I had no intention of ever downloading Diablo Immortal. When I play video games—which, admittedly, isn’t often these days—I usually prefer chill, character-driven titles like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I’ve never delved into the dark, violent world of the Diablo games, but when the game popped up in my recommendations on the app store, I thought, “Why not?”
Perhaps because I don’t have any pre-existing baggage with the franchise, I’ve enjoyed the heck out of slashing through hordes of undead. The game looks great, sounds even better, and it’s playable even on my tiny iPhone SE. So why is everybody so upset?
In a word: microtransactions.
Blizzard Crossed Over to the Dark Side?
Diablo Immortal is free to play. But it’s not free to win. That’s the fundamental issue that has gamers feeling frustrated and even betrayed by Blizzard.
Veteran Diablo players have spoken out against their beloved franchise moving to mobile. As Sisi Jiang explains for Kotaku, “Before Immortal was announced, Diablo fans could safely ignore mobile games as ‘cash grabs’ that would never affect the premium games that they wanted to play. But ever since Blizzard announced that the game would be a full Diablo experience, these gamers have felt threatened by what they perceive as mobile’s encroachment on ‘legitimate’ gaming.”
Considering that Blizzard has stubbornly refused to budge from its computer-only stance on World of Warcraft, many gamers were shocked when Blizzard developer Wyatt Cheng announced that the upcoming Diablo title would be a mobile game. Cheng dropped that bomb at Blizzcon 2018 and was met with a chorus of boos.
His response: “Do you guys not have phones?”
Yes, those guys have phones. But mobile gaming is hallmarked by simplified controls and graphics, as well as the dreaded microtransactions.
Despite the outcry from dedicated fans, the game has been downloaded more than 10 million times and made $24 million in the first two weeks after launch. If you do the (very simple) math, you’ll note that the average person has spent around $2.40 to enjoy the game. However, the internet is filled with stories about gamers who are spending thousands—even tens of thousands—to prove that the game is a rip-off. To get top-tier legendary gear, you’ll either need to be very patient or spend real money in the game’s shop.
Critics argue that the game’s monetization system is essentially gambling, as you must pay for the chance of legendary drops. In fact, the game is not available to download in the Netherlands or Belgium, where loot boxes are classified as illegal gambling. (The game might also be banned soon in China, where a social media tweet on the Diablo Immortal Weibo account poked fun at President Xi Jinping.)
Outraged gamers are also pointing out that it could cost up to $600,000 to “max out” a single character. I can also pay thousands of dollars to fill my home with Krispy Kreme donuts, but because I’m not totally lacking in common sense, I won’t. Yes, the game encourages you to continuously upgrade gear and gems to gain more power. And to do that as quickly as possible, you’ll need to shell out real-world money. But you could just… not?
As Ash Parrish cleverly points out for The Verge, “this feels like your best friend with whom you lost touch suddenly hitting you up on Facebook to ask if you wanna buy some leggings.” If you’ve been a fan of the Diablo franchise for years, then the move to the mobile F2P economy might be jarring. Even enraging, judging by the many angry people who are shouting about Diablo Immortal online. However, for a total noob like me who no longer has as much time to game, the game feels like an interesting hybrid of an old-school RPG and a breezy mobile game.
Gameplay, as Reviewed by a Total Noob
As a casual gamer at best, I’m probably a lot more easily impressed by Diablo Immortal than most. But if you’re also a casual gamer who is curious about whether you should bother downloading, here are my two cents. (Not literally; no microtransactions here!)
Right off the bat, the character creation interface is fun to play with. You can choose from six classes:
- Demon Hunter
Once you’ve chosen a class, you can select either a male or female character. Then you get to pick from three preset faces. Like many modern RPGs, you have the option to adjust everything down to the tilt of your character’s nostrils.
Very few of these cosmetic tweaks will make a difference once your character starts picking up random pieces of armor. It’s also worth noting that no matter how much you customize your character, the portrait that’s displayed during dialogue scenes will remain identical to the original preset face. I like to think that my Crusader simply got a haircut after getting his profile picture made. It’s like a driver’s license with an out-of-date photo—moderately embarrassing, but you can still recognize the person.
