After writing my previous article here I continued playing Diablo IV. As a reminder I am playing it on Xbox Series X in 4k. I finished the story in Diablo IV in July, just after the first season began on the 21st. My main character is level 53 now. I have also created a second character with the ‘start with the story completed’ option, for playing the seasonal content. I’d like to write out my thoughts. I’ve got three categories here: general gameplay, which is somewhat a repeat of my previous article about the game but hopefully with something new; a spoiler-heavy overview and criticism of the story; and a bit about the current first season, this games’ first piece of temporary added content.
But make no mistake, most of what this article is is my long description of, and complaints about, the story of Diablo IV. And that is why this is an article and not a review. My focus here isn’t on the gameplay so much as it is the plot. The first third or so of this article is about the late-game and seasonal content gameplay, but the rest is focused on the story and its conclusion.
The Game and Postgame
I finished the story in Diablo IV in July, just after the first season began on the 21st. My main character is level 53 now. I have also created a second character with the ‘start with the story completed’ option, for playing the seasonal content. I’d like to write out my thoughts. I’ve got three categories here: general gameplay, which is somewhat a repeat of my previous article about the game but hopefully with something new; a spoiler-heavy overview and criticism of the story; and a bit about the current first season, this games’ first piece of temporary added content.
Most of that side content is in increasingly difficult dungeons for high level players, the overworld unfortunately apparently becomes even less important later on, but still, it’s content. My character is currently level 53 so the overworld does still have relevant content for me, but I can tell that there’s only so much more there before you pretty much just spend your time in dungeons. That’s kind of too bad, particularly compared to Diablo II and its infinite content due to the randomly generated nature of the world, but on the other hand, again, the much more interesting and detailed world, with so many little graphical details, things to look at, all hand-designed… this is better overall.
Also, Blizzard did put some post-completion overworld stuff to do in the game. Beyond just leveling, first, you can do quests for the Tree of Whispers, which are scattered around the world and have real world timers on them. Once the timer runs out those quests will be replaced with new ones. The areas with a lot of these quests will move from zone to zone over time, which is interesting and encourages you to play again another time.
Additionally, in an area later in the game, there is a PvP-allowed zone. You can fight other players there, if they make an appearance, and also challenge its difficult monsters. In this zone, every time you die you respawn back in the town in that zone, instead of respawning right near where you died like you do just about anywhere else in this game. This adds higher stakes to combat, a bit more like Diablo II. It’s both frustrating and fun since I actually don’t want to die. This zone has its own exclusive collectible stuff you can get from monsters, and other players, that you can get things with, as well.
Next, of course, you could just focus on levelling, playing dungeons, getting better gear, and increasing your world tier, aka your game difficulty. For some people this is enough to keep them coming back, but it isn’t at all for me — I just don’t care about grinding or loot, remember — so I’m glad other things exist. As I said before the level I’ve reached in this game is already higher than any character I made in Diablo II. Some of that is because this story is longer, but the additional things to do along the way are a part of that as well.
The First Season: Season of the Malignant
And last, there is the seasonal content for the first season. On the one hand, the season is nice because it adds some new things to do in the game for free. You can pay if you want for a season pass that gives you additional stuff to unlock as you play, but the core content is free, which is nice. Blizzard obviously would prefer that you pay them, but I have not, I haven’t seen any paid content in this game yet that looks even remotely interesting enough to want to pay for.
There is one major problem with the seasonal content, though: you can’t play seasonal content with the regular character that you completed the game with. Instead, after finishing the game with one character, you have to make a new character, start them with the story completed which is an option that unlocks after you finish the story, and then you can play the seasonal content with THAT character.
