- Diablo 1 is the progenitor of the ARPG genre and is the first game from Blizzard’s highly beloved Dark-Fantasy RPG series.
- The impending release of Diablo IV makes this the best possible time for both Diablo and ARPG fans to take a look into the game that started it all.
I think something most players should do when they have a series they really enjoy or are passionate about is to go back and see the roots. I’ve personally done that with a lot of series I’ve loved, Demon’s Souls, Yakuza, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and many others. One of the rare exceptions to this rule was when I played the first entry of a series I had never really played before. This was of course as you can surmise from the title, Diablo 1.
Now, as I’ve said, I had very little prior experience with the Diablo franchise up to this point, but I did have a bunch of experience playing ARPGs so it wasn’t like jumping into something entirely foreign. What I did not have were any high expectations. I knew I was playing an old game, the very progenitor of a series I was not super interested in.
So I thought it would end up being yet another sad casualty of my backlog, a game that I’d say I respect but never really get around to finishing it. I would end up being so wrong.
Diablo 1 ended up as one of my favorite games of 2021. I blazed through it in the span of a weekend with barely any hesitation. In one moment I was deliberating on even entering the dungeon and in the next I had the blood of Diablo staining the metal of my blade. At that moment I was hooked, eagerly awaiting the remaster of Diablo 2 so I could immediately jump into the second game.
I still haven’t played Diablo 2, but I would certainly like to when I am able to afford it. However, that doesn’t matter (okay it might but not in this instance) I want to, for now, talk only about Diablo 1 and how it captured my attention.
Starting the Journey
Upon launching the game you’re greeted with a dated yet ominous and creepy intro that serves as a pretty good way to set the tone for what you’re about to play. After choosing your preferred character class and difficulty the game wastes no time to plop you onto the game’s main hub, the town of Tristram. Here you can speak to most of the game’s NPCs and get your bearings and find out what’s happening.
You’re told that there’s something messed up happening down in the church and the game once again wastes little time before explicitly laying down your entire goal. Dark rituals are being done under the church, descend into the church’s depths and kill every accursed demon and rescue anyone you can. It’s a great setup, quick and snappy and you’re immediately invested.
I feel I should talk more about Tristram itself, it’s a dinky little town but one you’ll really come to love throughout the game. The NPCs nearly always have something interesting to say and you feel an attachment to it as you keep coming back to it for frequent breaks from the dungeon crawling. Offering relief from the oppressive atmosphere of the dungeon and giving you a chance to stock up on potions and new weapons.
There’s so much character to it too. The NPCs are all likable and you get this urge to slay Diablo just so you can help these people out. Griswald, the blacksmith, Pepin the kind healer of the town who stocks you up with potions, or Gillian, the nice barmaid lady. The town theme is fantastic too, a looping track that’s a relief from the creepy music in the dungeon, but it’s also just ominous enough that it keeps you tense. It maintains a delicate balance.
It’s like in a survival horror game, you can’t make the player TOO calm or relaxed, but you also don’t want them to be 100% tense all the time either. There is a balance to these things and it is done almost perfectly here. But I digress, point is, Tristram is one of the best hub areas in gaming if not the best in general. It seems like a miserable place to live in amidst the dark rituals but you can tell at one point this was a nice little wholesome dot on the metaphorical map and I love it.
Atmosphere in general is something Diablo excels at. I will get a little off-topic here so bear with me. So, there is a fantasy that you’re being sold on whenever you start a game and the game’s job is to make that fantasy last as long as possible before the player realizes it’s just a bunch of 0s and 1s. That they’re just playing a game. The best games ensure that the player feels like they’re in that fantasy for the longest possible time.
The fantasy that Diablo sells, at least to me, is of a lone knightly hero scouring through tense dungeons in order to save a village and possibly the land itself. Why Diablo is so good is because it maintained that fantasy up to the end. The atmosphere is tight, and the monsters keep getting more and more deadly the deeper you go, going for a rest in the town after a long dungeon feels in-character and immersive. It makes you feel like a warrior who’s slowly growing with the game.
The biggest reason the fantasy lasts is due to the game’s atmosphere. Every trek through the dungeon is deadly and the music, the sound, the art everything makes you feel like you’re somewhere where you shouldn’t be. Each skeleton, each gargoyle you put down makes you feel like you’re making a tangible difference. It all just comes together.
Stumbling upon a powerful enemy out of nowhere, like finding the Butcher for the first time, are genuinely terrifying moments that always keep you on your toes. It is a scary, oppressive game that never lets you forget that even though you’re a hero, you’re still just a mortal who can die with a few mistakes.
Being an ARPG, what really matters to most players is the true meat of the game. The combat, progression, and exploration. I don’t really have a lot to say about this, combat feels nice and crunchy, with gory satisfying death animations for each of the monsters. Most of the game has you going through similar-looking halls and corridors while fighting dozens of enemies at any given moment.
But it feels really good to play, there is a very engaging and almost addicting feedback loop of entering a floor, mowing down dozens of enemies, maybe getting a good item or two, and then descending to the next floor. Level-ups are also paced really well, you’re always getting stronger and finding something new every 15-20 minutes at least.
The game plays a lot more like an old-school dungeon crawler, and being the first of its genre, it lacks a lot of the insane build variety and overpowered screen-clearing attacks of Diablo 2 and 3. Diablo 1 is a lot slower and somewhat methodical in comparison but I feel that’s a good thing, even by the end you aren’t really a force of nature but are fighting almost toe-to-toe with these hellish abominations.
The Bottom Line
Diablo 1 still remains a highly competent isometric action dungeon crawler. It’s definitely something that is very much of its time but I feel its antiquity almost gives it an entirely unique flavor. It’s definitely not a perfect game, I think the last few floors get a little too crazy with their difficulty but it’s a short 8–10-hour long game that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Even if you aren’t into the gameplay, I think Diablo 1 is worth playing for its atmosphere alone. As someone who has never really been a Diablo fan, I did not understand nor really care for the criticisms against Diablo 3’s less serious art direction. However, going back to the origin of the series made it explicitly clear why there was such a backlash for Diablo 3.
It also makes me happy that Blizzard is going back to the grimdark aesthetic for Diablo 4. Personally, I hope the game captures the sheer overwhelming anxiety and terror of the original, more so than anything else. With how crazy ARPGs are nowadays however, Diablo 1 is the purest most condensed experience of the genre you will ever find and I think every ARPG fan and more importantly every Diablo fan owes it to themselves to play this one.
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