Game review: Diablo Immortal for Android and PC

Once upon a time, back when forums were individually moderated communities instead of corporate hoarded content farms, someone I respected told me not to read a certain book series because it was awful and everything wrong with the publishing industry specifically and in the universe in general. I read the first book and reported that actually, I kind of liked it. “Oh,” they said, “just read the second, and you’ll see why it’s a dumpster fire with extra grease.” So I read that book, and then kinda like grew into love. This ping pong of assurances that I would hate the next books and my rebuttals that they were awesome led me to being a vocal fan of the series, to which another fan base declared that I was everything wrong with the universe in general. The books they stanned for were so much more superior, and besides that, the writer of my books was a homophobe.

(The author of their beloved books later wrote more books that suggested they might be slightly racist, and then publicly came out as a transphobe, leading some of said fan base to write very long articles about whether it was okay to separate art from artist. Which, if I were pushed on that subject, I think it’s okay for anyone to decide that. I just find it funny that I was expected not to make that distinction for the thing I loved, but now they need me and everyone else to understand that they like the art, not the asshole behind it. Aaaaand I digress.)

This leads me to the HUGE wall of hate surrounding Diablo Immortal, a game subcontracted from Blizzard to NetEase Games, but which bears a striking resemblance to the newly released Diablo IV in terms of how the always online features and battle pass work. The hate for this game stems from many flaws, both within the game itself, and with the parent company that’s been revealed as Not A Very Nice Place To Work, all of which is valid criticism. So even though I knew there was a PC version, I said, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so I’m gonna stick with the lynch mob on this one and avoid that game like the plague.”

But then time passed, and I got a new phone that could play all the shiny big games that my previous phones couldn’t (because apparently the difference between three and four gigabytes of RAM is a very big deal) and I decided to just give it a chance. I named my first character AynGonaLasLong because I expected to dip in and bounce out, as I had with so many mobile games.

Didn’t happen. No, I played the first three areas of the game, and then I started again with a different character class. I got that new character up to around the same level, and then I started another, and then another. Then I installed the PC version and linked my account to allow me to choose where to play. I’ve since then filled my whole roster, and even deleted a character class to sample another. Most of my characters are level forty-five to fifty, but I got one up to a Paragon level of one hundred and beat the main campaign. I’m still playing on Hell I difficulty, but that’s only because I haven’t been able to find the right time to join a raid to unlock Hell II. I’ve played hundreds of hours and technically have beaten the game, so know that what I’m about to say comes from a deep, deep pool of research.

I fucking love Diablo Immortal.

Whew. Okay, with that out of the way, let me scuttle some debate points right now. First of all, I cannot enthusiastically encourage everyone to play the game because yes, it is a mobile game, and yes, it has certain practices that might prey upon folks with addictive personalities, or those who are prone to throw cash at a digital object rather than deal with slow grinds. I don’t have to worry about that because being broke, I ain’t gonna buy any loot or currency. I will be tossing the developers €5.99 for the battle pass, but not because I want what’s in the pass. I just think that after getting a couple hundred hours of fun out of the game, those developers should get a little something from me to say, “Thanks for the laughs.”

Next, I can acknowledge that the story is crap. But, to be fair, I play a lot of games where I love the gameplay loop, but I cringe every time a “brilliant” plot point is revealed. This game features a whole lot of the same recycled ideas, and it has the balls to repeat them. You want examples? Here’s two:

  • We need to cast a spell to do the thing, so go gather three MacGuffins and return them to me so I can do the thing. Oh, great, you’ve got the things. What? The spell didn’t work. Oh, you need another MacGuffin to fix the spell. Fetch quest, doggy! Okay, now we do the spell. It didn’t work? Must need another fetch quest.
  • My former pupil/friend has rebelled and now leads an army against us while hoarding the MacGuffin of great importance. We must work together to stop them, so let me run up ahead to set up a cut scene. Oh noes! I’m not strong enough to defeat them. You’ll have to do it and stop them from doing the thing. Oh noes, they did the thing! You must stop them in a boss fight.

On that second point, I hate traveling with someone who’s supposed to be a badass, but mostly they just stand by and watch me do all the work. Even if they do attack something, their abilities all pack the power of a super wet spitball.

Toward the end of the game, the new antagonist Skarn even pulls out the old chestnut, “You’ve done everything according to my plan.” Really? So you planned for me to storm your fortress, slaughter your whole army and royally kick your ass? Because if that was your plan all along, it’s a pretty stupid plan. (Side note: Remember in Borderlands 2, Handsome Jack says, “You think I’d protect Angel with just some robots and a couple turrets?” And then he reveals Bunk-3R…a robot with a couple of turrets bolted onto it. So, remind me again why so many game writers think this idiot is really a genius? Aaaaaaaaaaaaand I digress yet again.)

And finally, for a game that’s constantly pushing players to join clans, warbands, and factions, there are a lot of dungeons and boss fights where I get separated from everyone else for “solo story” sections. Frankly, it’s a terrible design choice. I might be more annoyed by it, except I’d already played a hundred hours solo before deciding to try the multiplayer offerings, and I was fine with going solo no matter what the game threw at me. It still doesn’t change the fact that a major feature of the game keeps getting broken intentionally for no good reason.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in to why I loved Diablo Immortal to the point that none of these flaws could shake me off of the path to Play Everything. I need to start with AynGonaLasLong, a Crusader who was out of my usual comfort zone for a starting class. I picked her precisely because I wanted to see if they could make me like a class I wouldn’t normally play, and they did.