This inexplicably horrible restriction is utterly baffling, I can’t think of even one single reason to block me from seeing most of the new content in this game with the character I want to use, the one I have been playing. I guess the idea is to force you to play the game more toe level up a new character every few months, since you’ll need to repeat this “make a new character to play the seasonal content” nonsense game every time they come out with a new season? I absolutely hate everything about this design decision, it’s one of the worst things about Diablo IV. It’s either that or the story, and I think this might be worse since it forces you to waste your time. If you want to make a new character that’s fine, that’s part of the fun of the game! There are a lot of builds to try out and it’s not easy to swap between them even within a class. But FORCING everyone to make new characters constantly is incredibly obnoxious and transparently time-wasting. This is really awful. I have heard that Diablo III worked the same way, but that is no excuse, this is a very time and customer-negative decision that should not be in the game.
I did create a new character though, this time a Druid, and decided to try out that class. The season starts out with a CGI cutscene which is decently well made. In this story, which happens after the end of the game, you are helping this guy stop the Malignant, which are living beings and demons who have taken in too much of Lilith’s demonic hatred and have become corrupted monsters, the Malignant. The setup is simple enough but it works. Malignant creatures can drop items with new malignant sockets that you can put new malignant hearts in. These you can craft at a workbench by the guy this story focuses on.
So yeah, the seasonal content is mostly just about grinding for materials to craft. It’s not exactly engaging for me. I know, the plot probably goes somewhere eventually, but as someone who really does not care much at all about crafting or grinding, I don’t know how much of this season I’ll actually play. I’m having fun with my Druid, though I do like Elementalist more, though, and are going back to Diablo IV in part because I am interested to continue with this character. Not much of that has to do with the uninteresting “grind for malignant parts” nonsense I don’t care about.
To be clear though, I’m not saying this season is bad; it’s free content, and any free content additions to a game are appreciated. It’s just not for me. (What does the season pass add for you to unlock? I don’t know, as I said I haven’t paid. Items, I’m sure.)
The Awful Story
So, as I said, I finished this games’ story, and the ending was disappointing even by Diablo IV’s standards. I can tell that Blizzard tried to tell an interesting and dark story here, but it ended up as a mess with mostly not very well written characters and awful plot points one after another. After finishing I thought about writing about the plots’ problems at length, but I’m not sure if it’s actually worth it. But I can’t help myself so here it is, a long discussion about the ending parts of this game.
I should not that I finished the game several weeks ago now so I’m sure I have forgotten some things. That’s fine, this games’ plot does not really deserve to be remembered, it’s bad. Despite that though, here goes.
(Please note, I will never call a games’ story “lore” because I think that is a ridiculous term that is utterly inapplicable for the kind of stories and writing you get in videogames. This is just mediocre storytelling, not some kind of historical knowledge that “lore” is supposed to imply.)
The Setting of Diablo and the World of Sanctuary
So, the plot of Diablo IV is about two things. On the supernatural side, there is the demon Lilith, the games’ main antagonist, and her once-love partner and now enemy the angel Inarius, someone you are loosely allied with but don’t get along with very well. The angel Tyrael, your old ally, is missing for no apparent reason, I wonder where he went. He’s never mentioned here. And on the human side, the lead is of course your character, an, as I said in my last article about this game, inexplicably superpowered person who is the only hope to stop Lilith from becoming a very powerful demon and dominating the world of Sanctuary that the game is set on.
The backstory is that Lilith and Inarius created Sanctuary and humanity descend from them. There is a great war between angels and demons, but since humanity are half angel and half demon they aren’t very much liked by either side. Again, as I said in my last article, I don’t like how this is almost Christian, almost monotheistic, but there is absolutely no mention of any God. Instead there are only hosts of angels and demons. It really makes no sense, I wonder why they did things this way. Or rather, again to repeat myself, there are hosts of demons and a couple of angels, with the implication that there are further heavenly hosts that you never see. This does not change to the end of the game, Inarius is the only angel in this game, and he was cast out from the heavens for reasons.
