Diablo 4's first season has the vibe it should've had from the start

Diablo 4's Cormund with allies in the background and demons in the foreground
(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

In Diablo 4's first season, I didn't choose the dog walker class; it chose me. I have three ferocious wolves on a leash and a tendency to go feral myself. I hadn't even leveled up enough to reach the wolves in the Druid skill tree before I picked up a gem that gave me three whole ranks in it for free. Apart from the recent patch and some bugs, the Season of the Malignant has exactly the kind of ridiculous vibe Diablo 4 should've had when it launched.

The balance patch that came along with Season 1 is its own story. Nobody is happy with it. Not even Blizzard, which promised to never do a patch like it ever again. The sweeping reductions to player damage and survivability are the kind of drastic changes that would go over a lot better if they were made right at launch. You can't give out a bunch of toys and then smash almost every single one of them apart without people getting furious—and rightfully so.

No matter how necessary the patch was to prepare for the Season of the Malignant and beyond, Blizzard absolutely has to do this better for future seasons to matter. It's a shame the patch had to be like this because Season 1 takes important steps toward making you actually feel powerful in Diablo 4.

Your first quest in Season 1 teaches you how its new items, Malignant Hearts, work. These gems give bonuses on the level of a Legendary item. I lucked out and grabbed a perfect roll on a Moonrage gem that gives any kill a small chance to summon a wolf by my side and three ranks to the skill. Although I had no intentions of playing a Druid with furry friends, I am now playing a Druid with furry friends—and it kind of rules, especially coming from my Necromancer with her pitiful minions. I've already started to tweak my skill points to support the Malignant Heart I got and I'm not even level 25 yet.

My Druid is able to bash her way through a room like an unshowered Cesar Milan shaking a bag of treats and watching as the wolves show up. It's a lot like playing a Hunter in World of Warcraft where my pets can take care of things while I'm busy. If there's a tough boss or elite enemy, I can face it while my puppies chew through their friends. And those nasty little exploding demons are a lot easier to handle when they've been taken care of off-screen.

Power playground 

(Image credit: Tyler C. / Activision Blizzard)

These powers help alleviate the pain of trudging through Diablo 4's normal mode. Diablo 4's regular mode, the Eternal Realm, is an agonizingly slow-build type of game. New gear and new abilities come fast in the first several hours, but eventually the fireworks die out. Settling into a build by level 30 and spending the next 70 levels refining it has never been my favorite way to play these sorts of games. I love experimenting with other skills and ways to play. Diablo 4 classes are a buffet of tasty ideas and I want to try all of them, regardless of their endgame viability.

It's a relief to see how little restrictions there are on items with this much power.

The Malignant Hearts system jumpstarts the fun and gives you absurd options that simply wouldn't work in a game that is so desperate to prepare you for the endgame by nudging you into one build. Druid companion builds, according to the most hardcore Diablo theorycrafters, aren't viable, but I'd like to see them stop me. I'll be embracing my wolf children until I find a better heart to use.

It's a relief to see how little restrictions there are on items with this much power. You can loot the hearts off of corrupted enemies in Malignant Tunnels—a new type of dungeon—or craft them from the materials you get from salvaging the ones you don't need. You can even craft invokers which allow you to spawn a monster that will drop a specific category of Malignant Heart, which I'm sure will be vital once you settle into a build deeper into the game. The season is raining hearts and, other than my cramped inventory, it's a promising sign that Blizzard isn't afraid of giving you Diablo 3-levels of power as soon as you log in.

In my future, I can look forward to the Unconstrained Beast heart in World Tier 4, which will let my Druid simply refuse to be stunned, frozen, or knocked down half of the time and turn into a bear instead—a crucial trait for endgame dungeons. Some hearts hook right into builds players have been using since Diablo 4's launch, but others seem to create new ones all on their own. There's a Necromancer-specific heart that causes corpses to automatically use one of your Corpse skills. Players have already found a way to make it use Corpse Explosion so consistently that, in some close-range fights, your character will play itself.

The sheer power of the hearts might wear off as you climb through the World Tiers and increase the difficulty of the game. That's where you really do need to choose a proven build and stick with it. But they present extremely creative ideas for how all of Diablo 4's classes can be amplified in a way that encourages you to learn how they work and learn what you like about them. And you get to feel super powerful while doing it.

Diablo 4's first season is what the normal game should have felt like. It frankly sucks that to even play with the Malignant Hearts you have to complete the campaign first. Diablo shouldn't be about eating your vegetables so that Blizzard can painstakingly establish the most boring version of Sanctuary to date; it should be about crushing demons with the most ridiculous powers you can come up with in a world that celebrates that from the start. At least we're finally getting some dessert.

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.