With a vastly improved narrative deep lore fiends will find lots to enjoy in this tightly presented ARPG from the masters of the genre.
Lilith, daughter of the Prime evil of Hatred, Queen of the Succubi, former lover of the archangel Inarius and mother of humanity has entered the mortal lands of Sanctuary. It’s been decades since the events of Diablo III: Reaper of Souls and humanity has been ravaged by death cults, poverty and political instability - of both the mortal and planar variety.
This is the setting for Diablo IV, the latest game in Blizzard’s massively successful ARPG franchise. It’s also a dramatic reboot for the series - a course correction for Diablo’s story, tone and aesthetic as well as a move into a fully fledged live-service model.
Diablo IV is a game that remains in constant conversation with its past while attempting to keep one cloven hoof firmly planted in the future. The looming shadow Diablo II (and the lukewarm response to Diablo III) is so ever present that you’ll be asking yourself if the series can ever shake off the shackles of its past.
Does it succeed? That’s a question that’s too early to answer in its entirety. My time with the preview release was limited - I was unable to reach level cap and experience all the endgame systems and we still don’t know much about how seasonal content will roll out for Diablo IV in the months after its launch.
What I did get to properly explore were the game’s story campaign in full as well as much of the sprawling open world, side missions and the many dungeons and activities to complete across Sanctuary.
Diablo IV is a distinctly darker game than its immediate predecessor. Drawing on the grim art of master painters of the 1800s (think Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son), this is a land of gorgeous painterly tones meshed alongside torn apart corpses and mutilated bodies.
The Sanctuary of Diablo IV is in perpetual decline - Dark Age that has left its people living in scattered far-flung villages barely eking out an existence under the yoke of both the superstitions of the Church of light and literal manifestation of demonic entities that blight the land.
It's here that Diablo IV attempts to pull itself into two directions. It is one-half supernatural blockbuster; filled with flaming demons; unholy enemies and a massive body count of innocents caught in the crossfire. The other-half is a muted character study of those that fight or perpetuate unspeakable evil. A smaller scale tale of witch hunts, Church Inquisitors, Middle Ages poverty and the rag-tag group of unlikely companions who work together to try and avert a demonic plot.
Diablo aches to be a high camp horror fantasy; to revel in blood and guts like an 80s slasher or revel in the grotesquery of cinematic classics like Hellraiser. There are glorious rip-and-tear boss battles here that yearn for the bombastic, metal soundtrack that makes Doom Guy’s glorious gut-ripping combat come to life. There were multiple moments where I hoped the main character would start quipping like Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 4.
Come on Diablo, lean into the spectacle - I'm fighting a flaming demon from the bowels of hell who is riding a multi headed demon-beast with far too many mouths. He’s trying to slap me with a fiery chain while cackling maniacally. Let’s Gooooooooo!
Lilith, thankfully, leans in. Diablo IV’s villain is a scene-stealer. At first I was worried - Blizzard have a bad track record when it comes to writing non-male characters in their games.
Lilith however feels like a breath of fresh air. Her goals are more multi-dimensional than previous Diablo antagonists and she oddly fits both the high-camp horror of the game at its most absurd and its more softer, character driven moments.
Her ultimate goals and what she has planned is the core hook in Diablo IV's narrative, and it works well to propel you to complete the game's campaign.
RIP AND TEAR (WITH A LOT OF MOUSE CLICKS)
Diablo IV’s game feel is exceptional. Blizzard had mastered the weighty, impactful combat of a good ARPG experience with Diablo III, and they further build and refine on it here.
Attacks have heft and weight to them. Spell effects are spectacular. Monsters crackle and fry up when hit with fire, they bubble and boil under debilitating poison fields and shatter and splinter into a gorey mess when hit by ice.
Each of Diablo IV’s five character classes feels distinct in their vision and play-feel. The rogue zips through the battlefield with a variety of teleports and dashes available at their disposal. It is a fast, nimble class, with a mix of ranged bow and dual-weapon melee skills. You’ll feel fragile, but lethal.