So, in the Diablo world, humans are half angel and half demon, but the demons very very much want to take over their world and massive hordes of demons will constantly attack the place, while angels completely ignore their existence and generally pretend that Sanctuary isn’t even there. It’s a bizarre setting that makes little logical sense except that it is a convenient excuse for a dark fantasy series about tragedy and lots of murder. If humanity wants to save itself from demonic forces they’ll mostly need to do it themselves or, in a Lovecraftian twist, use one demon’s powers against another. That last idea is something Diablo IV does, and it’s one of the more interesting, and successful, elements of the plot. You play Lilith off against her father Mephisto, the Prime Evil demon of hatred, in order to try to defeat both of them by using their blind hatred against them. I think this element of the plot works, once you accept that this is more of a Lovecraftian story than a good versus evil one. There are even three Prime Evils, very Lovecraftian.
Oh, meanwhile, in one corner of the world that you spend time in late in the game, people in a swamp worship a creepy tree, the Tree of Whispers, not Inarius or the demons. Here people follow native shamanist practices. It is suggested that this part of the world somehow is not a part of Sanctuary. I’m not sure how that works. This is probably the only religious group in the game with a mostly positive depiction, and it’s very shamanist stuff. And that in a “angels versus demons and lots of Christian imagery” game? Huh. It’s your classic “disturbing but noble savage shamans who are more morally right than the corrupt Christian conquerors” story, I guess. Talk about dated, that’s questionable stuff these days I would think… it’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not entirely right either.
The more “civilized” peoples do not get such kind treatment in this game. Indeed, the depiction of organized religion and the closest thing the people of Sanctuary have to a god, the angel Inarius, is very VERY highly negative in obnoxiously stereotypically hating-on-organized-religion ways. The church thinks the highest of Inarius, but he acts pretty much exclusively out of self interest. He’s not angelic at all, but is more of an extremely human Greek-style deity or the like. Despite this his human followers of the primary religion are absolutely, fervently loyal to his every word. Inarius even kills his own son at a key point in the plot because he wouldn’t help him in exactly the way Inarius wanted in his quest to get accepted by the heavens again. This fulfills a prophecy that the son has that Inarius misinterpreted to be about him. After doing that Inarius extremely inexplicably does one of the biggest plot hole things in this entire game and leaves the key to hell on the body for Lilith to find soon afterwards. The murder’s explained but seems out of character, it’s a pretty extreme act that I don’t think the plot justifies. And him leaving the key behind afterwards is just insane, it’s a plot hole so obvious, and central to the entire story that happens afterwards because the rest of the story requires Lilith to have that key, that it’s absurd. It’s so badly written and nonsensical!
So, maybe Inarius was actually cast out of heaven not for creating Sanctuary with Lilith, but for being so selfish? There may be some story which says why exactly it happened and why they won’t let him back in, but if there is I don’t know it. We know the heavens think little of Sanctuary, though given how interested demons are in conquering the place you’d think they’d care enough to want to stop them, but whatever, this is somewhat Lovecraftian dark fantasy, not high fantasy. Regardless, Inarius doesn’t know why he isn’t being accepted back either, in this game.
But Inarius is not alone, as I said he heads a church. This church is headquartered in the main city of the first area you visit, in Kyovashad. This church is very devoted to Inarius and blindly believe he is the greatest thing ever. Your character and the Horadrim, meanwhile, are much more skeptical, and you are shown to be right every time. They don’t get the lesson and end up mostly dead for their faith. The tiny clique of the Horadrim are a mess at the end of this game too, though, so really nobody ends up with a happy ending here. Even so, the morality here is stark: the true religious believers are wrong and foolish, the evil forces are evil, the good forces are mostly absent, and your tiny group of heroes will save the day but at a cost and after that will do some extremely stupid things for no apparent reason. But I’ll get to THAT plot hole slash sequel hook later.
But regardless, even though organized religion and Christianity has plenty of negatives, its depiction in this game is way too negative. The analog is not one to one, this is a religion worshipping someone who they can actually talk to and not the more metaphysical relationship real world religions have with the divine, but the game only uses that to highlight how dumb those foolish zealots are. Blizzard didn’t even TRY to make them look like decent characters… are they less awful than the demons, yes, of course, but they’re the worst of religion all in one group, all self-centered and extremely violent, with little of the good side of actual religion. Those devoted to religion here are murderous zealots. And Blizzard are too cowardly to mention the word God in this very religiously themed game, it is merely a world of angels and demons and not a creator.
