Diablo 4 has finally been revealed. It's been pitched as dark, gothic, and gloomy. Sometimes a man turns into a big bear and mauls loads of ghouls. Blizzard has responded to fan feedback on Diablo 3's look, and wants everyone to know that Diablo 4 will be serious. Expect skulls. Lots of skulls.
However, the action-RPG landscape has changed since Diablo 3's release. Path of Exile and Grim Dawn have plenty of gothic gloom. We loved the Hellraiser horror of the cinematic trailer at BlizzCon this year, but can the game live up to that promise? Many people welcome this return to Diablo 2's atmosphere but, looking back, was Diablo 2 really that grim, or are we looking through morose-tinted glasses? Is this dark look a facade that conceals an otherwise typical genre-piece with the same looter loops we saw in Diablo 3? Let's discuss.
James Davenport, staff writer: I don't know if Diablo 2 was ever really that 'dark,' but it arrived at a time when, at least in the US, anything Satan-adjacent was still a huge cultural taboo. I grew up in a Christian family, and at 13 I remember thinking "Hell yeah, this is some evil shit." Looking at it now, Diablo 2 is pretty benign. There is still something to the low-res sprite-based character models and flat environment art, though—we have to do a little imaginative labor to fill in the details, and it's this era of games that grew up with primordial creepypastas. Games felt a bit more mysterious, particularly as kids, and the conversations about them more isolated.
Tyler Wilde, executive editor: James, I'm watching some Diablo 2 gameplay right now and there are bright red imps waddling at the player in straight lines. But you're right, going to hell is not what was 20 years ago. I'll say that the enemies in Diablo 4 are definitely the goriest they've ever been. There's a boss in BlizzCon demo I played, Merinth of the Deep, who reminds me of something out of Remnant: From the Ashes. She's a giant, shiny, jiggly drowned witch whose flesh lunges around after her as she swings a nasty, toothed mace and summons puke pools.
James: It's true, this is the most gory and detailed Diablo has ever been. Our memories have deceived us. The isometric camera angle gives it an antiquated feeling regardless of the better graphical fidelity. A birds-eye view of the violence forces a bit of emotional distance between the content and the viewer, so no matter how dark or grisly or detailed it gets, we're still perched up high watching the action unfold from a safe distance.
Tyler: Diablo 4 zooms in closer than Grim Dawn, which I like, but this fight with some Fallen (those same red imps I was watching in Diablo 2) is a tornado of limbs, numbers, and actual tornadoes as he summons a storm. It's a bit much, if it's going for grim and nasty.
James: The combat effects are still busy, yeah, but nothing I've seen looks like the Pink Floyd laser show of Diablo 3. It doesn't appear that any special mobs literally glow blue or purple or yellow to signify special traits either, but we're only looking at early footage of basic characters.
Tyler: The difference is stark when you put them side-by-side.
James: Diablo 4 does play with the camera during scene transitions and cinematics, zooming in for a closeup of our character belly-crawling through blood and bones here and there, but I can't help but wish for something a little more intimate. Makes me wonder what that Dark Souls-inspired Diablo looked like.
Tyler: Imagine if they had taken a big risk like that! I was busy covering the Hong Kong protests during the Opening Ceremony, so I actually didn't see Diablo 4's cinematic trailer until after I played the demo. Now that I've seen it, I'm thinking, 'Wait, where was this?' It got me daydreaming about how they could've changed the fundamental Diablo experience. Slowed it down, maybe, zoomed in, dropped some gross blood rituals in my way. Less loot, more horror, more pale fleshy things shuffling around out of sight. It would've pissed off a lot of people if they'd messed with the core click-click-click design, but the flip side of that is that I think Diablo 4 feels much safer than the 'back to darkness' marketing is suggesting.
James: Functionally, it looks like nearly every ARPG I've played. If any developer has room to experiment with the genre, it's the studio that only releases a game 'whenever it's done', so it's disappointing to go from a rad cinematic trailer that gets the imagination juiced to footage of a game that looks a lot like everything else in the genre.
Above: YouTuber Rhykker's video reflects the gameplay far better than the official gameplay trailer.
Tyler: It took me awhile to put a finger on this, but when I think about Diablo 2 I tend to forget just how ugly and clunky it was. It was brutal in content and form. The darkness and the 4:3 aspect ratio meant that you couldn't see more than a few feet in any direction. You moved mechanically. Diablo 4 ditches the WoW-like cleanliness of Diablo 3's art, but it's still a slick game. You can dash-dodge. Animations cleanly blend together. Enemies are outlined in red when you mouse-over them, and have health bars, and numbers pop off of them. You've got a convenient quest tracker and minimap which guides you to waypoints you select. They don't show you some of that in the 'gameplay' trailer below, which is frankly misleading.
