Diablo: Project Belzebub

This is where it all began.

Stay awhile and listen…

Diablo. Released in January 1997, this game kicked off a new style of genre: the action role-playing game (ARPG). Millions and millions of lines of text have been written about the phenomenon that was this game, and the sub-genre that it created within the larger umbrella of role-playing games.

It’s a game that’s hovered in the periphery of my life since I was a young teenager. It was one of the games we sold at CompUSA when I worked there. Several of my friends were completely enthralled and addicted to it. Several of my co-writers at 3DGaming.net absolutely loved the game’s dark and violent atmosphere. Even my DM at the time, in the midst of running an epic five-year campaign, found himself captivated by the sparse dark fantasy world created by Blizzard Entertainment.

Me? Not so much.

As is well-known, the late 90s saw something of a renaissance in the world of digital role-playing games, with the arrival of such titles as Final Fantasy VII, Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, Wizardry VI and VII, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Pools of Radiance, Dungeon Siege, and more.

Many of these games featured party-based mechanics, a rich amount of lore and backstory, character interactions, dialogue choices, complex plots, and richly-imagined fantasy worlds. Diablo by comparison, had…one main world map. Tristram. And below Tristram? 16 levels divided across four areas: The Cathedral, The Catacombs, The Caves, and finally, Hell.

Compared to its contemporaries, by this writer’s estimation, Diablo failed to provide several key components necessary to keep me engaged as a fan of the cRPG genre: depth, story, lore, characterisation, and an interesting world map.

And just to add injury to insult: the game lacked a save game feature nor any meaningful item or inventory management system. And dying in game? That felt like the final slap in the face. Did you die in-game? Guess what? Now you need to go and fetch your body – much like you would in an MMO like Asheron’s Call, EverQuest, or Ultima Online.

All the gameplay and design decisions made by Blizzard resulted in a game that felt like a massively multiplayer online game wearing the skin of a single player game. Suffice to say, I was not a fan. The game simply did not speak to me as a gamer. And that’s perfectly fine.

Time goes by

In the years that followed, two sequels were released, and a fourth is scheduled to hit store shelves within the next year or two. And despite its age, the original Diablo still has an active and engaged fan base – including, of course, modders.

And oh boy have they kept themselves busy.

There have been numerous mods over the years, including (and in no particular order): Diablo+, Diablo HD, The Hell, Infernity, The Rebirth, Hell 2, and Torch.

Each project sought to bring something different to the game. Rebirth, for example, uses the original assets of Diablo to tell a story set in the aftermath of Diablo II. Diablo + is a quality-of-life mod that integrates features from more contemporary RPGs as well as from Diablo II. The Hell ramps up the challenges in the game to nigh-on nightmarish levels.

Belzebub

And then there’s Diablo HD, a single-player and multiplayer mod for Diablo. As with the other mods, it took the base game and sought to make changes, many of them technical in nature, but some, as with Diablo+, sought to make the game compatible with modern systems.

What the team at Diablo HD have pulled off is nothing short of miraculous. In updating the game, they’ve made a few gameplay tweaks, introduced dynamic levels, new (and randomly-generated) bosses, new locations, and so much more. Though called Diablo HD, it’s actually two separate projects: Project Belzebub and Project Tchernobog. The former is a singleplayer and the latter – a multiplayer mod.

Rather than summarise it for you, here, instead, is a list of just some of the changes made by Project Belzebub:

Increased resolution and support for panoramic screens

Fully integrated with new windows systems

Many user interface improvements

New hero classes Barbarian and Assassin

All quests which were missing from original game are now implemented

Four difficulty levels available in single player

New locations

New special and randomly generated bosses

New spells

New character skills

New item types and affixes

204 unique items

28 sets with 105 set items

170 crafting recipes

Great number of minor gameplay changes

And many more…

And when they say “many more”, they mean it. One brave gamer, in fact, has gone through and produced a fantastically comprehensive write-up of every change and modification they could identify within the game, which discusses graphics, storage, classes, skills, spells, gameplay, difficulty levels, and one of my favourite additions – crafting.