The Plot’s Conclusion
So, what actually happens at the end? Well, after various adventures across the continent chasing Lilith and her minions and defeating plenty of demons, you finally find the door to Hell that she has opened, and the plot can move to its final act. It’s in a certain desert city. Inarius and his church army attack that city promptly, relying on that prophecy of his son’s (remember, the son he killed for no good reason) that he thinks is about him. This city welcomed in Lilith and became a base for demonic summoning. The church army purge the place with massive violence and slaughter the Lilith-worshipping population. I’m pretty sure you are supposed to think of both sides as bad, though the demons are worse since they are trying to take over the world in a way Inarius isn’t. He wants to escape Sanctuary, not conquer it.
After this, while your characters are delayed for a few minutes going around a collapsed building and fighting a boss, a massive battle dramatically longer than your short trip to the portal to Hell takes place in a long cutscene. That this battle goes on for so long without you is pretty much impossible plotwise, you’d never have been that delayed. It’s nonsense to serve the plot going in an inevitably tragic direction. You see, after entering Hell, the army of light at first fend off the massive hordes of demons. Then, Inarius and Lilith fight… and, while he was about to win, after he has a moment of weakness when he thinks about her, she kills him. She is badly wounded as well and retreats. After his death the army of light is utterly annihilated, again in a pretty unrealistic way, the portal was right there.
Only then does the cutscene end and you finally enter. There are dead knights everywhere in Hell, like a thousand times more of them than you ever saw in the city before. But that’s videogames, you can’t depict whole armies in this detail in-game in this kind of game. Here you fight through the demons, defeat Lilith, and end up sealing her father Mephisto the prime evil in the crystal you created instead of her, because he is the greater threat. The choice of which one to seal is a major decision for the Horadrim and it’s unclear which choice is right, but sealing the prime evil and not the one who wants to become a prime evil but currently is not one seems to make sense.
Now, in Diablo, the way this series continues is that it is explained that at least some demons can eventually reform. Kill a prime evil and they aren’t dead forever, they will be back. So, killing Lilith may not actually end her forever, particularly since she isn’t sealed in a crystal. This begs the question then, is Inarius dead for real, or not? It wouldn’t make sense that a high demon can reform but not a high angel, they should be equivalent beings. So maybe Inarius could return as well, who knows what they will decide on that front later on. This is a question I wonder about but the game doesn’t answer. Demons are the focus here, not the side of good, such as it is. I think their approach is misguided.
The Forces of Evil
And with that, I should move on to those evil forces, Lilith and Mephisto. Mephisto, in the form of an injured wolf, finds your character at the beginning of the game and saves your life from a storm. He then helps you out at key moments in the plot, thinking that you are the best way to stop Lilith from stealing his powers while he is in this injured state due to being killed in a previous Diablo game. You return the favor by, in the end, sealing him in a Crystal, though he’ll be back, presumably in an expansion, the ending has a blatant sequel hook that makes that pretty clear. I think Mephisto is decently written. His is a fairly standard character but it’s done well enough.
As for Lilith, the main villain of this game, through most of the game the writers try to create a dichotomy in her character. On the one hand, she appeals to people to make a better world, to throw off the chains holding them back, to unite Sanctuary to protect it from being conquered by the Prime Evils Mephisto and his unseen-in-this-game brothers Baal and Diablo. The game tries to make her message compelling. However, at the same time, she also encourages her followers to murder anyone opposed to her, starting with any priests of the light, then anyone who refuses her embrace. She’s a creature of hatred and deception and, as bad as Inarius acts, is infinitely more evil than he is. I understand how some people could play this game and want an ending which doesn’t end with her as the final boss, but I think that it was inevitable. After all, her true goal is to become a Prime Evil and take over the world of Sanctuary while killing anyone who opposes her. That’s not a message any decent person should be supporting. Want to stop Prime Evils from taking over? You don’t need Lilith, only our inexplicably superpowered protagonist, after all.