The tutorial starts out with just the main attack button, adding four other attacks slowly to ease players into the flow of combat. Then they toss in healing potions, which are limited to three, but can be refilled through attacks or opening treasure chests. (After learning this, I developed a habit of topping off my health bar before opening any treasure chests.) Then the Ultimate Attack is added, a charging meter that unlocks a more powerful primary attack that’s usually pretty great for dealing with large mobs or bosses.

The first bosses are stupidly easy, so even if they do hit the character, their attacks do so little damage that they might as well not bother fighting. But once the tutorial is done and the kid gloves come off, the bosses get a lot better. One early dungeon crawl features three bosses on three separate floors, and they’re all great. The second boss shows up under a glass floor, clawing and pounding at the character like they can’t get through, and it’s a visual treat that hasn’t gotten old even after I’d seen it a hundred times. (Boss dungeons can be replayed for extra XP for characters and for their season pass, so I played that same dungeon almost daily to be able to earn gold and platinum. Sometimes, I even went back in right after beating it. It’s just that good, in my opinion.)

New skills unlock at certain levels, and while I do still prefer a proper skill tree over this kind of ability swapping, most new abilities are fun to experiment with. Then the game tosses in Legendary gear, which modifies the way abilities work. One for the barbarian class changes their hammer strike to summon a giant spectral warrior to fight alongside the character. There’s one for the wizard that changes their relatively weak air blast into a slow moving tornado that follows enemies and does damage over time. The demon hunter’s spinning volley of crossbow bolts can be upgraded to a ridiculously OP shower of grenades. All of these modifications encourage experimentation and most are pretty damned fun.

As an added bonus, if you find an ability you love and don’t want to give it up, you can visit a vendor to extract it and then inherit it onto a stronger piece of gear. Since the extraction option stores abilities without taking up inventory space, you don’t have to worry about losing them, and that means there’s no harm in trying new modifications even after finding something that makes you grin every time you drop an entire horde with that One Perfect Shot™.

New tasks and side hustles are doled out alongside new powers, including the Bounties Board, Horadric Bestiary, Elder Rift, Challenge Rift, and Demon Raids. A lot of the reason I didn’t whip through the main story is because these side jobs became an almost daily habit once I realized I could earn three hundred platinum coins for completing these daily tasks. Those platinum coins can be used to buy gems from other players at the market, or to buy crests to power the Elder Rift dungeons, but I needed three thousand to make my own clan. (Which I named iDonWanaClan and added all my alternate characters to so other players would stop inviting me to join their clans.)

The thing is, some days, I earned 900 coins because I just went on that hamster wheel, doing nothing but daily tasks. Not because I had to for the grind, either. I did it because I genuinely loved just grabbing a job and getting shit done. Clear out sixty werewolves? Sure, why not? It’s time to go kick King Leoric’s ass for extra XP? That punk and his minions are going down again, buddy. Oh look, I unlocked another Legendary Crest, so it’s back to the Elder Rift for another run with a randomly generated party.

I cannot stress enough that I like the core loop so much that I didn’t even think about finishing the game for the longest time. The only reason I finally did think about it was when I started contemplating writing a review, and then a little nagging voice said, “But can you properly review it if you haven’t seen the end of the main quest?” So I took my barbarian to the final area in Hell, and I tracked down Skarn and whooped him real good. Only, that wasn’t the ending. I still had one more mission unlock in Hell I difficulty, brokering a peace treaty and removing a curse that was covered earlier in the main quest line. Then the little quest tracker said I’d beaten the main game and changed the new quest to Reach Hell III difficulty. Despite me not yet reaching Hell II, I actually want to get there because it will unlock new areas and quests. So even if I have to grind and find a good time to schedule Demon Raids, I’m pretty sure I’ll do it with at least two or three of my characters.

Diablo II was one of those games that I sunk thousands of hours into, but Diablo III broke me long before I got to the season ladders or Hell difficulty content. It just didn’t grab me the same way. So when Diablo Immortal came out, and even when Diablo IV started showing off sneak peaks at gameplay, I wasn’t swayed. Obviously you can imagine my genuine surprise that Diablo Immortal has rekindled my love for the franchise. It’s because I loved this game that I was willing to try the Diablo IV server slam, and it’s why I’ll be getting Diablo IV once they sort out some balance issues and the level of XP earned through daily play. I mean, seriously, a freakin’ mobile game has me wanting to buy a different game in the same franchise just because they share some online similarities. That’s just crazy.

And lest I forget and leave this out, it’s so cool that I can close the game on my PC, take my phone to the laundromat, and open the game to keep playing the same character. I wish all games would do that, building a mobile version with downgraded assets that you could download with a special code after buying the game for PC or console. Then whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted, I could play the thing I love. What a beautiful world that would be to live in. (*sniffle*)

We arrive to scoring, and I’ve already laid out the flaws in Diablo Immortal. Even so, I can’t bring myself to give it any less than 5 stars. I can’t think of any other game in recent memory where I got off the main story and just wandered around doing busy work because I loved the grind. If a game can make me love something I normally consider a chore blocking my progress through the plot, that’s not just a good job. It’s a genuine miracle. So yeah, I’m gonna spend €5.99 at least once to pay the developers for making this game, and hell, I might even buy another pass later because I want them to know I think the game is worth a bit of cash now and then.

Would I recommend it to everyone? No, because if you’ve got gambling habits or inclinations to spend too much on predatory digital tat, I wouldn’t want you to put yourself in any financial risk. All I can say is, I went in knowing I would hate it because everyone said I would, and I’m coming to you and saying I couldn’t be more in love with this amazing hamster wheel. Ain’t love a hell of a thing?