If you were asked to pick a couple words that define a strong Diablo game, what would they be? A lot of terms, like “gritty,” “dark,” “Gothic,” and their like are flying around right now, but I want to talk about a specific term–“grounded.”
When I say grounded, many would define that as despite how mysterious, how vile, or how supernatural the game might actually be, it is rooted in a sense of place and time–the materials, shapes, and so on don’t feel like they could be any high fantasy.
But another way of looking at groundedness is by looking at the game’s systems.
In Diablo I, the dungeon entrances were set in static places. You knew where to find Wirt, where to enter the chapel, where the crevasse to the fiery underworld awaited. This physicality added a sense of permanence and importance.
In Diablo II, we started to get away from this with (mostly) randomly generated world maps. Unless you had your Enigma or Sorceress, your loot runs could take some extra time to find destinations. But regardless of where, say, the Tree of Inifuss ultimately was, it was in a physical space, and that, to me, gave it a sense of meaning and viscerality.
Then we got to Diablo III. Originally, all the destinations worked much like Diablo II’s–endgame was about grinding mobs or bosses or certain locations. But then Diablo III’s keystone system changed that–it uprooted the sense of location, the connectedness and realness of Sanctuary. A lot of endgame became about pushing those keys in portals detached from the world.
Don’t get me wrong–the gameplay is fun–but it felt like I could just be a time-traveler, or have some fancy FTL drive. They did created some lore around this whole system, and involved NPCs in it, but overall, at least to me, it just felt…inauthentic.
To my great surprise, Diablo IV’s endgame dungeons–at least as they appear now–work like a hybrid of Diablo III and Diablo II. You still get the keys, but they only work on a specific dungeon.
They still offer gameplay changes unique to the key, and the dungeons, themselves, are entirely randomly generated, but the dungeon holds a place in the world, reached by normal means, in an environment that makes sense.
And, hey, you may say that isn’t a big deal. Maybe it’s not. But when combined with Diablo IV’s sprawling open world, jaw-dropping models and art, and an overall more aesthetic experience, I think it’s a small deal–a small detail that adds to a sum that says, this world is real. Explore it. If you dare.