So, I think that some of the criticism of this game is off-base; Lilith’s role as the main villain is appropriate. She is the most evil figure in this story, responsible for countless deaths and doesn’t feel bad about that at all. But despite this, there feels like a dichotomy between her words and her actions. The problem here is the games’ writing. At every point in the plot more could have been done to improve the quality of the script, but it wasn’t. Lilith could have been written more consistently and better, but she wasn’t. I understand that the excuse for her inconsistent sometimes-pretending-to-be-nice attitude is “it’s her power of deception in action”, but it’s just not written well enough for that explanation to entirely work. Lilith and Mephisto are evil, but while the character works, Lilith seems like a missed opportunity because she could have been a pretty interesting character but instead ends up somewhat generic due to Blizzard’s lacking writing skills these years. It’s too bad, but that’s what Blizzard is now, mediocre at best at writing a story, too focused on overly detailed nonsensical explanations for plot excuses to continue the violence and war of the story and not enough on finding actual good writers to tell their stories.
The Horadrim and the Main Plot
And on that note, I return to the small group who serve as the protagonists of this story, your character and the Horadrim. The Horadrim in this game are three: Lorath, who previously appeared in the third game as a younger man; Donan, who is an old rival of Lorath’s; and a young woman Neyrelle who you meet early in the game. She becomes an apprentice of theirs during the adventure.
In the first few chapters of the game, a different one of them is focused on in each chapter. Chapter One, in a Russian-style winter forest area, introduces Lorath but the ending focuses on Neyrelle. She’s quite annoying here. Her mother was lured to the side of evil by Lilith promising her truths about the world. You end up having to kill her mother, though Neyrelle tries hard to save her and the games’ main character goes along with that for way too long — I don’t think an actual person would have done some of the things you do in this chapter- – it was impossible. I mentioned this chapter in the first article not positively, and for good reason. The dungeon at the end goes very far into imagery of Hell, too, it’s kind of disturbing.
Chapter 2 is about Donan and his doomed son. It is set in a Celtic zone. As I said in the first article, I think this chapter is much better written than the first. Donan’s relationship with his son, and his depression that lasts through to the end of the game after his son dies because of a demonic attack to take the crystal with a demon in it hidden under a fortress his son was in, is compelling. Donan cares, but he cares too much and it holds him back. He can’t move on. For imagery, this is the least disturbing one in the game.
Chapter three returns to Lorath. This chapter starts in a rocky wasteland inhabited by Central Asian-style nomads, but the chapter only takes you through maybe half of this area before it moves on and ends in the fourth area, the desert. It’s about Lorath and his drinking problems as the games’ narrator voice and comedy relief, I guess. It’s alright. The plot here goes fully back into focusing on the scale of the devastation that Lilith is leaving in her wake in somewhat disturbing ways, but that’s to be expected at this point.
After chapter 3 the group all unite, and you’re travelling with Lorath, Donan, Neyrelle, and a shaman woman for a while as well. At this point in the game though the chapter boundaries become murky, and I kept being confused… when did chapter three end and when did chapter four begin? I honestly have no idea, it felt like some random quest in chapter 3 changed its name to chapter 4 without me even noticing until a while later. If it had a boss I don’t remember it as anything special, and the chapter isn’t only in one zone. I really do not understand, were they rushed? Why doesn’t each zone get a full section of the story? The first two areas get full attention, but the other three do not. Play just the story and you’ll find yourself exploring less of each area than the one before, though actually area four, the desert, is the one you go through the least of by far; you only explore one zone of this desert in the story, the rest is left entirely untouched by the plot. You only visit it in the postgame or if you make non-plot-related wanderings.
