then it’s straight back to the dungeon, for new challenges.

If in 1996 you were more used to Ultima or Might and Magic, this was all rather different; faster paced, and more simple and straightforward in execution. It’s an RPG pared right down to those elements of monster-slaying. There’s no party to manage, and any quest you’re given amounts to killing a special enemy (which you would have done anyway!) or retrieving some item. Puzzle solving is absent. You do have traditional RPG stats (strength, agility etc) to manage but only a short, concise list. Also, while there is in fact an extensive backstory to the game, full of lore about demons and angels, you’re totally free to ignore it. H

Another way to look at it might be, this is a game inspired by Roguelikes. I’m not going to actually call it a Roguelike, in case I make a certain niche of fans very angry. However, it has some elements in common – a purist dungeon-crawling experience, with each level having randomly generated floorplans, loot and monsters. It took those features and added them to modern (in 1996) graphics and real -ime action. It was faster paced than the roguelikes but also more forgiving; a game for the masses to enjoy instead of a dedicated few.

You choose from three playable heroes. The warrior is the strongest with a sword or other melee weapon, and his high strength means he can equip heavy armour, but he’s lousy at magic. The Wizard is the other way around; high intellect means access to the best spells, and high mana means he can keep casting, but physically he’s just ineffectually batting at stuff with his staff. The Rogue is kind of in between, although also good with a bow.

Welcome to Tristram, on the edge of a portal to hell.

Welcome to Tristram, on the edge of a portal to hell.

Regarding magic, all three draw from to the same common set of magic spells, which includes various forms of fire and lightning, also healing and a few utilities like a short range teleport (good for getting out of trouble). Spells are found in tomes, readable if your intellect stat is high enough. The first tome grants access to the spell, each successive on of that same type raises the spell by a power level.

Nowadays we’re used to each character having their own unique set of skills. I think a key advancement the brought to the genre was giving warriors, and other physical combat types, their own toolkit of special attacks, just as varied as wizards spells. So in Diablo 2 or 3 you get attacks like “jumping slash”, “vengeance strike”, possibly “AXE MURDER WINDMILL”. These can give him a speed boost, or increase damage of the next strike, or increase critical hit strike. The Diablo 1 warrior however, just has his “swing sword” attack, or limited, crappy access to wizard spells. Not that he’s underpowered – he merely has less options, because in those old days options required magic.

As well as variety, modern talent systems have added much of the long-term appeal for action-RPGs. You can spend hours on forums looking up optimum builds for your Diablo 3 Wizard or Demon Hunter, figuring out which abilities complement each other, or if you want to focus on particular factors like critical hit chance. That’s ultimately what the game is all about for dedicated fans, constantly tuning their heroes for maximum damage output. Diablo doesn’t have any such sort of detailed system, so there’s not so much in the way of choices for developing your hero, or that urge to come back and try new builds.

Even with its more simple mechanisms, though, I recall Diablo being pretty addictive back in the day. In the 90s, I was happily playing till late at night, enjoying what seemed like slickly implemented, enormously entertaining carnage. Goat men fall over, groaning. Demons combusted into flame. Those invisible lurker things collapse with an gross noise. It could be enormously satisfying to lay waste to a chambers full of monsters.

Part of the appeal was the looting system, seeing what all these nasties might drop. You’ll see plenty of basic weapons and armour, swords and hauberks etc, the sort of thing we now call vendor trash. Items with a blue-name however have magic properties – enhanced damage, a boost to intellect and so on. These are randomly generated  – the game picks bonuses out of a big list every time one drops. Then there are rare items, even more powerful. These have pre-set properites, although when, or even if, you see one is again random. It’s a system that’s endured, and become more elborate through aRPGs, and also can be seen in World of Warcraft.

Eventually your bags will be full so you cast a town portal to go back to Tristram. Here you get the standard RPG facilities – sell unwanted loot, buy spell books and scrolls, maybe buy weapons if the blacksmith has anything interesting in stock. You can also get equipment repaired; it otherwise wears down until it breaks and becomes unusable, another aspect that has endured in blizzard’s games. NPCs standing around will offer (very basic) quests, or talk about recent events around Tristram, or just gossip about each other.