If you have even the slightest interest in Diablo, this write-up by Quasit is absolutely worth checking out. Quasit went to crazy lengths to discuss all identifiable changes in detail.

Conversations with the Past

Project Belzebub is one hell of a mod. Nearly every design feature that frustrated me 24 years ago has been either corrected or tweaked just enough to no longer bug the absolute hell out of me. And if that sounds like a slight against the original game – it’s not. Diablo is piece of art from a period of history where designers we were still figuring out what games could and could not do, and experimented with all sorts of choices that contemporary audiences would find completely baffling.

But that was gaming in the 90s. It was the wild west. Designers and artists didn’t know what they didn’t know. So it’s nice to see that two decades later, a group of talented modders could come together to take a classic and find a way to make it not just work for modern systems, but to also work for modern gamers. Or for gamers who felt it came short of meeting its potential all those years ago.

You can learn more about Project Belzebub at the mod’s homepage.

You can also join the official Diablo HD Discord server, to discuss Belzebub and the separate multiplayer mod, Project Tchernobog.

Diablo III: The Order

(Image courtesy of https://diablo.fandom.com/wiki/The_Order)

Media tie-ins are a notoriously tricky balancing act for writers. On the one hand, it’s a fun opportunity to play in someone else’s sandbox and a chance to contribute your own voice and ideas to the established world and lore.

On the other hand, the stories they can tell are hampered by the restrictions set out by the parent company and publisher. Commonly, media tie-in novels provide background information or lore that games don’t explain due to narrative/design constrictions or because it would simply be too distracting.

Which forces writers to engage in a tricky – if not fascinating – balancing act, balancing their creative impulses with the boundaries and parameters set out by the needs of the text. Instead of reaching out to previous tie-in writers like Mel Odom or Richard Knaak, Blizzard Entertainment and Pocket Books instead decided to bring in American horror and thriller writer Nate Kenyon, best known for his Bram Stroker Award finalist novels Bloodstone and The Reach.

As explained in an interview with Kenyon, “The Order is an attempt to reboot the franchise, in a way, by providing the back story from the first two games and giving a lead-in to the third.”[1]

Not unlike the Star Wars extended universe, Blizzard Entertainment brought in new blood to try and revitalise the series and explore new ways to tell stories within the world.

In this they have succeeded. Kenyon’s horror sensibilities are clearly on display within the novel, conveying a distinct and legitimate sense of unease, discomfort, and a palpable sense of a world descending into darkness and decay.

Divided into three parts (The Gathering Shadows, Darkness Descending, and The Lord of Lies) across 40 chapters, The Order reintroduces readers to Deckard Cain, an established character from the first two Diablo games, and also introduces the character of Leah – who appears in Diablo III, as well as the monk Mikulov, who appears in several other stories, including Storm of Light and Brothers in Arms.

The Gathering Storm, the novel’s “setup sequence”, introduces the principal characters and a familiar face or two from previous games, as well as the principal antagonist of the novel, the wholly unimaginatively named Dark One. (Clearly 2012 wasn’t the year to retire certain exhausted genre tropes.) Darkness Descending is the novel’s road trip sequence, and is followed by the third segment, The Lord of Lies, which is a gripping and exciting action sequence from nearly start to finish, and shows off Kenyon’s finely-honed thriller muscles.

If there are any complaints to be had, they are few and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Kenyon’s penchant for grim and sometimes peculiar analogies can become tiresome to some readers, and the sparse level of description given to environments and characters might leave some readers frustrated, particularly those accustomed to larger fantasy novels where such things are par for course.

So despite a successful standalone novel, the novel does also provide some valuable insights and information for anyone about to sink their teeth into Diablo III. As stated by Kenyon, “There are major clues to some of the most important parts of the game, and this novel will give gamers a new perspective on D3 that they wouldn’t have without it. I think players who read the novel will go into D3 with a deeper understanding of why these events happen, why certain characters behave the way they do, and it will make their experience that much richer and more complex.”

