Game Name:  Diablo
Developer:  Blizzard North
Publisher:  Blizzard Entertainment
PC Release Year:  1996
Review Date:  July 28, 2013

Thinking back on my past, the major phases on my journey to adulthood were always accompanied by one quintessential video game that defined the age.  It was the go-to pastime when nothing else was going on and the way to blow off steam when family, friends, school, work, or girls had me in a knot.  In the second half of high school, the reigning champion was Diablo II.  Dark and moody in nature, it channeled all of that teenage angst well and kept my mind busy as I worked out mathematical equations to better understand the game’s mechanics.  Considering the mileage that my friends and I got out of the franchise’s second title, there was always a bit of curiosity about how the first game played.  Years later, three of us sat down together to give it a try before quickly giving up because of the title’s slower pace.  This was a mistake.  While there are newer titles that have improved upon the action RPG formula which keep me from giving my overall endorsement, there is a pleasant experience awaiting fans of the genre who boot this up.

For those unfamiliar with the Diablo lore, it is one of the best reasons to play the series.  Where Warcraft has Azeroth, this franchise has Sanctuary and in typical Blizzard fashion, they built a whole new world instead of a simple backstory.  While both rely heavily on a medieval time period with an allowance for magic and spellcasting, Diablo departs from the other fantasy tropes by introducing religion into the mix.  Sanctuary is not beset by elves and orcs you see, but angels and demons.  Borrowing heavily from Christian themes, the heavenly and hellish hosts are locked in eternal combat and wage their battles amidst the humans who are used as pawns in their struggle.  Unlike our own world where this conflict is spiritual for believers, Sanctuary is ripped apart into very real battlegrounds as the armies of hell invade the mortal plane of existence.

Tristram is the focal point of this war in the first chapter of the Diablo series.  As you use the small European-style town as your base of operations, the sad tale of the region is told through a series of excellently voiced conversations with the few remaining townsfolk.  The kingdom of Khanduras is ultimately without a king, a prince, or a religious leader.  The Archbishop Lazarus, having forsaken the light, has released the essence of a great and terrible demon named Diablo beneath the town’s monastery.  This demon tried to possess the benevolent King Leoric, and while the king was strong enough to reject the hellish influence, the encounter drove him mad and led him to commit unspeakable horrors on his subjects.  When the king’s knights rose up and killed their liege lord as a means of defending the people, Lazarus used the opportunity to kidnap young Prince Albrecht and take him deep beneath the monastery to be used as a vessel for Diablo’s physical rebirth.

Given this backdrop, Diablo carries with it an appropriately foreboding vibe that is enhanced by sound and video design.  While the audio effects are absolutely top notch and are both clear and distinguishable, it is really the music that drives the experience even today.  A wonderful instrumental soundtrack lets you know whether or not you are safe based on the thematic elements at play, with calming acoustic guitar riffs above ground and imposing percussion beats below.  The visuals are rough by modern standards, as the native resolution is far too low to keep from being stretched on large monitors and the game predated reliable 3D models so sprites were used instead.  Despite this, monsters are well thought out and appropriately grotesque, while the environments provide a dark and gloomy atmosphere where all hope seems lost.

It is into this world that the gamer appears and thankfully, since Diablo is the grandfather of the action RPG genre, it is a place that will be familiar to anyone who has tried Titan Quest, Dungeon Siege, Torchlight, or Path of Exile.  The player’s first action is to choose one of three archetypal heroes as their avatar.  The warrior is the master of melee combat and he uses his heavy armor to help absorb damage.  The rogue specializes in the use of a bow and dances at range while peppering her enemies with arrows.  The mage is the master of magic and can conjure all sorts of diabolical spells to vanquish his foes.  Whichever character you choose will ultimately be turned into your very own superhero throughout the game, as you quickly kill monsters to fill up your experience meter.  With more experience comes a higher character level, which leads to higher character stats, which means better gear, which gives you the ability to take on more difficult enemies.  As this formula has been adopted by many games over the last 16 years, it is instantly recognizable and easy to embrace.

While Diablo’s core gameplay may be solid, what is harder to embrace are some of the now rudimentary mechanics and outdated design choices.  The simplest of these is that there is no way for your character to run, so the pace of game seems unreasonably slow.  One of the more frustrating is there is no way to see the loot from a monster kill unless you mouse over it, so you are forced to stop and search around when you hear the sound of an item drop.  Then, there is the fact that gold is a physical object so it takes up much of your valuable inventory space as the game nears completion.  You will find no bank or footlocker in town, so you are forced to sell all but the most essential of gear.  When your gear is damaged and you must seek the blacksmith for help, there is no way to repair everything at once.  Stat diversity on gear is extremely limited, so there is very little choice that goes into how you outfit your character.  There is also a problem with the story frequently outpacing your character’s level, so you are forced to restart a fresh game with new monsters so as not to hit a progression wall.  Finally, when you do enter a new game, there is no travel system to quickly return you to a place in the labyrinth that will yield experience for your character.

These frustrations pale in comparison to the major issue with Diablo’s character system, which is there is absolutely nothing unique about the three classes except for their initial statistics and the cap on those attributes.  All magical spells are trainable by everyone, so there is nothing to separate how one class plays from another.  The problem with this is that all spells are designed with the mage in mind, unlike later actions RPGs which introduced melee and ranged abilities for the non-magic players.  The end result of this is a system where a warrior or rogue is simply auto-attacking through the majority of the game, which takes a lot of the tactics and fun out of engagements with the ghoulish hordes.

In the end, I am a fan of action RPGs so I enjoyed my time with the title despite its many flaws.  The reality is, if you only plan on doing one playthrough, you are unlikely to be turned off by the homogenous book of spells and overly repetitive combat.  This would at least give you the chance to experience the wonderfully scary and unique world of Sanctuary.  Ultimately though, you can get a similar experience from the later games in the franchise without experiencing quite as many flaws.  Because of this, I cannot in good conscience recommend Diablo to anyone but the biggest fans of the franchise or genre.

Verdict:  Not Recommended