Diablo III: Reaper of Souls: Same Shitty Storytelling, Different Year

So, last weak the expansion pack for Diablo III came out, “Reaper of Souls”, advertised as being about an angel basically going evil and deciding to kill all humans because humans are evil and suck, and since I’m still a fan of the Diablo series, and genuinely do love the gameplay, I picked it up.

Yes, this was even after remembering my post last year, The True Tragedy of Diablo III, which was largely about how disappointed I was by Diablo III’s storytelling. Not the outline of the story or the themes involved, of course. Frankly, I’d love to see that theme explored more, the sense of continued optimism and eternal persistence in the face of gloom, dread, tragedy and personal mistakes that was woven throughout so much of what passed for Diablo 3’s story.

I played through the new content, and, aside from a few bits that were just on-the-face dumb (the ending is pretty sudden and uninspired, not really resolving the events as much as just stopping), the story continues in Diablo 3’s grand tradition of coming up with interesting story ideas and doing jack shit with them.

Spoiler time, so apologies if you really, genuinely care about what the storylines in the new content are, but here’s what I can remember of the major and minor story elements:

  • Angels in the service of the crazy-and/or-evil Angel of Death, Malthael, descend upon the large city of Westmarch and start killing everything they see, turning the slain humans into Reapers, undead beasties that go around killing more people. The Nephalem hero from Diablo 3 shows up in Westmarch and gets to work stopping it, especially once the hero finds out that the Ebon MacGuffin (I mean, Black Soulstone) from Diablo 3 got stolen by Malthael as well.
  • When the rest of Heaven found out about Malthael going rogue, they had sent another Angel to try to find him and turn him back to the light, however this other Angel grew to agree with Malthael’s cause and joined up with him. And he clearly didn’t go alone, showing that Angelic Purity is hardly universal or reliable.
  • Each of your companions have their stories develop further, be it bringing down the Templar’s corrupted order, finally finding Lyndon’s brother, only too late, or discovering that one of the Enchantress’ sisters betrayed them all, instead of allowing herself to be sacrificed for Eirena’s sake.
  • While Westmarch is being invaded, there’s still politics going on. The city is ruled by stuck-up nobility, many of whom are showing their true colors in the horror. The long-abused underclasses are taking advantage, French Revolution style, but end up killing nobles seeking to help save the city, and even the King is murdered by a rival noble, seeking to put his family back on the throne… all while Angles are coming down and killing everything in sight, in the grandest tradition of idiots refusing to see the big picture.
  • And there’s smaller acts of heroism in there too, be it soldiers fighting and dying to protect civilians from the angelic horde, a random man rescuing a young woman, only to turn out to have been a deserter now bound for the noose, even a sorcerer trying to find a way to save the souls being taken by the Angels, only for the spell to fail with nearly disastrous results.
  • As you finish things in Westmarch, you find out what Malthael’s plan is: To use the Ebon MacGuffin to destroy everything with demonic heritage. While this doesn’t seem bad without context, it is a little bad when you remember that Humanity is the result of an Angel and a Demon’s union… and so Malthael plans to destroy all of humanity to rid existence of the demonic taint.
  • You also find out that the person that can best hunt down Malthael is Adria… the woman that betrayed the good guys in the main campaign of Diablo 3, killed the one of the most benevolent characters in the game and is a woman that the heroes, as well as most of the players, would be oh so happy to tear limb from limb… and so you need to hunt her down, mindful that you need to get the information from her before you kill her.
  • Once Adria’s dealt with, after some ominous words about how Diablo will find a way back, you need to go after Malthael, and are assisted by a very grumpy Angel named Imperius, who knows that Malthael needs to be put down, but can’t bring him to do it himself… so will just give the Heroes a bit of a leg up, even if he won’t stop being a dick about it.
  • And then you find out that, to destroy Malthael, you need to absorb the spirits he had taken of some of your countrymen (the people depending on your class), and thus becoming an embodiment of your class and your people.
  • Of course, you end up fighting Malthael, but during the fight Malthael shatters the Ebon MacGuffin, powering himself up as a result for the One-Winged Angel form (…although he still has two wings). With the killing blow, however, you find out that killing Malthael may have ended up setting Diablo free once again, and the game ends with Tyrael wondering if the Nephalem heroes will ever become corrupted and evil… because they’re certainly powerful enough to take down the Angels.

Sorry for the wall of text above, but that was rather the point: There’s a lot of story elements in Diablo 3. Angels falling and becoming evil, people fighting each other even in the face of a greater threat, small acts of heroism and sacrifice, the chance for revenge versus the need for life saving information, an adversary coming to your aid, growing stronger through spiritual methods and the eventual worry of power corrupting even the most noble souls…

And, like in Diablo 3’s main campaign, they do very, very little with it. Even the bigger elements barely get touched upon. Story elements are shoved to the side whenever possible, even when there’s chances to make them work better. There’s a few points in the game where “You need to go do these things so we can draw the gameplay out some more” shows up, and its little more than transparent excuses for you to go around and kill things.

I know what the reaction is: It’s Diablo. You don’t play it for the story, you play it for the gameplay! Who cares if the story is shit, it’s an action RPG, the story’s just there to drive the action! The problem I have with it is twofold:

1: Shit is shit. The story’s a part of the game, it has cutscenes, cinematics, voice-overs, there’s achievements linked to finding all the conversation stuff in the game. If its in the game, its worth criticizing, and given that they put time and money into the story, why shouldn’t the quality of it be criticized?

2: It’s not an excuse plot. I WISH it was an excuse plot.

Diablo 1 and 2 had wafer-thin stories that were used to string the action along. There were good elements in there, sure, but it wasn’t given a huge amount of focus, outside of the cinematics that did a great job of setting up the next bit of story. The thing is, when you get a thin excuse plot that exists just to drive the action? Its easy to ignore, it doesn’t get in the way and it provides a bit of fun.

Diablo 3, and now the expansion, are not excuse plots. They put money into them, there’s inventive ideas with strong themes involved, ideas designed to build up the world, a real sense that the game is supposed to MEAN something.

The problem is that Blizzard is using the same old strategies in their efforts to ‘tell’ the story. Brief conversations consisting of 3-5 lines, spaced 15-30 minutes apart, depending on the subject. Journals you’ll find lying around the level, which are all too easy to miss in the chaos of battle. A handful of cinematics that are mostly exposition. Occasional sidequests that are meant to ‘enrich’ the world, but are entirely self-contained because the levels are randomly generated, so they can’t be sure which small zones you’re going to stumble across this time.

It all merges together into what can only be described as Homeopathic Storytelling: A small amount of good story and plot in there, but so heavily diluted by the action and refusal to force the players into the story at all. The story so often gets shoved aside for the sake of gameplay that it gets ridiculous after a while, thin excuses for plot cul de sacs popping up here and there that never get brought up again.

Like with the main campaign of Diablo 3, there are elements in the story that are worth exploring, that nearly DEMAND exploring. Because Blizzard fails consistently to do so, the game suffers badly.

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