Diablo Immortal is a fitting farewell to Diablo 3’s divisive visual style
As we await Diablo 4 and prepare for the imminent launch of Immortal, let’s discuss why Diablo 3’s cartoony visual style faced criticism but ultimately prevailed.
So, Diablo 4 still has a ways to go, but the good news is that Diablo Immortal arrives very soon – surprise PC launch included. Meanwhile, Diablo 3 is still going surprisingly strong across PC and consoles, even if most of its seasonal content is recycled at this point. But the grind never ends, you know.
Amidst Blizzard’s numerous problems in recent years and the impending Microsoft acquisition of parent company Activision, it’s been surprising to see Diablo emerging victorious as one of the company’s IPs with a brighter future ahead. For years, Immortal was mocked as an unwanted release that replaced D3’s long-term potential or a D4 announcement. Thankfully, the end of 2019 brought forth the reveal of the fourth mainline Diablo installment, so players started to come around to Blizzard’s vision for Immortal – an enticing side dish that aims to introduce new players to the franchise.
It’s hard to overlook the striking visual difference between Immortal and Diablo 4, and we’re not talking about graphical quality here – Immortal was developed with mobile devices in mind – but rather about entirely different art directions. While D4 wants to evoke D2’s unsettling dark fantasy vibes, Immortal pretty much keeps riding D3’s more colorful approach to characters and vistas.
This decision is easier to understand if we go back to the very beginning of Immortal’s development. First announced during the opening ceremony of BlizzCon 2018, Diablo Immortal was described as a collaboration between Blizzard Entertainment and Chinese tech giant NetEase. It’s easy to see that the game’s main goal was to make an impression on the Asian markets, where mobile gaming has become super big and is filled with really impressive titles that rival PC and console releases (or are straight ports, such as Genshin Impact).
With that in mind, we can guess a more cartoony art style would be infinitely more successful than a dark and washed-out approach to visuals. There’s a reason why most MMORPGs and grindy mobile games coming out of Asia (especially from South Korea) tend to look same-y. A perfect example is Lost Ark – now distributed internationally by Amazon Games – which doubled down on what worked (and still works to this day) visually for Diablo 3.
Another big plus of choosing an art style that puts colorful designs over a “realistic” vision of the dark fantasy genre is that the game in question will simply age better. We’re plenty familiar with this: video games that lean too much on having cutting-edge graphics are surpassed quickly 90% of the time. On the other hand, strong art styles with distinct personalities have proven time and again to be future-proof. Right now, D3 might be one of the best-looking 2012 releases around, and it’s been a decade already. Amidst all the fiery chaos and gore, it’s easy to read and navigate visually, and it simply looks cool; like a rad fantasy comic book coming to life.
Going back to Diablo Immortal and its targets, we also can’t ignore that it’s a mobile-oriented game, after all. Very few mobile games try to emulate realistic visuals due to hardware limitations, so it’s way more sensible to double down on a captivating look that catches the attention of potential players scrolling through overcrowded app stores.
For its predecessor, it was never about being more approachable by folks outside Diablo’s sphere of influence. While D3’s intent was to evolve the undying formula the second game made famous, the team always wanted to honour the first two installments’ legacy. At one point, early builds of D3 looked like a modern take on D2 – something we ended up getting with Diablo 2 Resurrected – but Blizzard eventually moved on and chose to think bigger and more colorful, bringing a high-fantasy sensibility into the third entry.
If you think diehard Diablo players have given D3 a hard time over the years because of its more flexible progression and skill systems, dig up comments about its art style. You’d think fans would be more open to different renditions of a fantasy world – regardless of its narrative tone – but that’s not the case. While many hardcore Diablo players jumped from D3 to Grim Dawn or Path of Exile due to their more classic, denser approach to the core systems, others did the same simply because they looked closer to the Diablo they grew up with.
Even Diablo Immortal has a slightly darker tint to it in spite of embracing D3’s overall aesthetics for the reasons explained above. I’ve always defended the third game and its big swings, which undeniably worked in the long run, but I also understand why it might be time for Diablo to recapture the full of attention of those who made it the juggernaut series it is today.
A last point I want to make is that making D3 less grim than the previous entries was essential to bringing it later to consoles across two different generations. I doubt that was something the team had in mind during the pre-2012 development of the game, but it definitely helped. I never felt like the PS3 and 360 versions of the game looked much different, and they played great too.
More importantly, the entire bulk of the seasonal post-launch content was carried over to the PS4 and Xbox One versions thanks to their fresh CPU power, with the absolutely fantastic Nintendo Switch port later joining the fight. The game looks and runs great on all modern consoles, and it’s been cool to see newcomers to the franchise getting to experience D3 without any cutbacks.
As for what the future holds, I’ve already pre-loaded the Diablo Immortal beta on PC, hoping for a nice little diversion that honestly feels like a fitting farewell to D3’s long and complicated rule. Once Diablo 4 comes around with its meaner and creepier looks, D3’s dazzling High Heavens environments and Warcraft-ish warriors will start feeling distant and dream-like. It’s been a good run, and I’m ready to embrace the future.