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Diablo Immortal Alpha Preview

A mobile Diablo experience for the on-the-go demon slayer

Garrick Durham-Raley Posted:
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Diablo Immortal, the upcoming mobile video game in the Diablo series from developer NetEase, recently had a closed alpha test at the end of last year. Originally announced at BlizzCon in 2018, Immortal did not receive a stellar initial reception. It’s been more than two years since it was announced, and the full launch appears to be just around the corner, although no official date has been provided yet. Now, after having played the alpha for several weeks, here are my impressions from my time with Diablo Immortal.

The alpha of Diablo Immortal only had four of the planned six classes to choose from: Barbarian, Monk, Demon Hunter, and Wizard. Additionally, in a focused effort to test the endgame, the level cap was set to 45 to allow players the opportunity to experience endgame progression earlier. The level cap at launch will be level 60 however, so a good chuck of the story was unavailable during the alpha.

What I did get to experience was a portable Diablo experience across 7 open zones, with 6 dungeons available and both elder rifts and challenge rifts to play through. The nice thing is Diablo Immortal is 100% free to play, with no time limit or energy system gating access to play. Of course, it wouldn’t be a mobile game without monetization and Immortal has both a Battle Pass for sale as well as a cash shop for buying crests. Thankfully neither of these are essential to the overall core experience, although I do feel that being able to buy crests with real-world money could be considered pay-to-win, but I’ll touch on that more later.

Although I’m not usually fond of Battle Passes, I found that in Immortal’s case the Battle Pass actually added to the mobile experience. There is a free track that unlocks rewards for players by simply progressing through normal activities, like clearing a dungeon, completing bounties, or beating a Rift. The rewards ranged from additional crafting materials to legendary weapons, and the Battle Pass updates monthly with new rewards. The paid version of the Battle Pass unlocks a second track with additional rewards, although it wasn’t available during the alpha and there’s no word on what pricing will be like as of yet.

Behold, the Gates of Hell

I went into the alpha relatively blind to the Diablo Immortal gameplay. I knew the story was set immediately after the events of Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, where the Worldstone was shattered by the Archangel Tyreal after defeating Baal, but before the events of Diablo III. I’ve tried not to pay attention to Immortal updates because Diablo II is my favorite game of all time and I have been excited to dive deeper into the lore and the events immediately following the shattering of the Worldstone.

The cutscenes and dialogue look almost as if they could have come out of Diablo III directly, and I was honestly a little disappointed that both the art style and gameplay weren’t styled more from its predecessor. Instead of grittier, darker environments and assets, the world in Immortal appears nearly copy-paste from the more colorful and vibrant settings of Diablo III. In fact, there appears to be very little pulled from Diablo II apart from setting up the story. Deckard Cain makes an appearance (of course he does), but outside of the story’s timeline the events of Immortal feel closer to a Diablo III expansion than a prequel.

The very beginning of Immortal feels eerily similar to Diablo III: you arrive at a small hamlet beset by undead and must fight against these forces of evil to save the town. In doing so, you come across an even greater threat that puts the whole of Sanctuary at risk from becoming overrun by demons. The campaign revolves around finding and securing shards of the Worldstone that have scattered across Sanctuary which opposing demonic factions are vying for possession of.

There are some familiar faces that make an appearance like Charsi the blacksmith, Kashya, and Akara from Diablo II. Even some old enemies, like The Countess, make a return showing. I really liked these little nods although I wish that their stories were a bit more fleshed out. Akara and Kashya appear to be travelling – no idea what happened to the Rogue Encampment – and Charsi just shows up as the main hub’s Blacksmith. What happened to her travelling with the other rogues, and how did she wind up in Westmarch as the city’s resident blacksmith?

Fighting the Demons of Hell

Regarding the gameplay though, the actual combat feels great and will be very familiar to fans of other Action RPGs available on mobile. There is one main large attack button on the right side of the screen surrounded by four smaller buttons of various skills that are set to cooldown timers, whereas the left side uses a digital analog stick for movement. The mobile button controls actually work really well with how the skills were set up in Diablo III, and you can switch out different skills as you learn more through leveling up.

There is a utility to the skills that I really appreciated and skills are organized by the different functions that they have, like whether they are primarily damage dealing abilities or if they have a special properties like gathering enemies together or if they can be charged up. The initial four skills for any class unlock very quickly, about within the first 20 minutes, but then they start slowing down. This led me to stick to using these earlier skills since I had already grown comfortable and familiar with them.

For example, the Monk’s cyclone strike skill is one of the first skills learned and can be charged to pull enemies into a tightly packed group around the Monk. I had this skill on my bar all the way into endgame and utilized it as an opening move to pull several enemies in so I could follow up and unleash area of effect skills to decimate them all. Not all skills are balanced yet, and even the four classes weren’t quite optimized either.

During my time with Immortal, I felt like there was little incentive to experiment with different skills or try diversifying my character’s builds – at least until the endgame, where certain legendary items and the craftable gems have properties that affect or enhance particular skills. I hope that this changes throughout development leading up to Immortial’s launch and I would imagine that the cadence of unlocked skills will feel smoother compared to the alpha.

Let the LOOT drop!

The most identifying trait to any Diablo entry though is hands-down the loot. It’s just not a Diablo if there aren’t piles and piles of randomly generated loot to collect and hoard, and Immortal is no exception. Although it could have fooled me at first since the amount of loot that dropped was few and far between for the first couple of hours-worth of gameplay. While there still does appear to be a general level associated with all items, it was much more apparent that the rarity of items affected Power ratings more-so than anything else.