You’ll be seeing a lot of that portrait because this game has a ton of dialogue. In addition to brief cinematics, you’ll get to have plenty of chats with various NPCs. The voice acting is one of the areas where Diablo Immortal shines. I picked a male Crusader because Matthew Mercer (Critical Role) does the voice, but all of the classes/gender combinations I sampled were outstanding.
The dialogue is on rails, meaning that you don’t get to choose from a list of responses. That’s something that Star Wars: The Old Republic Online does really well, but I can understand why Blizzard and NetEase didn’t want to invest in unique dialogue trees. If you get bored, you can skip through both dialogue and cutscenes. But I’d encourage you to enjoy the superb voice acting and storytelling on offer.
Once I started playing, I was shocked at how good the game looked. Even on my little phone, Diablo Immortal is stunning. The tutorial area is a town called Wortham that has been overrun by cultists who are turning the residents into zombies. Even though it’s a grim scene, there are elements of beauty in the glow of torches and the play of moonlight on trickling streams of water.
The game can get a little chaotic when you’re surrounded by enemies, especially once you reach the open world with other players. MMORPGs have always had this issue, but it’s worse when squeezed onto a phone screen instead of a gaming monitor. It’s sometimes a little difficult to tell which one of the figures on your screen is you, but the game’s mechanics make up for that.
Movement and Combat
The controls are incredibly simple. Your left thumb operates a virtual joystick, allowing you to navigate through the world from a bird’s eye view. You can’t zoom in to get a closer look or switch to a first-person perspective.
The developers made it easy to figure out where you need to go thanks to dotted footsteps that lead you to your next objective. However, it’s worth poking around a bit because you might find treasure chests, shrines that give you a temporary buff, or roving packs of enemies that drop loot. So much loot.
You typically fight groups of about six enemies at a time, and those enemies drop a ton of gear that you can equip immediately after battle. You’ll be constantly swapping out your gear for the first 25 or so levels, then upgrading your best gear with materials that you can get from scrapping the drops you don’t want.
Combat is a little more sophisticated than button-mashing, but thanks to the auto-targeting feature and simple mechanics to aim your abilities, it’s easy enough to master. You have one main attack, which you can hold down to continuously strike, as well as four ability slots that you can fill with special abilities. In addition, once you fill a meter, your ultimate ability is unlocked, turning you into a near-unstoppable force.
If you do find that you’re taking too much damage, vanquished foes drop health globes fairly frequently. You also have a pool of three health potions that refills whenever you enter a town.
But Is ‘Diablo Immortal’ Fun?
I can only speak for myself, but I’m really enjoying the game so far. For a more dedicated gamer’s perspective, check out my colleague’s post about the game.
To be fair, I haven’t reached the end-game content yet, and I don’t really have an interest in the MMO aspects of the game. No PVP for me, thanks. I’d rather not interact with the chat or join a clan. The game mercifully allows you to run scaled-down solo dungeons, so at level 35, I haven’t had to group with anyone yet.
Thanks to the immersive dialogue, gorgeous graphics, and sheer fun of blowing through wave after wave of enemies, I’m really enjoying the game. It moves so much faster than a traditional PC or console RPG, which is either a bug or a feature depending on your perspective. And instead of sitting at my computer to unwind with a game—after already spending all day at my desk—I can plop down on the couch or my bed to play Diablo Immortal.
I haven’t reached the point where I’m tempted to buy any of the packs or add-ons offered in the game’s shop. There are a lot of ways to spend money in this game, and if you’re not careful, you might end up breaking your budget. But that’s true of pretty much all F2P mobile games. The “Empowered Battle Pass,” which offers significantly better rewards than the free track, is functionally identical to the monetization in Lily’s Garden and other casual mobile games.
Whether you’ll enjoy Diablo Immortal seems to depend on whether you grew up playing the other titles in the franchise. If you approach the game with zero expectations, you might be pleasantly surprised at how much fun it is to play an RPG that’s been liberated from the PC gaming grind.