In short, there’s something for everyone here. For Diablo fans, a bit of extra lore, and for general readers, an ambient and perhaps slightly underwritten but otherwise effective fantasy horror novel with a nice dose of mystery, intrigue, and character development.

Diablo III: The Order is available now in bookstore as well as on the Kindle store. You can learn more about Nate Kenyon at his website (though it does appear to be down at the moment).


[1] https://archive.rpgamer.com/games/diablo/diablo3/theorderinterview.html

Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness

“Chaos and despair spread throughout the Kingdom of Isilmerald. Its desperate people cry out, praying to the gods for help. But the force they face is no mere plague of the undead, or demonic attack… Something far more sinister, far more primal is afoot. Avarice!

Law and order quickly collapses as everyday citizens turn outlaw, attacking anyone unfortunate to cross their path…all for a few more gold coins. From high-born to low, greed spreads. Infecting the land like some divinely inspired disease, intent on purging the world of men. And it comes for you next!

Will you yield to the dark tendrils of desire coiling around your heart? Become an agent of greed and usher the kingdom into chaos. Or rebuke its seductive advances? Vow to discover the truth of the madness and restore the kingdom to its rightful glory? The choice is yours.”

Welcome to Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness, which takes players on a journey through the fantasy world of Yerengal.

A Kickstarter-funded single-player game developed by Austrian and Hungarian videogame developer GrapeOcean Technologies, the isometric cRPG takes more than a few cues from the Black Isle and Bioware games that inspired it – including the title, which has the same initials as Baldur’s Gate. No doubt intentionally.

Featuring real-time with pause mechanics, an isometric camera angle, an original rules system, and a mix of conventional and original high fantasy races and factions, the game has been in development since early 2018 and is expected to be released to PCs, Linux, and MacOS operating systems on both Steam and GOG.

Having clearly taken a few cues from more recent isometric cRPGs such as Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin II, the interface will no doubt seem a bit familiar to players of those games – which is arguably for the best, as both titles built took the ideas established by Bioware and Black Isle and enhanced them, by including features such as a party war chest and crafting skills and options. It’s not surprising then, that Black Geyser would do much the same.

Despite having been publicly backed by prominent industry figures such as Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart and InXile CEO Brian Fargo, the game has maintained a strangely low profile the last few years. Despite having a dedicated website and a semi-active presence across their Facebook, Youtube, and Kickstarter pages, there’s been very little active marketing for the game–which is unusual, given GrapeOcean’s intention of releasing the game some time in 2021.

Hopefully this relative silence will change as the game approaches completionm, as this game deserves the biggest audience possible.

At present, beta demos have been issued to backers of the project, and the company itself has released several free-to-watch demo previews on their Youtube channel (see below). They’ve even released some music that will be heard in the final game.

Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness is scheduled for release in 2021.

The Trials and Tribulations of the Nerevarine

(Balmora by night.)

After 40 hours, and 13 levels, another box has been ticked, another accomplishment made, another goal achieved – I’ve finally finished The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

Originally released on 1 May 2002, Morrowind is the third main entry in the Elder Scrolls series, and was preceded by The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall – the latter of which is commonly cited as the biggest single-player game ever made.

Confession: I did not like Morrowind upon release. Terrific score by Jeremy Soule aside, the interface irked me, the lack of any guidance from the game as to where players ought to go or do frustrated me, and the excessively open-ended game design failed to captivate me as a player.

A very similar feeling was had with the fourth entry in the series, Oblivion.

It was not until I met my fiancee and was introduced to her favourite game – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, that I became hooked. On her recommendation, I purchased the Legendary Edition on Steam for $60AUD and was hooked instantly. Its cinematic opening, comforting wintry landscape (a familiar sight to this Russian-born New England native), majestic score courtesy of Jeremy Soule, satisfying marker system, and expansive modding community resulted in a gaming experience that consumed over 400 hours of my life.