It’s in strong contrast with the beefy, sluggish druid. A jack-of-all-trades character who can shift into a hefty, werebear form - mauling enemies and shrugging off large chunks of damage that would wipe out weaker classes. Even the druid’s spellcasting feels chonky - wading into the frontlines to whip up swirling tornadoes or raising their staff high in the air to summon a crackling thunderstorm at their foes. The druid is not a backline glass cannon, it's a frontline force of nature.
It all just feels good. There’s a great mix of spells and abilities across the five classes here. Changing your ability points around so you can experiment with your skills is easy and cheap to do while you’re levelling up and is greatly encouraged by the itemization and loot system.
Bosses and set-piece battles have had a big re-design in Diablo IV too. Most end-dungeon bosses and important story fights will have multiple phases, elaborately telegraphed attacks and require you to actively dodge and avoid spells and abilities flying around combat arenas. Healing can be limited in these encounters, and you’ll need to be on your toes in higher difficulties and actively work to mitigate damage while dishing out as much as you can.
Itemization in the early game revolves around legendary modifiers - powers that appear on rare loot drops that can dramatically change how your abilities work. Legendary powers are also rewarded for completing the game’s many dungeons, allowing you to imprint and create your own legendary items and customise your build further. One particularly impactful power for my rogue saw their twisting blades skill - a chunky, dual wield dagger stab - receive a buff where daggers would rotate around the rogue blasting any nearby enemy with risidual aoe damage after each use. It was a huge power boost during leveling and changed up my playstyle considerably.
How this system will come together in the end-game was something I didn’t get to experience within the scope of my review time; but it’s a great evolution of Diablo 3’s existing legendary system and being able to customise and collect legendary powers from dungeons and activities provided a great incentive to get out and explore the world.
LOTS OF THINGS TO SEE AND KILL
Diablo IV’s open world environments are filled to the brim with things to do. At times it has the energy of an MMO-theme park. World events will bubble up around you; enticing you to slay random enemies, summon minibosses or team up with other players to take down more challenging threats.
Rewards are at the heart of encouraging you to explore. Tiny alters to Lilith are hidden throughout the sanctuary, offering permanent stat boosts to your characters when activated. Each zone in the game has a ‘renown’ system attached to it. Completing its dungeons, solving its side-quests and finding its many secrets will reward you with gold, experience and more skill points to use in your talent tree.
It’s a massive open world - but Blizzard’s skill at level-design within the MMO genre comes to the fore here. Every few steps a new quest-giver may pop up, helping guide you towards a new dungeon or miserable rundown outpost. Each tiny town off the beaten path is a chance to get lost in multiple quests, from simple collectathons to longer-character driven stories that stretch across multiple zones.
Strongholds provide another challenge well worth the time investment. These can take the form of corrupted villages or enemy encampments and each has a unique interactive quest to complete, culminating with a boss battle. Complete the stronghold and you’ll liberate the location; turning it into a friendly outpost and opening up a new fast travel point and possible quest hub. Strongholds, along with the games dungeons, make great locations to form parties for co-op play.
Dungeon hunting is a linear experience - there are dozens of dungeons strewn about Sanctuary. There’s grimy ancient caverns, blood filled caverns, enemy forts, caves and haunted forests. Most dungeons follow a standard format - complete an initial early goal (defeat all the enemies, find and deliver a key/item to a locked door) to get to the second half of the dungeon. Complete another mini-goal here and you’ll be funnelled into the final boss encounter - a big multi-phase boss fight.
Dungeon Hunting will also form the backbone of Diablo IV’s end-game - with later difficulties opening up Nightmare Dungeons that’ll add modifiers and new challenges to deal with when you’re clearing your way through them.
It’s hard to say if the dungeon-clearing will grow stale over time - there’s only so many times you can clean out all the enemies from Dead Man’s Dredge before it begins to get stale.
Only time can tell if the seasonal story and end-game progression model for Diablo IV will pay off, or stagnate for those hungry for their next forever game.
Either way, Diablo IV offers a strong opening impression. It has a rich, detailed story campaign, filled with spectacle and gore.
Its combat and game-feel is so satisfying.
The classes feel distinct and play quite differently from each other.
It feels so good to burst down screens of demons with spells and swords.
A copy of DIABLO IV on PC was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.