Diablo's Descendants

This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
With Diablo 3's release date set, I decided to take a look back as the series' legacy --and play some of the better Western-style action/role-playing games around. Last week I talked about how Fallout, not Diablo, became the model for a generation of blockbuster role-playing games.

But Diablo did wield some influence. The first initial wave of clones didn't make much of a splash, but around the time Diablo II came out in 2000, the action/RPG style began to grab more attention. In 2002, Dungeon Siege and Divine Divinity were both released to some acclaim, but they never really fit the model of a Diablo clone. Dungeon Siege was as much Ultima VII and Baldur's Gate as it was Diablo, while Divine Divinity merged many concepts from Fallout and similar games with a real-time core. Missing from both? The constant clicking that, to me, defined Diablo.

That's part of the issue with discussing Diablo-like games. What, exactly, are the core elements of Diablo that get translated to other games? With a game like Fallout, things like player choice in character development and morality are quite overt. But there are many components of Diablo. An isometric perspective with real-time combat seems to be enough for some to call Dungeon Siege and Divine Divinity similar. Others may view the multiplayer as critical, or think the same of the primarily mouse-based clicking interface. They all can be right, to some extent or another, but those different directions have led to different styles of games, with some excellent results.

From Diablo's initial release, it was heralded as the sort of game that could potentially bridge the (then-massive) gap between PC and console gaming. The simplicity of the interface and relatively fast pace meant that two of the biggest hurdles in porting the game were removed. Although a port was completed, it wasn't for several years that new games took advantage of the model. The Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance games worked, but my personal favorites were the X-Men Legends games.

Part of the reason is that the two Legends games were good games for the X-Men and superheroes generally, but beyond that they were good games. They're simple, accessible role-playing games, where the statistics and items matter, but they're unlikely to overwhelm potential players. They also get the rhythm right -- the click-click-click of Diablo isn't replicated, but a combo system, designed for controllers, works just as well. I've played three of the four games, and all have something to recommend them: X-Men Legends has a unified narrative and tone, X-Men Legends II the deepest role-playing systems, and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance the smoothest, most polished controls.

Unified tone and smooth controls became one of the biggest selling points for the console form of the Diablo-style game. Two of the most celebrated indie games of the past few years have followed this model. I would hesitate to call Bastion or Deathspank role-playing games on their own, but they follow the historical model enough to be described as Diablo's descendants. Both rely on a unified tone for their charm, which is something that many of best of these action/RPGs do. From Diablo's gothic fantasy to X-Men Legends' evocation of superhero comics to Deathspank's goofy humor and Bastion's fantastic post-apocalyptic frontier, there's something about the form that seems to encourage developers to make more stylized games. I dearly love role-playing games (obviously), but not so much that I'm opposed to this variation on the form. Bastion was my favorite game of 2011, in part because of its mechanical simplicity letting its tonal strengths shine.

The formal strengths of the sub-genre are so readily apparent that it's odd that my only major complaint with Torchlight is its graphical style. It was developed by several people who had also worked on Diablo II, and in many ways it feels like it is just another form of Diablo II. The music, the controls, the structure, the town, and the storyline all feel like they're an alternate sequel to the original Diablo, with added mechanical complexity and skills from later games. Yet Torchlight's graphics don't match. They're more cartoonish and cel-shaded, even though everything else about the game evokes the darkness of Diablo. I just couldn't get into character design of the game's three classes. Still, that's a minor knock -- Torchlight is otherwise the best you could hope for out of a Diablo "clone," up to and included adorable pets who fight alongside you.

While many or even most of the Diablo descendents attempted to adapt that game's accessibility and stylistic strengths, other games took a different route. Both Divine Divinity and Titan Quest utilize straightforward art styles, leaving the focus on their mechanics. They're role-playing games for the sort of person who questioned whether Diablo even was an RPG.

Divine Divinity has slower-paced combat, and probably wouldn't even be called a Diablo-like game if it weren't for its isometric perspective combined with real-time combat. That combat is slower, and includes an auto-attack. It also has much more text and embedded narrative than most, even including dialogue choices, like Fallout.

Titan Quest is more mechanically similar to Diablo, perhaps the closest to Diablo II of any of the games mentioned here. Its focus on Greek mythology is fascinating, but may also have helped reduce it to niche status (I know I ignored it at first because it looked like a cheap God of War cash-in). But it has some of the most depth in character-building, avoiding the class-based model the genre usually uses, giving much more flexibility.

Perhaps the biggest recent Diablo-like game is the only one of all these that doesn't include an isometric perspective: Borderlands. Borderlands is a first-person shooter in perspective and interface, alongside a (very simple) set of role-playing mechanics. Two things make it particularly Diablo-like: first, its intended co-op, one-to-four-player gameplay; and second, its randomly generated items which give it much the same motivation as playing Diablo online.

One of Diablo's biggest influences on modern gaming is indirect. World Of Warcraft took several skills and skill styles from Diablo II, such as Paladin auras, and adapted them to the massively multiplayer RPG realm. From there, those skill mechanics were re-adapted into single-player games, most notably the Dragon Age games (as well as Final Fantasy XII). And of course, the importance of Diablo and Battle.net when discussing the history of multiplayer games and services cannot be underestimated.

So while Diablo may not have become the model for all future RPGs, as it threatened/promised to do in the late 1990s, it's had an influence in a variety of different areas of gaming. The diversity, evolution, and quality of similar games also speak highly for the sub-genre of games that came after Diablo.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.