Diablo 4 is depressing.
I don’t mean that the game makes me feel depressed when I play it, but that it exudes an overwhelming air of gloom. The world is dark and, in the opening areas, cold. And the more time I spent in Blizzard’s dark, cold, and somber world during my weekend preview of next year’s biggest action-RPG, I felt a distinct sense of place — something I’ve never felt in a Diablo game before.
Diablo 4 takes a familiar, Diablo 3-esque approach to gameplay but infuses it with a deep sense of sadness and hardship. I may be the one risking my life to slay the demons out in the cold, but the poor folks in town don’t seem much better off. Nobody is doing OK in this world, and that shines through clearly in the game’s opening hours.
In an interview with Joe Piepiora, Diablo 4’s associate game director, and Naz Hartoonian, the game’s associate game producer, Piepiora told me that Sanctuary was Diablo 4’s newest character. If you haven’t played the game, that kind of statement probably makes you roll your eyes. But after over 15 hours with the weekend preview, I couldn’t help but agree.
Diablo 4 begins with a cutscene that should look familiar to those that watched the game’s reveal at BlizzCon 2019. (If you didn’t, all you need to know is that it’s filled with shadows, guts, and gore — a far cry from the brighter, cheerier art style of Diablo 3).
When I first gained control of my character, I was alone in a frozen cave, sheltering from a storm and the howls of wargs. For the first few steps, the world was almost entirely devoid of other life. Then I saw a deer run through the snow before I was attacked by a giant wolf. The weather raged as I eventually shambled into a small, shoddy town paved with mud. The people were boarded in, and when I finally found them, they were comforting a delirious man mumbling to himself on the floor boards. The small collection of hovels might seem safe — and they are in literal gameplay terms — but there are clearly dangers lurking outside, nipping at the villagers as they attempt to live their lives.
After I got a quest from the townsfolk and went out to meet that madness, I couldn’t help but think how the game felt familiar to play, but it made me feel different while playing it. I’ve never stopped to think about the NPCs in a Diablo game, let alone their living situations.
Blizzard has spoken quite a bit about wanting to bring this “darkness” back to the Diablo franchise. When I first heard this, I was afraid the studio would overcorrect with a game that’s comically edgy and over the top. But instead, Diablo 4 feels dark and medieval in a realistic, almost upsetting way which likely has everything to do with Blizzard’s reference material.
“When we first started, the thing that I was really keyed into was this idea of, like, medieval fantasy and what makes dark medieval fantasy cool,” Diablo 4 art director John Mueller told Polygon in a BlizzCon 2019 interview. “It’s really grounded in our own history ... angels and demons and mankind in the middle, this is not a new thing. Actually, when we were starting [the project], we were looking at a lot of medieval paintings and Old Masters paintings, because that’s what we wanted to bring forward. We weren’t looking at other video games, we weren’t looking at other movies. We were looking at, like, Rembrandts and we were looking at, like, you know, old religious paintings.”
Indeed, there are key moments in Diablo 4’s opening hours where it feels like you are battling your way through an old religious painting, playing the warrior being smashed between the forces of heaven and hell. But it’s one thing to emulate the look of a painting and another thing entirely to emulate how a painting makes you feel — so far, Blizzard has managed to do both.
Being engrossed in the world of a Diablo game is such an unfamiliar feeling after so much time spent with Diablo 3 over the past decade. When I jump into the Diablo 3 version of Sanctuary, I don’t see the colorful demons or the backgrounds anymore, I just see The Matrix. I’m whirling death and destruction, my enemies are balloons filled with confetti. Success means their health goes down while mine continues to stay steady. When I play Diablo 3, I don’t think about where I am or the world around me, I just think about the numbers going up.
I’ve never been sucked into the setting of Diablo the way I am with other AAA narrative games. That’s never been a problem; it’s not what I come to the series for. In Diablo 4’s opening hours, however, as I trudged through the frigid wastes of Sanctuary only to eventually be drugged and kidnapped by the same villagers who I thought were my allies, I was engrossed in the world around me, and eager to see how the story progressed alongside the progression of my character.
Now, if you’re a leaderboard-chasing Nephalim and all this talk about mood and story has you concerned: Don’t be. Diablo 4 is still the Diablo you know and are familiar with. It’s filled with explosive abilities and demons popping all around you. Legendary skills give wild boosts to your abilities, and each class’ unique mechanics help you tear through demons just as efficiently as before. The key difference with Diablo 4 is how I began to pay attention to more than just the enemies around me. My brain never dissociated what I was seeing and doing so I could simply focus on slaying demons the way I do when I’m pushing Rifts in a Diablo 3 season.
After my preview, I’m extremely excited by the world of Diablo 4, and I can’t believe I’m here writing to you about how I’m pumped to see how the story of a Diablo game resolves. However, it must be said that this was just a preview, and I’ve only spent 15 hours in Diablo 4 compared to thousands in its predecessor. After a hundred hours, it’s easy to see how a game’s sense of place could fade into the background and be forgotten. So, perhaps, by this time next year, once I’ve beaten the hell out of Diablo 4, I’ll only be able to see The Matrix in that game as well.
But for the time being, as we get closer to Diablo 4’s launch, I’m excited to do more than just smash big, horned baddies in new and creative ways. I want to see the world not just to meet new demons to obliterate but to feel the mood in the air. There is a quality to Diablo 4 that seems unnecessary, in a way. All I needed was an updated version of my favorite ARPG to be happy. But with just a taste of Diablo 4, I already feel like Blizzard has given me something I never knew I wanted.