App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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In playing and then reading about reactions to Diablo Immortal all this past week, I've been feeling like everyone's talking about a different game. All of the pearl clutching about a free-to-play game having a high ceiling on just how much money you can put into it feels incredibly out of touch, even anachronistic, with regard to the current gaming landscape. What makes conversations about it even stranger is that there isn't even a good reason to even think about giving a cent to Blizzard for Diablo Immortal. This mobilized version of one of a gaming giant's beloved franchises is a finely tuned social space with Diablo stuff shoveled on top of it. It is very good at being exactly that save for some pacing issues that have absolutely nothing to do with it being a free-to-play experience.
Yep it's Diablo
To back up a second, the Diablo games are dark fantasy rpgs where you pick a character class (e.g. Barbarian, Wizard, etc.) and go on dungeon raids where you use all kinds of class-specific abilities to kill tons of hellish creatures while loot and gold fly out of them. You then use this loot and gold to make your character stronger while also leveling up, unlocking new skills, and the going out to fight even stronger creatures.
Diablo Immortal does all of this just fine. Perhaps the most notable departure from the series's core formula is the way it exports some of the most powerful and unique ways to customize your character from a system like a skill tree onto gear which you have to grind through repeatable dungeons to find and power up. It's hard not to view this change cynically as it clearly creates a situation where leveling up alone doesn't allow you to play your character the way you want, but in the grand scheme of what Diablo Immortal ultimately is (more on that later), it doesn't feel as nefarious as it sounds.
Follow the path
Another way in which Diablo Immortal somewhat departs from the Diablo mold (at least from the first two games, anyway) is that it isn't just a straightforward and linear story game. In fact, if you are curious about playing Diablo Immortal for its story, I recommend you steer clear. There is a campaign to play through, but it is mind-numbingly boring and has some experience-gating that forces you to do a bunch of other side activities to be able to keep working your way through it.
As for these other activites, there's an almost overwhelming number of things to do, but you don't really get a full taste of what they are, why they matter, and how they impact your character until you've dumped a lot of time into the game already. Until you get to around level 40, Diablo Immortal feels extremely aimless. There's not really a whole lot to do except follow the literal footstep paths drawn by your quest log to do a lot of the same repetitive actions over and over again without feeling like you're getting particularly stronger or facing challenges that ask you to play differently.
Talk about loot
As you start entering the late stages of character leveling, you are invited to prepare for a co-op raid, and this is one of two modes in Diablo Immortal that provides some significant challenge, provides a meaningful goal for players to work toward, and isn't a pay-to-win hellscape like the game's competitive multiplayer mode. Once this happens, leveling certain kinds of loot, equipping different kinds of abilities, and even working together with players in your party actually starts to feel like it matters.
Outside of that, there are still a ton of things to do that can grant rewards, and those rewards now suddendly feel like fuel to burn toward achieving raid readiness. Many of these activities are somewhat rote and repetitive combat trials, but there are also some interesting social events to take part in, like The Shadow Assembly, which is a player gathering of an in-game secret society you have a win a lottery to get into.
It wasn't until all of these kinds of options opened up alongside a clear goal to work toward that Diablo Immortal made sense, but even now as I plan to continue playing it, I'm definitely more drawn in by the ways in which Diablo Immortal smartly encourages social interaction and play more than the actual actual actions I'm performing at any given moment. The way Diablo Immortal auto-suggests grouping up with players close to one another working on the same quest, or allows queuing for certain game modes no matter where you are in the world, or even how you can so seamlessly add or drop yourself from a party are the kinds of innovations that excite me most about playing it. In this way, Diablo Immortal feels way more satisfying as a social space where play happens than the majority of the core Diablo tasks you're constantly incentivized and asked to perform.
The bottom line
Diablo Immortal is a fine social rpg with a pacing problem. It weaves together some the most intricate, fascinating, and innovative systems for interacting with other players I've ever seen (particularly on mobile), but buries a ton of it under what are somewhat flat but otherwise serviceable action rpg combat and progression systems. None of it feels meaningful until you are finally given a goal, and once you're there, it's a pretty fun upgrade treadmill with monetization that will only bother you if you want to try and compete with people who can happily afford spending an unreasonable amount of money to feel a sense of false superiority in a video game.