Immortal has ditched the easy-to-read system on equipment from Diablo III and has replaced it with an even simpler overall Power rating attached to each piece of gear. In addition to the six primary slots for weapons and armor there are also six secondary equipment slots, which not only include the jewelry slots but also gloves, boots, and belt slots. The Power rating on equipment is directly corelated to the damage, life, and defense of your character. Although it is a simpler system to navigate, I felt like it invalidates most of the loot in Immortal.

Once you’ve found a rare piece of gear, it pretty much stays in slot until you find either a better rare item or a new legendary item to replace it. I don’t think I ever found a magic piece of gear that had a higher Power rating than a rare that I had picked up from five levels earlier. Unfortunately, every single piece of gear needs to be picked up as well. At least, if you want to improve the rank of your armor and weapons (which you do). Unwanted gear can be salvaged at a blacksmith for upgrade materials that you will then use to increase the rank on your gear.

The benefit to increasing your equipment’s ranks is an increase in your base stats – like strength or vitality – which in turn increase the item’s power rating. Thankfully, these ranks can be transferred to newer, more powerful pieces of gear as you find them. This is good because the cost associated with upgrading ranks can get insane. It takes hundreds of scrap pieces earned by dismantling hundreds of pieces of loot just to rank something up one time. You can rank up rare gear up to rank 5, but legendary equipment can go all the way to rank 20. It’s a good thing that there’s an auto pick-up option in the settings so you can just walk over loot to pick it up.

Speaking of legendary items, Immortal is further changing the way that certain items can be traded by simply not allowing it. All gear is now completely account-bound and cannot be traded with the sole exceptions being gems and crafting materials. There is a player market in the main city of Westmarch, but it is thankfully nothing like the deplorable auction house from Diablo III. The market is only for buying and selling crafting materials and gems using in-game gold.

The aforementioned legendary gems are now items that can be crafted as well instead of just found. These gems can be created at the Jeweler using runes that are gained from completing Elder and Challenge Rifts. They can still be randomly found as Rift completion rewards, although in my experience it was only when I used crests to enhance the Elder Rifts.

Rifts and Crests: Where the Endgames at

The whole point behind the Diablo Immortal alpha was to test the endgame systems in place, like the paragon system and Elder Rifts. Unfortunately, I did struggle to make it to level 45 in the first place to even explore the endgame. There are two level-gates that I encountered before I could progress the story any further. The first was at level 40, which wasn’t a big deal since following the story quests got me to level 39 anyways. The next was getting to level 45, which was an arduous experience since the rest of the story only got me up to level 41.

Rifts don’t really award any experience either, which I’m not sure if that was intentional or a bug. The only way I could level was by completing the Bounties posted in Westmarch every day. These are short, randomized quests that take you all over previously explored zones and earn you loot for every four that are completed. These are very similar to Diablo III’s bounties except that they are not Act-based and can span the whole of Sanctuary. As an added bonus, completing all twelve bounties in a day rewarded additional crests for use in the Elder Rifts as well.

When I finally did reach level 45, it unlocked the Paragon skill trees. Much like in Diablo III, the Paragon system is an additional leveling system after reaching the level cap. Unlike Diablo III, the Paragon system in Immortal actually has skill trees instead of just putting points into passive boosts. These trees are still passives, but offer much more flexibility in how you design your characters. In the Treasure Hunter tree there is a skill that increases equipment drop rates, and the Vanquisher tree will actually increase the size of the inventory by up to 15 additional slots.

These passive skills will come in very handy for clearing both the Challenge Rifts and, where I spent most of my endgame, the Elder Rifts. The Elder Rifts can be used at any level and are found in the main hub city of Westmarch. Much like Diablo III’s rifts, they are densely packed with swarms of enemies and completing them can earn really nice loot. It is, from my playtime, the single best area to farm in endgame for legendary equipment and gems – especially when you use crests to increase the loot.

Crests are nice new additions to the rift system and can add modifiers to them which increase the rewards given. Most of the time, the crests add negative modifiers like “Monster Life and Block Chance Increased” or “Monsters sometimes resurrect” but sometimes there were really nice modifiers like “Guardian Removed from this Rift” and “Beat the clock for bonus treasure”. Crests come in two flavors – rare or legendary – and depending on which ones are used will affect how much extra loot there will be.

Crests can be earned in-game, but they can also be bought with real money. This seems very pay-to-win to me since they are directly tied to earning more powerful gear. It’s not egregious in the sense that it limits the gameplay at all, and I found it to be completely optional, but there is a PvP mode that also rewards players with loot for winning matches. In this sense, you could pay for power and destroy players in the Ancient Arena PvP zone only to win and gain even more power.

Conclusion

Time will tell if this will really affect the dynamic of PvP or not, of if this will just be a way to allow for more customization in being able to earn more materials for crafting legendary gems. I hope that the cash shop and being able to outright buy legendary crests won’t affect the metagame too much. As I mentioned before, the cash shop and buying crests are not at all essential to the core experience of Diablo Immortal. I ran ten times more Elder Rifts without any crests than I did using them, and I still had a blast each time Whirlwinding through the hordes of demons that got in my Barbarian’s way.

There’s still no official release date for the launch of Diablo Immortal, but if this alpha is any indication then it would seem that it won’t be too far off. Although I had some problems during the alpha, like getting stuck behind a level gate, I overall enjoyed my time playing Immortal. It’s no Diablo II – heck, it’s no Diablo III either – but from a sheer gameplay perspective it is the most enjoyable Action RPG experience that I’ve ever had on mobile before. And this was only the alpha.


GarrickDR

Garrick Durham-Raley

Garrick is a doting father of two and devoted husband. When he's not busy playing Final Fantasy XIV, he can usually be found drifting between a dozen different MMOs. His favorite game of all time is Diablo II and he is unironically excited for Diablo Immortal.