Review by · June 11, 2000

For years, there have been a variety of RPGs on the various computer systems that haven’t gained much attention. They are commonly referred to as the “Rogue-like” games, after one of the earliest available – Rogue. Rather than fancy graphics, everything was depicted with ASCII characters. Rather than complex plots, they were simple dungeon romps – go in, get the treasure, kill some monsters, and if you want, kill the leader. Levels were randomly generated, so no two dungeons would be exactly alike. While those gamers who may play RPGs for the plot, graphics, and sounds may scoff, these games were – and still are – incredibly addictive and fun.

In late 1996 – just in time for the holiday season, Blizzard finally released Diablo. Like the Rogue-like games, there were randomly generated levels and treasures, large hordes of monsters, and a simple quest. Fortunately for Blizzard, Diablo retained the addicting charm of its predecessors.

Diablo bad, hero good!

The game takes place in and around the small village of Tristram. Your character returns home to Tristram to find that things just aren’t like they used to be – the village is nearly abandoned, an aura of evil permeates the place, and the church to the north is emanating strange lights and odd howls. It seems that one of the great evils of the realms – the legendary demon Diablo – has come to Tristram. Not surprisingly, you’re the town’s only hope.

OK, so there’s more to the plot then that. There are some sub-plots – the tale of King Leoric and his kidnapped son…the apparent treachery of the Archbishop Lazarus, who led a party of townspeople to their doom in the labyrinths…and the legend of the great battles between the angels and devils. None of it really matters, though. The game simply presents you with one real objective – kill Diablo. The rest is up to you. If you play RPGs for the plot and not much else, avoid Diablo.

Why is that zombie glowing yellow?

For a game released over three years ago, Diablo’s graphics are still quite nice. The environments have a suitably gloomy and evil feeling to them, and each area is different. The town looks like it’s barely surviving, which fits given the recent events. The church has a feeling of holiness that has been subverted by recent evil. The catacombs are dark, cramped and gloomy. The caves mix wide-open caverns with flowing rivers of lava and natural walls. And hell – well, it’s what you might expect, but not entirely.

The characters and monsters are all animated quite nicely. Each character has their own spell and attack animation, reflecting their particular strengths and weaknesses. Monsters have their own sets of animation and are done quite nicely. There is a fair amount of palette swapping for monsters – there are many monster types, with various sub-classes – and unique monsters have their own color schemes. When equipping different equipment, the difference is visible to a degree – you can tell what kind of weapon a character has, as well as getting a rough idea of what kind of armor they have equipped. It’s nice, and helps to accentuate differences between different characters.

Magical spells are done nicely. While there’s some overlap in the effects and types – the firebolt and fireball spells look very similar, for example – there’s a lot of variety within the spells themselves. The firewall spell creates giant pillars of flame that light up the rooms. A Golem spell will create a rather intimidating stone golem to run around and beat on your enemies. Lightning and Chain Lightning spells create jagged bolts that run through enemies, and so forth. They’re all very nicely done, and there are also some visible differences as you increase the power of your spells, proving a visual incentive (as well as a gameplay incentive) to make your spells more powerful.

There are several FMV sequences that are nice, but don’t really add anything to the game. They were nice back in 1996, but with today’s graphics and video sequences, simply look outdated. It’s not a problem with the game, just one of the few aspects that hasn’t aged well. Another problem is that it’s sometimes hard to find objects within the game. They may get hidden behind walls (the camera can’t be rotated), or lost on the floor (rings and amulets are nearly impossible to detect unless you’re looking specifically for them – fortunately the game’s sounds let you know that one has been dropped). The built-in zoom feature helps slightly, but the pixelation caused by zooming in is as much of a problem as anything it happens to solve.

Who are YOU calling ‘fresh meat’?

The sounds are very nicely done. Your character’s footsteps echo in the dungeons. Weapon sounds are well done – the twang of a bow, the swing of a staff, and the clang of a sword on an enemy. Granted, you’ll be hearing them often, but they don’t get on your nerves. Spells have their own sounds – the golem grunts, lightning has a crisp sound, and fire crackles nicely. You can often identify particular monsters by their grunts and howls, and some unique monsters have their own bits of dialogue. Perhaps most satisfying, monsters die resoundingly, whether with a grunt, moan, or squish. Blizzard did a good job of balancing the sounds, because there are some you’ll hear a lot more than others – yet they don’t become annoying.

Music is ambient, with only a few tracks. It’s pretty good for what it’s for – building atmosphere. If you listen to it, it’ll keep you focused on the game, but it’s no big loss to turn the music off or to play your own music during the game. Entirely up to one’s personal preferences.

I nearly died for Godly Rags of Clumsiness? Is this a joke?

Where Diablo truly shines is in the gameplay. The first decision that must be made is which character class to play as. Diablo offers three – the Warrior, the Rogue, and the Sorcerer. The Warrior is your typical hack-and-slash character – tremendously strong and resilient, yet highly inept in the magical arts. The Sorcerer is the opposite – quite vulnerable and weak, yet highly intelligent and able to master the most powerful magic. The Rogue is best described as a mix of the two, yet she’s extremely dexterous and agile as well. Each class also has its own abilities – the Warrior can repair his weapons somewhat, the Sorcerer can recharge magical staves, and the Rogue can detect and disarm traps (generally considered to be the only useful class-specific ability).

