Blizzard's Diablo, winner of GameSpot's PC Game of the Year for 1996, has finally made it onto the PlayStation.
Blizzard's Diablo, winner of GameSpot's PC Game of the Year for 1996, has finally made it onto the PlayStation. On the surface, it almost seems like it would be a more natural home for the old devil, being as it is a sort of glorified Gauntlet. Oh, but it's so much more, which makes us wonder: Can a console system pull off the wonderful array of magic, pyrotechnic lighting effects, and the near-infinite variety of possible games that the PC version made possible with its randomized dungeons, magic items, and monsters - not to mention some of the best death animations in the business? The answer, like the game, is more complex than it seems.
For the uninitiated, here are the basics. On the surface, Diablo is a dungeon-crawling action game. Wander through 15 levels of hack-and-slash glory that offer more immediate thrills than 90 percent of the more modern-looking games out there. First person? Bah. Over-the-shoulder views? Who needs 'em. Diablo gets so much mileage out of a simple, third-person overhead view because of its incredible light sourcing and detailed characters, monsters, and death animations. If you've never seen the winged succubus fall face down in a pool of her own blood... well, you're missing out. And some of these rooms are just teeming with monsters. It's downright frightening when your character is literally swarmed on by a roomful of Death Knights. Luckily, you have at your disposal powerful magic and awesome fighting power. Nothing takes out two-score zombies with quite as much gusto as a dozen simultaneous Firewall spells, each of which is acting as its own light source.
Beneath the intensity of the action lies all the addictive character development of an RPG. Choose one of three character classes - from the sturdy warrior, to the bow-sniping rogue, to the arcane sorcerer. Work your way from humble beginnings (initially you'll be walking the increasingly tedious path back to town after every couple of fights) to true heights of prestidigitation and valor. You'll gain powerful spells as you go, as well as some of the most varied magic items in RPG history. These are both key to Diablo's amazing power to possess players' lives. Each new spell is more visually overwhelming than the last - witness the glorious and shocking Chain Lightning spell with its hundreds of arcs of electricity - and it's just so hard to turn off the game when the next room might contain the Sapphire Sword of the Heavens.
You see, the power of Diablo lies in its uncanny replay value. The 15 levels of dungeon are randomly generated for each game. That means they're different every time you play the game. This is powerful for a PC game, but for a console it's almost unheard of. The same is true of magic items. There are literally hundreds of combinations of different magical modifiers and miscellaneous attributes, from simple "to hit" bonuses, to stat bonuses, to more obscure powers like life stealing and damage reduction. Put these elements together with the drastically different feel of each of the character classes, and you have replay value of demonic proportions.
Not that this was a perfect translation by any stretch of the imagination. Animation is much more jerky than in the original. Character motion stutters even when there is little happening onscreen. Frames disappear all over the place. The point of view is certainly from closer in, making it harder to see your enemies coming. In addition, the graphics seem dark to the point of obscurity. Turn up the brightness on your monitor to fix the problem, and the game appears washed-out, hampering some of the macabre mood. The spectacular visual effects are still present, they just perform with a slightly hindered graphical acuity. In addition, despite the fact that your game may still be saved at any point, the game is bogged down heavily by the lengthy save process, which involves a minimum of three menu screens and a solid ten seconds to write to the memory card. For a game that demands saving after every fight, this is a serious drag on gameplay.
The PlayStation version did succeed with flying colors at making the PC version (which required a solid dozen keyboard commands, in addition to a mouse, for control) translate to the Sony controller. The original version was demanding enough with a full keyboard at your disposal. In addition to melee attacks, spells must be selected and cast, and healing and mana potions must be imbibed every few moments during combat. Less immediately critical, but certainly mandatory, are several other screens (character sheet, inventory, automap) that must be called upon all the time. How did they do it with only eight buttons and a D-pad? Combos, of course. The R2 button (by default, which may be altered) calls up the less immediately vital functions when pressed in tandem with the other keys. And if it's all just too demanding for your hell-blasted brain to remember, a combo menu may be enabled that pops up when the R2 is first pressed. The biggest breakthrough is the Quick Health and Quick Mana buttons, which automatically drain one potion with the touch of a single button, an elegant device that's actually an improvement on the original.
The bottom line is that PC Diablo's secret didn't lie in all its bells and whistles (of which there was certainly no shortage), but in the amazingly addictive hybrid of arcade-style action and RPG-style character development and gradual power acquisition. These are precisely those elements that most easily survived the translation, making Diablo a great PlayStation game. If you're put off by the occasional graphics stutter or lost frame, or if you've already spent the usual two months of sleepless nights breaking into your place of work to play the PC version, you may want to let this one go. But if you've never felt the hellish world of addiction that is Blizzard's Diablo, you won't want to miss it.