James: It bummed me out. I had to throw out a take about how I thought Diablo 4's new look might be enough, but then I watched some some genuine gameplay. A whole take.
Tyler: You hate to see it. But yeah, how's Merinth going to scarily lurk in her underground lair if putting my mouse over her lights her up like a Christmas bulb and then I coat her in particle effects and damage numbers? In a literal sense, no, Diablo 4 is not as dark as Diablo 2. There's more ambient light, more indicators and particle effects popping off all the time.
James: It echoes Diablo 3's UI and audiovisual feedback too closely for my taste, though I appreciate how the hotbar and health are tucked into the bottom-left corner rather than spread across the bottom of the screen like we're operating a demonic news helicopter above the scene. I also appreciate how gold and loot don't spew out of every enemy, but enemy health bars, damage numbers, and noisy graphical effects still eliminate any sense of foreboding.
Tyler: I liked the environment art a lot, though. The piles of skulls remind me of pencil doodles I'd do in high school, where I'd get the thinnest mechanical pencil lead I could and try to draw hyper-ornate horror things. There's a choking haze over everything, and the way the irregular stone walls glisten make the world feel unbearably damp. Path of Exile feels cheerful by comparison.
James: Yeah, revisiting footage of Path of Exile and Grim Dawn has me wondering what the fuss about Diablo 3's brighter look was about. I didn't like it, but those games trade in similar dark fantasy settings, but with bright colors and bloom effects too. I just think we want the impossible from Diablo 4 and these games in general—to feel some of what we feel in a horror game in the same breath a badass sword drops—but a detached camera and focus on player empowerment will reduce any existential threat to a matter of attrition and math. We have to remember that this is a series about progression and power.
Tyler: For sure. And 'dark' is such a funny word. In part it's literal. Horror, occult stuff, they conjure a certain palette that the Diablo 4 demo has certainly embraced: muted, black, gray, brown, red. But evoking a 'dark' mood—oppressive, violent, sickening—takes more work. My favorite screen from the set below is that snow-covered inn, which looks like it could come from a Western. You have to have contrast, right? If everything's covered in puke and bone dust, it's more comically indulgent than 'dark,' like Metalocalypse. I think Diablo could benefit from tucking some of its horrors beneath friendlier veils and playing with illusions of safety.
Here’s some more shots of the cool exterior environments we have been making for Diablo lV. Venture into the over-world if you dare! #Diablo4 #DiabloIV pic.twitter.com/NCnwJtv1RwNovember 4, 2019
James: I think we're looking for a feeling, not necessarily a clear aesthetic. It's easy to point at Diablo 3 and say, it's bright! But color and daylight can be scary. Midsommar is a horror movie that takes place in an oversaturated Swedish paradise and it's still giving me the creeps, months later. Diablo 4 can tell its own unnerving stories in the details and breadth of the world, so long as it there's the sense of history and culture baked in (and as long as we don't expect the clicky action to mirror the subtlety in the art). Am I coming around on Diablo 4? Welp.
Tyler: Hell yeah, you like it now. Gotcha.
James: It's why the bulk of my hope for Diablo 4 rests on the open world. Maybe it'll be fun to explore, assuming Blizzard decorates the overworld with more than holes in the ground that lead to randomly generated dungeons. It's a huge opportunity for world-building, storytelling, and doubling down on the dour mood. Diablo has always made me feel powerful, but an open world can make me feel puny, like all those monsters are actually something to fear. It just needs to be dangerous and surprising and worth exploring for the sake of it. Diablo 4 can't live on loot and stat allocation alone.
Tyler: That brings us to the shared world aspect. Diablo 2 had multiplayer, of course, but I don't think anyone would describe it as slick or seamless in the way this is. When I played the Diablo 4 demo, other players dynamically populated the town and one of the roads, but these weren’t cool interactions—they were just running around doing their own things. The mood took a hit for me. The devs tell me they're trying to maintain a foreboding, desolate tone even within that context, but I think that’ll be tough.
James: Little adventurers on the power curve factory line. Hopefully the PvP zones prove more interesting.
Tyler: Hello darkness, my old friend. I've come to gank with you again.