People who’ve never experienced Blizzard’s Diablo series must wonder what the rest of us are on about. The Role-Playing Game genre (RPG) has a history going back to the first computers with enough spare cycles to play games on. Literally: Rogue was the first dungeon crawler computer game, first released in 1980 for Unix systems and later included in BSD distros. Since then, dungeon crawlers have been a computer gaming staple, with hundreds of games in this category.
Yet for PC players, Diablo II just happened to be the sweet spot in the series, which introduced the concept of the action RPG. Before, RPGs were turn-based; you could take all the time you want to ponder your next move. But in an action RPG, you have on-the-ground combat in real-time. Stand still too long sorting through your equipment and a skeleton with a scimitar is likely to slink up and conk you broadside on the melon. Facing down bosses requires not only adequate preparation in skills and equipment, but an attack plan and engagement as well.
What’s wrong with just playing Diablo?
But then came Diablo III and… reactions were mixed.
Criticisms typically held that they redesigned the game to look and feel more like a World of Warcraft sidecar than a stand-alone game, that everything was dumbed down, that characters were streamlined into the same run-and-shoot playstyle, and more. Of course, Blizzard’s Draconian DRM requiring an always-on Internet connection drew its fire as well. Sure, the game still sold well on console and whatnot, but it lost the previous generation of players.
What was so bad about the transition between Diablo II and Diablo III? You just had to be there. In Diablo II, all the character classes had completely different skills, strategies, and play styles. Each class felt like its own game. D3 simplified this texture out of the series, likely trying to be console-friendly for the ports.
Today, Diablo classic is relegated to Blizzard’s old games’ retirement home section. You want it, go GOG. Diablo II is still technically for sale, but it’s now hooked into Blizzard’s new Battlenet system, with its own baggage, where before Diablo II was just: Buy disk – load disk – play game.
Even if you really want Diablo II, what you actually want is the celebrated Median XL fan mod. If you thought the fan hype over Diablo II was bad, gamers weep tears of worship for Median XL. It is a complete overhaul of Diablo II, adding something around 10x as much content. Bumped way up in challenge. Here’s a typical streamer’s reaction:
Count your humble author as one of the squeeing fantards who are stupid for Median XL. Blizzard would do very well to just pull a Valve and adopt Median XL and support it.
But still, Diablo II is very long in the tooth by now. It came out before 9/11, if you can believe it.
OK, but seriously, let’s search for a Diablo II replacement
Lest we forget – because it’s been at least ten minutes since I reminded you – I run Linux, Linux Mint specifically, because I use it for work and have for two decades now. I can buy all the tablets and consoles I want for games, but PCs for me are a work resource first with recreation coming a distant second.
Well, Valve Software’s Steam is a salvation for Linux gamers alright. We have that going for us, which is nice.
You know what though? There’s no Diablo on steam! Indeed, it’s mostly Valve and id Software on there, lots of indies off itch.io and whatnot, but Blizzard games in general are scarcely hinted at on the gaming monolith.
So, here’s what we want: An action RPG that is available on Steam and compatible with Linux. We’re talking a workhorse office-style laptop here, so no hardcore battle-station hardware specs. By “action RPG” we don’t mean “a tower defense game.” We also don’t want something like DOTA2, because it’s multiplayer only, and a man of my advancing years has heard enough opinions from 14-year-olds about my mother’s promiscuity.
I’m not looking for “ground breaking” here. Whack monster, get loot, we’re good. Story’s nice, but not required.
The failed candidates:
Path of Exile – The best answer hands-down for Windows, but Windows-only
Divine Divinity – Ancient top-down dungeon crawler that had me going, but Windows-only
Titan Quest and Grim Dawn – runs on guess-who only
In case you non-Linuxers are on the same quest, here’s a glimpse at runner-up Path of Exile:
Alternately, Divine Divinity : Original Sin II looks to be the jewel of that series.
Say you really, truly want the early-2000s action RPG feel. Say you’re not going to just re-play Diablo because if you have to hear the Tristam witch say “I sense a soul in search of answers” one more time you’ll york. Original Divine Divinity is actually the corny party you’re looking for:
You could put Diablo classic right next to that and hardly know the difference.
But let’s meet the game that won the beauty contest for me:
Torchlight II ended my quest as soon as I’d started the demo. On a basic Lenovo laptop a few years old running Linux, Torchlight II ran like it was native to the platform. It is smooth, glitch-free, slick and polished.
The one caveat I will put down is that Torchlight II is a little closer graphics-wise to Diablo III than Diablo II. However, that’s actually good thing! As long as you’re not looking for that authentic early-2000s look, Torchlight II is actually a damn pretty game to look at. It’s got the classes, skill trees, equipment, and general game structure as the Diablo series in general. It adds a couple new wrinkles like having a pet and having far more detailed environments.
It also gets similar squeaky fan raves just like Diablo II did:
Now here’s an assessment of how it stacks up in comparison to the Diablo series:
So that’s two reviewers in a row to point out that several staff members from Blizzard who had worked on the Diablo series slid over to Runic Games to work on Torchlight II.
In my impression, Torchlight II does indeed have the best pace of any action RPG I’ve ever played, even over Diablo II. Diablo II seems like it has a lot of walking, backtracking to find waypoints or complete quests. Torchlight II has a more discreet progression system. It also has optional side quests, with guidance to let you know which way to head or when you’ve completed an objective.
Torchlight II excels at bringing the “action” back to action RPGs. For instance, the enemy scripting has a lot of variety. Instead of having every enemy just standing there waiting for a fight when you walk up, various enemies have unique entrances. Skeletons and undead typically emerge digging themselves out of the ground, wild beast enemies may charge out of a cave, and the occasional warrior may jump down from an overhead wall to ambush you. The loving attention lavished onto these tiny details is where you feel the love the developers had for the game they were making.
This is why we come to indie games. Big corporations may have the expensive resources, but executive overhead and shareholders tend to sap the soul out of games, making their play feel more like an obligation on every hand. Indie studios get the developers back into that garage start-up mentality, when the only thing that matters is how much the fans like your product. That’s the kind of passion you want to tap into, which has gone missing lately from so many big studios.
So on final summation, I found a better Diablo than anything Diablo. Even taking into consideration my beloved Median XL – wait, what am I saying? Can I really say that? No, I can’t. I think I swore a blood oath to defend the honor of Median XL back there, can’t remember.
But anyway, Torchlight II: the game that almost made me commit heresy against Median XL.