Sunday, February 14, 2016

Man Up or Manual - Comparing Diablo-clones

As I've been on a streak of playing Diablo-clones, purely coincidentally as I often install games on random, I've also come to think of the subtle differences that make or break a game. What makes a good game? It's a question almost as difficult to answer as the big one about the meaning of life, especially since it often comes down to subjective ideas of fun. It just really popped into my head when playing these Diablo-clones specifically because they're somehow so comparable. Often the core mechanics are pretty much the same and the differences are too subtle to explain in a good way.

I never played Diablo or Diablo 2 much when they were released, but once I got around to it I loved them. I never beat Diablo, but went through Diablo 2 a couple of times. I was quite thrilled when Diablo 3 was announced but got bored with it after some months, I gave it another chance a while after but never could get into it. I've filed it under the list of "unsuccessful Diablo-clones" (although technically not a Diablo-clone), along with a whole bunch of others. Din's Curse (2010), Torchlight (2009) and FATE: The Cursed King (2011) joined that list pretty quickly. Eventhough I had fun with all of those games initially, since I am quite a fan of the core mechanic, I ended up losing interest fairly quickly. I even bought Torchlight 2, having heard it was better than the first one, over two years ago. I still haven't played it.

FATE is pretty much Torchlight -

Then I started playing Darkstone (released 1999) and something changed. The interesting thing was that all of the abovementioned boring games were simple to get the hang of. They either had tutorials that explained what you needed to know, or game mechanics easy enough to figure out on the run. But they lacked something that made it fun to stick around in the world. To me, Din's Curse, FATE and Torchlight all suffered from the same feeling of meaninglessness, the way all that killing never felt like it was leading anywhere or at least nowhere I wanted to go. Diablo 3 had the same problem of repetitiveness and sense that I was bashing my head against a wall even when I was making progress. But I had so much trouble figuring out how it differed from Diablo 2. What made the one fun and the other one not?

Torchlight -

Darkstone did things differently than the other games. It has a tutorial, if you can call it that - a dude tells you where the vendors are and you get to test some different weapons and that's it. Quests are given to you by random people walking up and telling you "good luck finding the Holy Shield! You're going to need it!". I am paraphrasing, but that is literally all the information you get. Not a word about where the item is, which seems like pretty essential information. It took me 2 hours to figure out how to make my companion use spells. Or how to lock spells into my spellbar. Or what the different skills you can buy actually do. All thanks to me digging up the actual manual of the game. Apparently you have to hold in shift while clicking a spell to make it stick to your spellbar. Apparently you have to tell your companion how much mana they can use by marking their mana bar before they start using skills. Apparently the Language skill is completely useless in single player.

Needless to say I was frustrated as hell the first couple of hours of playing, which wasn't the case with the other Diablo-clones. Diablo was released several years before this game so I was desperately trying to find the key that would show me all the loot at my feet, but alas. You have to use your eyes and try to see that tiny ass pixelated ring somewhere among all the cracked urn pieces. Trying to open a chest I often end up circling it because targeting is wonky as hell. There is no pet to conveniently run off and vendor your things. Eventhough you're a team your characters control as two different people, which means if you want to sell or buy stuff from the vendor you have to do it individually. Swapping between characters is also unintuitive (especially since there is no key for it) so I've already died a couple of times from freaking out when in the wrong character, using the wrong skills. But somehow, rather than making me angry, it made me all the happier when I got it right.

Closer to the style of Diablo -

But it was fun. I kept trying, I kept playing - eventhough all the game mechanics told me I should've given up long ago. I kept thinking "what the hell is wrong with this game" but I didn't close it down. When I finally ended up reading the manual to be able to actually do simple stuff, I even got a bit sentimental. I can't explain it. I don't think it's a bad thing at all that games nowadays come with tooltips and explain basic game mechanics from the start. There are even old games that do this without it feeling like the game is holding your hand, like Geneforge or Planescape: Torment. And I don't think it's the handholding alone that makes a game more or less fun, Darkstone also has a more interesting world and manages to make dungeon crawling feel like an adventure and not a chore, just like the original Diablo did. I passed a lake and a fairy in it told me to "blow the reeds from the smallest to the biggest". "What reeds?" I thought. There were no reeds anywhere and she didn't tell me where to find them or why (to play the song of snakes, whatever that was good for). After some clicking around I decided to just leave it. Venturing into the next dungeon, I happen to find some reeds in various locations. Now I am curious.

Worst graphics, best game? -

There was just something about the ruthlessness of getting thrown in at the deep end, the feeling of the game developers thinking "they'll get this, they're not stupid" (although clearly I was) that felt refreshing. If done right, and that's obviously easier said than done, saying "we don't need to tell you, you'll figure it out" really adds to the sense of achievement. You need a lot of faith in your game to think people will stick around for it. A lot of upcoming games will add this as an optional feature (like the new Hitman, and I believe the new Thief had this as well) where you can choose to get more or less information. I think that is a brilliant idea. If the popularity of Dark Souls is anything to go by, people enjoy good trial & error. And for the rest of us, there is always the manual.


  1. Oh, I'm totally in agreement with calling D3 a failed Diablo clone. It does so many things right, but there's an intangible fail in there somewhere that I can't put my fingers on.

    Since I don't really know what makes a game not a failure in this genre, I can't really say for sure that Torchlight 2 is a good game or not (hehe, I wrote "Torchwood" initially - now there's an idea!). But it plays remarkably like D2 in most ways that I remember (10 years after the fact). It's a decent game to kill a half hour or so while waiting for another game to update, etc.

    1. "t's a decent game to kill a half hour or so while waiting for another game to update" - ouch! Not sure if that's a good review or not ^^ But I'll get around to it eventually. Maybe in another two years...

    2. I suppose that is faint praise. D3 kinda dulled my enthusiasm for the whole genre. Loved it when it came out, got bored with it before Act IV. So many other games that reach out and engage me that Torchlight 2 just doesn't earn much engagement from me now.

    3. Yeah I think that pretty much describe my feelings now. I don't look for these games, but I happen to have a couple in my backlog and they get installed eventually. I think somewhere I've lost faith in the possibility to replicate the Diablo-feeling, the same way no MMO can feel like WoW to me.

  2. You really need to try Victor Vran. It's on sale on Steam and actually adds a 'player skill' component that makes the game more then just a mindless loot pinata game. And totally with you on D3. So pretty, so pointless.

    1. Thanks a lot for the tip! I checked it out and it looked like fun, I'm looking forward to trying it out :)