Anyway, after chapter 3 ends in the desert, chapter 4 is also in that same desert zone, then it goes into area five, the marsh. This is when you travel with the shaman and visit the Tree. Again, the depiction of the shamanist religion is much more positive than the depiction of not-actually-Christianity. I know this is odd to say about a creepy tree with dried heads hanging off of it, but it’s true. I understand how it ended up being written this way but I’m some people will be annoyed by this. I think it’s stereotyped, somewhat questionably so.
At some point here chapter 4 becomes chapter 5, though again I don’t know when that happened. The first two chapters have very strong delineation and end with boss fights and a trip to a new place, there is no question when they end. This is not at all the case for chapters three through five and it makes the game feel unfinished. I know I finished this game almost a month ago, but even right after finishing the game I didn’t know exactly when chapters four or five started. Anyway, chapter five has the final events with the assault on Hell and such, which I discussed above when talking about Inarius and Lilith. It’s not very well written to say the least, but it’s an ending, I guess. The villains are defeated. Sure, a bunch of the good guys are dead — the church is decimated and Donan dies in an INCREDIBLY stupid and pointless way right near the end, I won’t spoil it because it’s so dumb it must be seen to be believed — but at least the villains are defeated… not that that means much in THIS setting with how demons just keep coming back. But that’s a problem for the expansion or sequel. Oh, I must note, Donan is black, so they killed off the black major character but not the asian or white ones [Neyrelle and Lorath]. Of course.
Following that, the conclusion of the game has a very stupid sequel hook. Neyrelle, for reasons that are incredibly poorly explained and I would call a plot hole the game uses as a sequel hook, decides to run off with the crystal that has Mephisto in it. I’m sure she knows better, she’s sure to end up corrupted and evil. She was strongly for putting Mephisto in the crystal and not Lilith for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time — he is the greater threat being a Prime Evil, after all — but who knows, maybe she’s actually evil and has a plan we will learn about in the future? If not this is a definite plot hole, she knows how dangerous those crystals are from everything learned during the story, and left with it anyway for who knows what reason.
And with that, the game ends with your character and Lorath wondering what they should do next. Go wander around and kill demons. Going by the story of the first season, I’m not expecting the seasonal content to actually continue the plot much, that is for the expansion packs. I hope they are better written than this game was.
In conclusion, the vast majority of this article is about something relatively unimportant to most of Diablo IV, its story. Blizzard did a fantastic job with the great graphics that do a very good job of being similar to Diablo II’s style but higher fidelity, the just about perfect controls, the well-tuned combat, the skill system with lots of customizability, various weapon attachments and affixes and such, and so much more. The game plays fantasticly and is a lot of fun to play. I am still playing this game sometimes for a reason, it’s quite good. I was just playing this game today and had a good time. Running around, fighting monsters, trying new skill builds, getting items, and repeating this process is very addictive and well designed. This is one of the best action-RPGs I’ve played in some time.
However, the story? The story is a disappointing, half-baked-at-best mess. The characters are a mixed bag of way more misses than hits, there are way too many questionable stereotypes that come up in the plot, the ending’s very poorly thought through, and more. Both the heroes and villains are poorly written to the point of sometimes not making sense. The game is set in a very Christian-inspired monotheistic world but they decided that instead of an unseen God (if there is one in this setting it is never mentioned) the people here would worship an excessively flawed angel who they blindly obey anyway. The villains are quite evil, but aren’t very well written either most of the time, a lot of their decisions make little sense. And on and on, the story if this game is pretty poor.
Of course, most game stories are poor. This is not a medium full of well-written deep narratives, to say the least; quite the opposite. I am okay with that, I have always strongly believed that in a game, gameplay matters a lot more than story does. However, when you put this much effort into a story and it ends up this bad, I think that needs to be discussed. This is my contribution to that discussion.
Despite that, if I was to grade Diablo IV, it’s a pretty good game, I give it an A grade. The strengths outweigh the weaknesses, just don’t get invested in the story… or your characters. Remember, you need to make new ones for every season and all.