Most weekends since its launch back in June, I’ve spent my Saturday mornings with the lads playing Diablo IV. Across three international time zones, we coordinated a window in which we could chase Lilith, grind Nightmares, and eventually cheer when the rare Barber Heart dropped for the whole squad. And although any game is dramatically improved by the presence of your mates and while there were pockets of fun to be had, I largely did not care for Diablo IV.
Despite glowing reviews, I found its campaign a dry slog of edgy worldbuilding and facile ideological arguments, doing a far better job at accidentally making the case for Lilith’s new world than giving me any drive to stop her. Literal mother returning to raise us from the shackles of shame bolted on by the church sounds fucking rad, Blizzard, sorry. But my mate, who is neck deep in the game’s meta and lore, insisted that things would improve post-campaign. So we persisted. The early days of endgame content were a bit of a blur, crunching dungeons and loops to push closer to level 100 or that next Aspect drop. My eyes were glazed over for most of these sessions, an endless grind of good banter and bang-average gameplay.
Season of the Malignant, Diablo IV’s first seasonal content push, at least woke me up. If you’re not a regular player it’s hard to describe just how poorly the season’s 1.1 patch was received. “Everything is worse” was the broadly agreed-upon feeling around the patch’s changes to the game. These included a dirty laundry list of baseline class nerfs and progression being slowed to a glacial crawl, which was already proving to be a grind, especially in later levels. Diablo IV went from a passively dull experience to an actively frustrating one, elevated somewhat by the season’s Malignant Hearts system that had the potential to dramatically bolster a character if RNGod smiled on you. All the while the narrative had seemingly doubled down on its dour disposition, further throttling my desire to try and connect with the game.
Diablo IV had become a chore. The next natural step would be to stop playing but, for better or worse, we often enjoy Trophy hunting as a squad and when you’ve spent nearly $100 bucks on a game, in this economy, you don’t feel great about dropping it a month in. So we persisted, again, and I had resigned myself to the experience until the work was complete. This feeling was hardly unique to us either; Blizzard had publicly acknowledged how much of a cock-up the patch had been, and across the board, player counts were dropping and social media engagement, especially on Twitch, with it. One of the biggest launches of the year brought to its knees in just over a month on the market.
Then, without ceremony, my meta-deep mate popped up in the group chat “I think they’re fixing Diablo”. Released in early October preceding the new season, Patch 1.2 shifted Diablo IV once again. I’m only casually familiar with the meta so I can’t perfectly articulate the particulars here but it is undeniable how much better Diablo IV feels post-patch. A litany of quality-of-life changes to traversal and inventory management, a sweeping array of build buffs and an all but explicit apology from Blizzard suddenly coursed through the game’s backend, pulling the experience from the depths just in time for Season of Blood’s absurdly goofy and wholly welcome power fantasy.
Lord help me but I actually like this
Balancing a game like Diablo IV can’t be easy and I have tremendous respect and little envy for those who do it. But fuck me am I glad they realised Diablo is meant to be fun. The core premise of building a semi-customisable, mystically powered warrior who blasts through endless hordes of demonic creatures while greedily snatching up treasures should inherently be a good time. Patch 1.2 remembers this, bolstering enemy density so you feel like a beast mowing them down with the new seasonal powers, which feel like an accelerated extension of Season of the Malignant’s Caged Hearts. Now, we’ve made pacts with vampires, using ritually collected blood to infuse godly gifts into our own, further boosting survivability and offensive capabilities, both of which feed directly back into the game’s initially idealised loop.
Diablo IV still has its tension points of course but they feel deliberate now, no longer a byproduct of a poorly implemented rebalancing. With the new season content, we were able to nab our level 50 Hardcore run over just two days, delicately weaving in and out of the new Blood Harvests, dedicated zones that give the existing Helltides concept a fresh coat of paint and far greater yield. There were a handful of “oh fuck” moments as a poison blob popped or one of the season’s vampiric hunters caught up with us but this friction was fair and, crucially, fun. It’s an interlocking enchantment of systems that organically achieves the kind of player retention that the game tried to woefully enforce previously.
Season of Blood’s new powers are game-changing.
(image via maxroll.gg)
Season of Blood is also a revitalising shot in the arm for the game’s overall tone and writing. While still draped in the drab robes of the foundational text, this latest season leans into something far campier with its vampires and gloriously overdesigned bloody aesthetics. The world is rippling with gaudy creatures, boastful lords and a broad commitment to pivoting from edgelord sensibilities to sensationalised gothic chic. It all comes together through solid systemic changes that reflect this new, oozing vibe and Gemma Chan’s scenery-chewing performance as the vampire hunter Erys. It’s impossible to not enjoy yourself as her affected British tone wraps itself around increasingly silly vampiric lore and quest prompts.
Broadly, the game still has a fair way to go with the community and its cosmetic pricing and season pass rewards remain utterly baffling to me. The recently announced expansion Vessel of Hatred, slated for release in late 2024, will hopefully bring its new region and class to an even better version of the base game than the one we’re seeing today. But Season of Blood begins the work of pushing Diablo IV to a place where it prioritises, and relishes, player expression and raw, well-tuned fun.