Diablo 4 convinced me that skill trees rule, actually

Diablo 4 Rogue character
(Image credit: Tyler C. / Activision Blizzard)

Skill trees are easy to make fun of because nobody can seriously insist there's a thrill in having 3% extra critical strike chance on your fire bolt. Incremental progress was the way of the classic RPG: you level up, you gain points, and you spend them on skills that slightly increase your power. Do that enough times and the numeric increases add up to something that actually has an impact. But in the short term, skill trees were only ever an illusion of meaningful choice.

Diablo 4's skill tree is the modern solution to an age-old problem. It includes loads of incremental upgrades, but they sit at the end of their own branches for each major skill. And it doesn't require that many points to dig deeper into your class tree, which encourages you to focus on the skills that mean the most to you. 

The Sorceress' fire bolt is a burning projectile that hits enemies for a small amount of damage and then sets them on fire for ticking damage. Fire bolt can take up to five total points, each slightly increasing its damage. But with only one point, you can take its first upgrade that causes your fire bolts to pass through already-burning enemies, transforming it from a single-target spell to a multi-target one. You could stop there and move onto other more substantial upgrades, but you can also invest another point to squeeze a little more out of it. Fire bolt can give you back two mana for hitting burning enemies or get a flat increase to its burning damage—and you can only pick one.

By frontloading the most impactful traits, Diablo 4's skill tree forms the core of your character. A Sorceress who doubles down on fire bolt will play vastly different than one who chose frost bolt, and both of them will be different from one that dabbles in all of the core skills. Efficiency chasers will scoff at someone playing a witch-of-all-trades, but the skill tree is designed to be flexible. You can refund points in it for a small amount of gold at any time, and sometimes you don't even have to spend any points to get the benefits of a skill.

Rare and legendary loot in Diablo 4 can add points to a particular skill for free, and it can be a godsend if you're struggling to find a strong loop of abilities to use. Try playing a Rogue or Barbarian in the beta and then compare that to a Sorceress. Rogues and Barbarians have to dodge-roll, kite, and stack abilities for maximum damage on bosses while Sorceresses can just stand still and Chain Lightning until loot hits the floor. I was about to ditch my Rogue until I picked up some legendary boots that gave me a rank in all of the imbuement skills. With one piece of gear, my rogue could compete with the AFK wizards.

The boots gave me access to Shadow Imbuement, which causes your next two imbueable attacks to deal shadow damage and make enemies explode when they die. I reset my skill points and dropped everything into Penetrating Shot, a core skill that sends an arrow through several enemies at once. A shadow-kissed Penetrating Shot combined with the ability to dash through enemies and make them vulnerable was like playing a Rogue with a shotgun. I'd gather a trail of enemies, pop Shadow Imbuement, and send them into the sequel to hell.


Diablo 4 Sorceress skill tree

(Image credit: Tyler C. / Activision Blizzard)

I brought up the skill tree almost as much as I brought up the map.

The Diablo 4 beta only lets you hit level 25 out of the final game's level 100 cap, but there were several times on both my Rogue and Sorceress where something as simple as a pair of boots sparked an entirely new build. And each time I made the swap, the results mattered. My Sorceress still has a pair of boots that give her a free rank of Teleport and an aspect that gives her increased movement speed right after. I went full glass cannon and one piece of gear made me into just a cannon—at least until something better comes along.

The skill tree works because it's immensely adaptable, and the game constantly offers you reasons to mess with it. When you're in between powerful items, you can go as deep as you'd like on your favorite skills. But once you pick up a nice rare or legendary item that grants you the most impactful rank of a new skill, you can safely swap points to the smaller upgrades and not feel like you're downgrading your build.

None of this would matter if most of the skills were tiny percentage upgrades. I loved Diablo 3's Skill Rune system where you modified abilities on the fly, but Diablo 4 convinced me that you can have both. I'll gladly choose a 3% critical strike chance on Fire Bolt if the fire bolt was free. It's tasty frosting on an already delicious cake. And plenty of skills synergize with the effects—not the exact damage—of abilities, so you can simply skip those skills if they don't meaningfully change your rotation. Class mechanics, like the passive skill bonuses from the Sorceress' Enchantment system, strengthen the skill tree too.

Diablo 4 Sorceress legendary item

(Image credit: Tyler C. / Activision Blizzard)

I spent an embarrassing amount of time tinkering with my skills to prepare for each trip out into the open world or into one of Diablo 4's many dungeons. I brought up the skill tree almost as much as I brought up the map. Once I got comfortable with my class' core and basic skills, I could piece together builds in my head and test them out for a fight or two. Some worked well, and others didn't. But the ability to quickly experiment changed how I approached the whole game.

Diablo 4's skill trees could have been a supplemental tool for small bonuses largely applicable to min-maxers, but instead they're an entire canvas for the most creative builds you can put together. They capture the spirit of the series: expressing your style of play through the language of your class and gear. I'm sorry future action RPGs, Diablo 4 now has the skill tree to beat.

Associate Editor

Tyler has covered games, games culture, and hardware for over a decade before joining PC Gamer as Associate Editor. He's done in-depth reporting on communities and games as well as criticism for sites like Polygon, Wired, and Waypoint. He's interested in the weird and the fascinating when it comes to games, spending time probing for stories and talking to the people involved. Tyler loves sinking into games like Final Fantasy 14, Overwatch, and Dark Souls to see what makes them tick and pluck out the parts worth talking about. His goal is to talk about games the way they are: broken, beautiful, and bizarre.