You’ll also meet Deckard Cain, the old chap who became a kind of mascot for the series, being the only character (beyond Diablo himself) to appear in all the games so far. He’s knowledgeable about the demonic powers you are facing, and also is doing some kind of bad Sean Connery accent. I found listening to his tales, and those of the other villagers, helped fill in the background to why you’re here and where the demons come from. It’s all totally optional though, feel free to click to shut them up and return to the fighting.

Don't let them surround you!

Don’t let them surround you!

Kill enough stuff and you go up a level. Here you get a chance to scatter a few points into your core stats, and that’s the one bit where the game requires a small amount of thought. Although there are only a handful of stats and you should have figured out there’s no point in giving intellect to a warrior. Well, I may not have figured that out at first. It took me a while to get the hang of RPG min\maxing. I gave him a few points just in case… I’m not sure. In case he had to do a difficult crossword puzzle?.

Once more annoyance though – movement speed is set at brisk-walk, for some reason. Which is fine if monsters are running at you. Enemies with a ranged attack, however, will try and keep their distance. So they can be a pain in the ass if not using a sword or bow yourself. Sorry, warrior! This was never a game-breaker, just a matter of grumbling god damn it as I plodded towards retreating goat-men until they hit a wall.

The layout of the game is entirely based around one that one big, multi-level dungeon under the church. There are sixteen floors in total, the layout of which is each randomly generated, so you get something slighty different on each play through. It’s a different approach to the sequels, which kept the random element but use mix multiple locations, both overground and interior, spread around three or four towns. So it’s a smaller game in total, and one built mostly out of crypts and caves.

In some ways, Diablo’s tighter focus on one location gives is own sort of appeal, distinct from the sequels. It’s closer to those dungeon crawlers of old. It also pushes a dark and creepy atmosphere, a sense of dread as you venture into the catacombs. The soundtrack helps a lot; right from the quietly ominous music on the title screens. Then you have Tristram, eternally shrouded in twilight with its beautiful but haunting spanish guitar theme. The lights of the inn look welcoming but nope, you’ve got to step into that gloomy church and see what lies within. That gothic horror vibe is something the later games never quite recaptured; they’re bigger in scale, more epic, but also no-one dungeon they present is ever quite so ominous.

On the other hand, after a few hours play it all starts to feel a bit limited and repetitive. The stone chambers and caves quickly become samey, and after about 12 levels you might just wish for a totally different location. The sequel’s total chance of location and colour scheme yfor each act was quite welcome. I was also disappointed to find here, even the very first time I played, that there was nowhere to explore on the surface. I’m sure the game could have kept to its dark themes and still found a way to vary the locations a bit. Give us the ruins of a once-grand palace, or a spooky forest, or something along those lines.

With a wealth of action-rpgs out there nowadays, all benefiting from the ways the genre has progressed, Diablo is definitely primitive overall in comparison. We expect more content, lots of bossses to fight, more high-tier weapons for your character to discover. We want prettier graphics, for sure, and more locations, more varied backdrops for all the monster-slaying. We like to tinker with combinations of spells and abilities for our heroes. We also rather enjoy ability to actually move faster than marching pace.

diablo4bStill, we should recognise that Diablo deserved its success in 1996. In a fairly stagnant time for PC RPGs, it was something new and exciting. I’ve mentioned the simple mechanics, visceral combat and the eternal quest for loot that kept you hooked. You’d want to play just a bit more, just another half an hour to see if you found a new sword, or to raise your hero a level. I should also point out the mouse-driven interface was fairly novel at the time. Then there were the multiplayer options. In those early days of internet gaming, when everything was still a bit clunky the Battle.net service was wonderfully slick and convenient. It allowed people around the world to dial into Blizzard’s own servers to play either with friends or random gamers.

For a final note, I was pondering whether or not I’d rather play this than Diablo 2, itself now well over a decade old. It’s a not a question with an immediately obvious answer. When I first wrote here I called D2 the superior game, and my opinion hasn’t changed. However Diablo 2 is also very similar to Diablo 3, except that D3 was an all-round further improvement, the result of steady evolution (the ability to freely change abilities is very welcome). So if I want that sort of game, why not just play D3? The original, for all its limitations, stands out just for being a different sort of experience. It’s the dark and subterranean ancestor, a first attempt hunting through old fashioned square -roomed dungeons, before some of the modern mechanics were figured out.  I doubt I’ll ever again play it at great length, but, it’s still something  on which I could still enjoy wasting an evening or two.