What a fun new year treat for Diablo players. This week's update, The Darkening of Tristram, adds a 16-tier dungeon that celebrates the series' origins with familiar old bosses, new items and a clever old-school visual filter.
The change of appearance is stark. The new dungeon and the surrounding fields are rendered in big pixels and the colour palette has been adjusted to closer match the grey graveyard hues of Diablo 1—Tristram's Darkening is a literal one. Once you've passed through the pixellated portal in old Tristram, movement and combat animations are displayed at lower framerates. The withered trees even have the appearance of 2D sprites to create a parallax scroll feel as you move around.
It's beautifully done, and it's an interesting attempt to reconnect with a game that today seems curiously out of reach. Blizzard says it scoured old community wikis for ideas and detailed information about Diablo 1 to build the Darkening of Tristram. Strange that this formative classic is partially lost to time, to the extent that it needs to be excavated from player memories recorded in online archives.
This, combined with the bleary low-fi look of the place, gives the Darkening of Tristram a spectral quality, as though the spirit of Diablo past is visiting, but in a changed form. The update is as much a Diablo 3 de-make as a Diablo 1 remake. The dungeon's environments are remixed from Diablo 3 tilesets. The enemies become more hellish as you plunge towards the Dark Lord's chamber, which is a nice touch, but they are familiar Diablo 3 enemies. Only the bosses are new, sort of. The Skeleton King, Butcher and Diablo all received makeovers in Diablo 3 and they're back in their old guises complete with predictable attack patterns and old-fashioned sound effects.
It's a great little update—an elaborate nostalgic exercise with just enough secrets and new items to make it feel worthwhile for the four-ish hour time investment. It's a particularly good way to start a new character. The high volume of enemies in the dungeon let you sustain long kill-chains, which dump huge amounts of XP into your levelling bar. Your character will be exploding two or three times per dungeon tier, and the stream of new skills and rune modifiers helps to mitigate the sameness of the mid-to-lower sections of the dungeon.
It is worth scouring every corner of each level to find the small side-dungeons mentioned in the Darkening of Tristram's achievements list, though they can feel anticlimactic. I enjoyed destroying the huge mobs of skellies in the hall of bones but there was little material reward—possibly a quirk of drop rate RNG. In the halls of the blind, my level 70 Crusader found the Butcher's cleaver in a resplendent chest. It is a huge weapon still inhabited by the spirit of the classic Diablo boss. It roars with every swing.
For all its qualities, The Darkening of Tristram is a fitting update for a game that has slid into a rut. The announcement of a new class is welcome—a new suite of abilities is a great way to refresh the entire game for those of us that have a full suite of level 70 heroes. But even as Diablo 3 expands this year it reaches into the past to resurrect the fabled Necromancer. Bone spikes; corpse explosions; hordes of skeletons—they were great in Diablo 2 and they will probably be fun in Diablo 3, but even as season 9 launches today, I'm craving something new.
It has been years since we vanquished Malthael. Are there more prime evils to face? Will Diablo 3 introduce a series first and add a sixth act? If and when the next phase of the Diablo project arrives, will it be in the form of something we haven't yet seen, or another pixellated portal reaching into Diablo's past?