Though others came before it, 1997’s Diablo redefined and became the exemplar of the Action Role-Playing Game (ARPG) genre. ARPGs are notable in that they focus the gameplay around combat and character power while tending to downplay or deemphasize narrative choice. Rather than immerse yourself in a world of grand adventure and deep interpersonal relationships, the ARGP allows the player to revel in the power they accumulate throughout the game.
The original Diablo came out my sophomore year of college, and it was all my friends and I played for a stretch. A close friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, nearly failed out of school because they played the game instead of going to class. That should give you an idea how big a deal the game was back then. (Note: This is not one of those instances where someone cheekily refers to themselves as “a friend” when asking for advice or recounting an anecdote; it really wasn’t me.)
In the decades since, Diablo has had two sequels, with a third on the way as of this writing, plus several expansions and a remastered edition. The basic idea is the same: you are a fledgling hero in a bleak world beset by demons and undead, plus beastly monsters and the humans that have allied with them out of fear, weakness of will, or lust for power. With scant allies and the forces of Hell itself arrayed against you, the only path to victory is to amass incredible power and take it on, head-to-head.
Whereas a typical RPG may reward diplomacy, cleverness, or personal growth, Diablo allows you to choose what kind of ass-kicking murder machine you’d like to embody. Axes, bows, or spells are viable options; five friends setting out on a journey together is not.
At the time it came out, Diablo was revolutionary. The isometric camera angle, paper doll equipment system, and point-and-click combat combined for a unique gameplay experience. But what really set it apart was the mood.
Diablo, as a franchise, prides itself on a dark and brooding atmosphere. Desecrated holy sites and corrupted priests abound as evil grinds hope to dust across the land. Darkness closes in around you underground. You wade through sites of occult rituals and massacres, flee flesh-craving undead, and bear witness to the aftermath of fates worse than death. The second installment in the series doubled down on this and became one of the most popular games of its era. When Diablo 3 rolled in, the developers polished things up a little, added more levity, and gave players a sidekick.
It was the least popular of the bunch.
Diablo 3 had polished gameplay, crisp graphics, and endless character growth. But it also felt more like a power fantasy a la God of War than the grim, determined slog against evil of the first two games (and had a pay-to-win real money auction house that sullied the launch before eventually getting shut down). It wasn’t that Diablo 3 was a bad game (though some do argue it was) but that it wasn’t a Diablo game at all anymore.
With Diablo 4 around the corner, the developers have gone out of their way to assure gamers that while they’re making a modern AAA title, it will reclaim that gothic horror atmosphere that made Diablo the go-to series for action horror RPGs.
I’ve played all the other Diablo games so far (minus the mobile version that I’m pretending doesn’t exist), so I’ll probably give this one a try too, though with less gusto than I’ve taken into previous editions. I’m hoping it pleasantly surprises me, though. It would be great to see them revitalize the universe that practically defined my college gaming experience while applying the amazing advancements the game industry has seen since then.
What about you? Do you have particularly high or low expectations for Diablo 4? Leave a comment to share your predictions! Remember to keep comments respectful and constructive, no matter what you’re expecting.