When I looked at the trailers for Diablo IV, the latest edition of the ground-breaking Blizzard series that began in 1996, I was worried. Traditionally, this role playing game is seen from a birdseye perspective that’s isometric. In the medieval world of Sanctuary, you peer down on werewolves, skeletons and monsters that attack during a perilous journey outside the odd towns, bars and churches. But the trailers I’d seen added story through realistic, non-playable cutscenes.
When I began, the opening scenes unfolded for many minutes, more like a movie than a game. A group of fighters flee fast moving enemies. One dies in an ugly way. Then, a man of color who seems to be a captured prisoner casts magic to open a stone door. It all gets heavier, creepier, as the three fighters are lifted high into the rafters, hanging upside down as their gushing blood forms an occult triangle. They have summoned Lilith, a massive, horned creature who hails from a Hell as gruesome as anything Dante has written.
All this took too long to play out. While I enjoy game narrative more than most, these scenes had the potential of taking me out of Diablo IV’s play. But while these scenes don’t move seamlessly from story to game, Blizzard has added more than enough new bells and whistles to keep it from being a problem. That results in not only wanting to play. It makes players need to.
Diablo IV is shocking. Each series installment has been surprising. But this one is very disturbing. First, you don’t know who to believe. You enter a town, and after helping a friendly stranger rid the area of giant bears, wolves and a gross entity, you imbibe with the happy campers. But they’ve drugged you and one wheels you on a stretcher to a Sweeney Todd-like butcher to chop you up. You’re actually saved by someone you thought was insane, but he’s not—the plot twists are many.
Then, in one of those cut scenes, a priest is brutally beaten in a small church. Lilith appears to hypnotize the villagers into this darkly murderous action. You’re not spared the grossness.
This expansive game which allows for numerous upgrades in weapons, clothing and abilities, and its story touches on themes of life, trust and loss. But what struck me most was how the developers deal with religion and those who rule over religion. The villagers are addicted to the words of leaders, including one named Father Inarius who’s actually an archangel. These tales of heaven and hell can be boiled down to the gruesome, paranoid need for power and its effects on everyday people.
Three things bothered me about Diablo IV: First, before playing, you’re forced to sign up for Battle.net, Blizzard’s online service that allows for multiplayer (which I rarely take part in). Second, instead of moving through the world gradually, you can purchase cosmetic equipment and costuming—some costly—to personalize the way you look. You’re already paying $70 for the game; even though purchasing is a player choice, asking for more money seems gluttonous. Third, on a smaller scale, when I got close to thick walls of a castle or room, I could see through them. That’s not supposed to happen.
Still, there’s the delight of finding upgrades in treasure chests and collecting gold coins from the vanquished, which never gets old. The graphics are so much more polished than those in the 13-year-old Diablo III, that instead of looking at the characters from above and far away, I wanted to zoom in to closely observe their facial expressions or watch monsters as they perish with a mournful growl. You can’t get that close, even when you go to the game’s settings by programming a controller key to zoom in a bit.
Beyond the quibbles, options for customization can seem nearly infinite. Yes, there are standard hairstyles and body types, but there are unique facial tattoos and the option to change your weapon’s color. Of the five character types, I chose to become a female necromancer because it came with the ability to call on four fierce skeletons to help me battle massive monsters with long-reaching hammers. Later, I could add a Golem and even more skeletons.
As I moved from village to village or from environments wintry or swampy to castle-lavish, the cutscenes rife with story generally meshed well with the action—though the dialogue could have been made tighter to get to the plot points and game play more quickly. Other recent games like Horizon: Forbidden West have seen their share of overwriting. It seems at a $70 price point game makers feel writing should be more like Thackeray than Hemingway.
Moving and lightly humorous moments were present, even when dealing with minor, non-playable characters. At one point, Gekov, sweeping his stoop, asks a friend who he wants to suck the life from him: “The vampires in the forest, or the merchants right here in town?” The bitter humor hits home in this age of inflation.
While I’ve focused on how writing meshes with play, players can find similar titillation in the dark music, the tense mood in tulgey forests and simply standing in town and listening to chaotic sounds of labor, conversation and gossip. As you tread through the world, lovers of strategy will find satisfaction in upgrading weapons at the blacksmith, or amulets at the jewelers. Just as Diablo IV is about power and greed, so is your existence as a heroic, wandering combatant.