And after some hemming and hawing, led me to return to the previous games in the series that had, earlier in my life, left me feeling indifferent.

So I’ve gone back to both Oblivion, and more recently Morrowind, and have completed the main stories in both games, as well as multiple side-quests. And I have already started making mental notes on the write-up that will eventually make its way here.

But for the moment, I’m happy to celebrate an achievement 19 years in the making.

It’s still a frustrating game, with a UI that lacks the kind of flexibility that I would prefer (wherefore art thou, sorting columns?). But it’s undeniably a gorgeously designed game, and one that famously saved Bethesda Games from closing shop. In 2021, it’s a game that absolutely requires a few basic quality of life mods to be enjoyed – primarily in the form of the OpenMW mod, which updates the graphics, resolution options, and fixes a few bugs as well. That, alongside the Real Sign Posts and Run Faster mods (all of which can be found at Nexus Mods), dramatically improves the game.

And now that I’ve finished Morrowind, it’s time to revisit and finish the biggest game of them all.

It’s time to pay a visit to Daggerfall.

Dragon Age IV finds its single-player mojo

In what can only be deemed a good decision, Bioware and EA have made the very wise decision to remove all multiplayer components from the still-in-development Dragon Age IV, to focus on a tight single-player experience. Bloomberg broke the story this morning.

Following on the heels of two critical failures in a row – Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem – Dragon Age IV is widely seen as being absolutely critical to Bioware’s reputation. As a studio famed for its excellent single-player games, including Baldur’s Gate I and II, Star Wars: The Knights of the Old Republic, the Mass Effect trilogy, and the Dragon Age series, attempting to include multiplayer components in their games have been less successful. Though Dragon Age: Inquisition features a multiplayer component, it never quite attracted the number of players and interest that the studio and its parent company EA had hoped to see.

Dragon Age IV has itself seen a number of creative design shifts, including a previous pivot towards more multiplayer features. That change, back in 2017, led to the departure of creative director Mike Laidlaw, and resulted in several employees dubbing the game “Anthem with dragons”.

However, on the back of the success of Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, Star Wars: Squadrons, and the critical and financial failure of Anthem, the pivot back to a single-player focus will hopefully restore fan faith in the company and appease unhappy staff members.

Dragon Age IV is currently in development, with no firm launch date set at present.

Anthem’s swan song

Well, it’s game over for Anthem.

EA and Bioware have announced that they will no longer be working on Anthem 2.0, otherwise known as Anthem Next, and will instead, redirect all energies and focus to Dragon Age 4 and Mass Effect 4.

Christian Dailey wrote, in an official Bioware blog post:

“In the spirit of transparency and closure we wanted to share that we’ve made the difficult decision to stop our new development work on Anthem (aka Anthem NEXT). We will, however, continue to keep the Anthem live service running as it exists today.”

A famously troubled production (originally codenamed ‘Project Dylan’), Anthem lacked a strong direction and focus for several years while in development, and ultimately launched to the worst reviews and sales in the history of Bioware.

Anthem was one of several SaaS games that emerged on the market during the 2010s, alongside No Man’s Sky, Destiny, Destiny 2, The Division, The Division 2, and more. Despite some excellent design ideas and an absolutely magnificent soundtrack by Sarah Schachner, Anthem never quite found an audience, and featured content that had clearly been gutten to hit a release date.

Hopefully, Bioware have learned from the mistakes of Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem, and release games worthy of their name and legacy.

In the pipeline

Clearly, this site is very new, and as I slowly port over old content (primarily samples of my written work) for shameless self-promotion, the site will fill out. But the plan is to also produce new content alongside older works.

So the next cab off the rank will likely be a thought piece on the cRPG Tyranny, prodced by Obsidian Entertainment and Paradox Interactive.