Fortunately, Diablo doesn’t limit what you can do based on class alone. There are four statistics, which govern the usable equipment and spells one can learn – Strength, Dexterity, Magic, and Vitality. Strength is your basic measure of brawn – both in the weight of the equipment usable, as well as a measure of combat damage. Dexterity affects how well one can hit – and avoid being hit – and also plays a part in combat damage. Magic measures how many mana points a character has, as well as the level of the magical spells a character can learn. Vitality is simply a measure of a character’s hit points. Stats have natural maximums (depending on the class), and can be raised by using points at level-up, through certain shrines, and elixirs. These stats are the true limiter of a character’s abilities. There’s nothing stopping a Sorcerer from equipping full plate mail, provided they can raise their strength enough to wear it. Likewise, should a Warrior gain enough equipment to magically raise their magic statistic, they can learn high-level spells.

Magical equipment is an extremely important aspect of Diablo. While the Blacksmith sells some of it, the majority of the magical equipment a character will find and use will be found in the dungeons. Items may be identified, and they have abilities that can either help or hinder a character. Weapons, armor, and rings/amulets may have a prefix, suffix, or both. An example would be a Lord’s Sword of Vampires. This particular weapon would have an increased hit percentage and damage bonus, and would drain a bit of the target’s mana. There are dozens of prefixes and suffixes, and they appear randomly on equipment – it’s up to the player to determine what’s better for them. Would it be better to use a ring that would raise their resistances, or one that would raise their statistics so they could use better equipment? Should a character spend their money on equipment, books, or elixirs to raise their statistics? It’s all up to the player, and there’s no right answer. Aside from the randomly generated equipment, there are also certain unique items that always have the same abilities, if one can find him. The Eaglehorn bow, for example, never breaks, does extra damage, and confers a Dexterity bonus upon the user. Not all uniques are useful, though, and it’s up to the player to determine if a unique is better than a randomly generated piece of equipment.

Like the treasures found, the dungeon levels are randomly generated. While there are certain things that are constants – Diablo is always on level 16, level 5-8 is the Catacombs, and so forth – the layouts will always be different (though there are certain bits of basic architecture you’ll see often). It’s nice in that you never know quite what to expect as you’re exploring. The monsters are also randomly selected, so that you won’t see all of them in one game – you’ll have to play multiple times to see them all, and they’re randomly paired up in the levels. You never know what’s around the next corner, or if you’ll survive. It’s very entertaining.

There are two main ways to play the game. The single player game is the best place to start out. You have your dungeon, and there are large numbers of quests (randomly selected, of course). Once you kill Diablo, that’s it. It’s interesting to run through it a few times to see all the quests and to familiarize yourself with the game. The multiplayer mode, however, is significantly more fun. While there are only a few quests in the multiplayer games, there’s more to do. Multiplayer mode is broken up into three difficulties – Normal, Nightmare, and Hell, each offering much more treasure and experience than the last – and significantly more powerful monsters as well. New games may be started as often as you’d like, retaining your character and equipment, so if you don’t like the monsters you’ve been placed in, you can go to a different game. Four players can play at once, either cooperatively or competitively, and it’s great journeying through the dungeons with a few friends. There are certain problems associated with multiplayer mode – on Battle.Net (Blizzard’s online game service), there are a large number of people who cheat and duplicate equipment – but it’s generally not a problem if you stick to private games or play with a few trusted friends. Overall, the multiplayer mode is the game’s strongest selling point, simply due to the replayability and the added challenge and fun of the extra difficulty modes.

Stupid archers!

It’s been said already, but I’ll say it again – if you consider plot to be a highly important part of your RPGs, and can’t play any RPGs without a solid plot, stay away. In fact, Diablo’s action elements are as strong as its RPG elements. If that’s not to your taste, then it’s best not to play it.

The game balance does seem somewhat off. The Warrior is strong in the first few levels, but falls behind later in the game – there are quite a number of monsters you just don’t want to get close to, and the Warrior doesn’t have a huge choice. Some believe the Sorcerer becomes too powerful in the higher levels – the only problems being when they run out of mana (which is simple to remedy with a quick journey to town) or run into monsters immune to all of their magic. Similarly, it’s frustrating in multiplayer mode when a sorcerer or rogue accidentally kills you with one of their arrows or spells – but it’s rather difficult to avoid. It’s the little balance issues that detract from the proceedings.

Control is occasionally problematic. You move around by clicking the mouse on where you want to go. This works great until you’re trying to run away from monsters. Generally speaking, the quickest way to move around is simply to hold the mouse button down and hold it in the direction you want to go – and when walls get in the way, your character may take a wrong turn, right into a pack of monsters. Not a huge problem, but highly annoying. Aside from that, the control is great.

Finally, the inventory is too small. Each item takes up a certain amount of space, but you really don’t have enough spaces – provided you don’t carry a lot of stuff on you when you go into the dungeon, you’ll be fine – but you’ll have to make a lot of trips back to town just to clean up your inventory. Gold in particular is a pain to carry, as once you start getting a lot of it, you’ll have little room in your bag for anything else.

In the end, though, Diablo is a great way to kill some time. Sure, all you’re doing is hacking and slashing through hundreds of monsters to get a bit of treasure – but it’s incredibly addictive. Playing with some friends is great, and can lead to some fun competitions. It’s got great replay value, and you’ll be re-installing it every so often to play through it again – I know I’ve done it many times. If you’ve never played the original Diablo, go find a copy of it (it’ll cost you very little), and give it a shot. You’ll find it’s more addicting than you would expect. We can only hope that Diablo 2 is as much fun.

Overall Score 86
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Cameron Hamm

Cameron Hamm

Cameron was part of RPGFan's reviews team from 1999-2002 and briefly ran an MMORPG-centric column called Logfile. During his tenure, Cameron often reviewed PC and Western RPGs, which is always beneficial in a writer, given our often-JRPG-focused coverage.