Last Epoch is the not-Diablo game every generation must have (2024)

It is written that whenever Blizzard releases a Diablo game, players will get annoyed with it — it’s too dark, or not dark enough, or too grindy, or not grindy enough, or the loot is no good, or it doesn’t work, or its business model is suspect. It’s also written that a challenger shall arise, a game from a scrappy independent developer that looks like Diablo and plays like Diablo, but is pure of heart and shall deliver to all those frustrated Diablo players exactly what they wanted but Blizzard refused to give them.

Right now, that game is Last Epoch from all-remote global indie studio Eleventh Hour Games. Last Epoch came out on Feb. 21 and has been doing very well on Steam, where it’s sitting comfortably inside the top 10 most-played games at the time of this writing. As can be seen on Reddit and elsewhere, many players can’t help but compare Last Epoch to Diablo 4. Many Diablo fans are treating it as a refuge from a troubled period for Blizzard’s latest that included a disastrous reception for its first season and a generally underwhelming response to what has followed.

However, it’s important to note that Last Epoch has been in development for a long time. Its first free playable demo was released back in 2018 alongside a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. In that sense, it can’t exactly be framed as a reaction to Diablo 4, which wasn’t revealed until late 2019 or released until June 2023. For its developers at Eleventh Hour, Last Epoch is presumably a pure expression of what they want this specific kind of action role-playing game to be.

We’ve been here before. Diablo 3 had a very tough first year, the launch in 2012 overshadowed by login issues, a wildly unpopular real-money auction house, and a flamboyant art style that many fans felt betrayed the grimdark stylings of Diablo 2. Some of the game design was controversial, too. Character classes had no skill trees, and players were given complete freedom to swap around their skills and skill-altering affixes, redesigning their builds on the fly without penalty. It was a radical approach that put flexibility before complexity, and alienated players who liked to feel their decisions had consequences.

Last Epoch is the not-Diablo game every generation must have (1) Image: Eleventh Hour Games

In 2013, Grinding Gear Games released Path of Exile, a game as gruesome and monochromatic as Diablo 3 was colorful, and garlanded with huge, spiraling skill trees you could lose yourself in. Many players felt it was a true successor to Diablo 2 and flocked to it, and it remained popular even after Diablo 3 had rallied with a superb expansion and console version.

Over a decade later, it’s funny to note that the narrative has (in part) flipped. Diablo 3 is now remembered fondly, while the series sequel Blizzard made in reaction to it suffers harsh criticism. Diablo 4 is a dark game with brooding imagery and a forbidding atmosphere, while Last Epoch goes for a more traditional high fantasy vibe, with a bright, vibrant setting. Last Epoch is a much friendlier game than Path of Exile and is clearly concerned with approachability, as Diablo 3 was. Last Epoch even clings to some features of Diablo 3’s design that Diablo 4 rejected, like its almost game-breaking heal-over-time stat. It’s as though Blizzard and the indies working in the same genre are fated to chase each other’s tails as they circle the fickle tastes of the player base.

That’s not quite the full story, however. There’s one way in which Blizzard and the action RPG indies remain quite firmly on opposite sides of a philosophical divide when it comes to flexibility.

What players particularly love about Last Epoch is its skill customization system, its tremendous build diversity, and the sense of creativity in character customization this affords. The classes themselves — Sentinel, Mage, Rogue, Acolyte, and Primalist — initially look a lot like the Diablo 2 and 4 starting lineups, although each can be further specialized into three subclasses. Beyond that, every single ability in the game has its own extensive skill tree, allowing a granular level of tinkering to your skill setup as you invest points over time. From a very familiar starting point, the theory goes, you could end up almost anywhere.

This was essentially the promise of Path of Exile — and, to some extent, Diablo 4. The fact that Diablo 4 never quite delivered on this promise has been part of the player base’s ongoing frustration. It’s all too easy to fall into certain popular builds, feel like you’re following a preset path, or shrug when faced with uninspiring skill customizations.

Last Epoch is the not-Diablo game every generation must have (2) Image: Eleventh Hour Games

But part of the reason Blizzard struggles to give the player meaningful control over its skill design is that it’s so strong and so full of personality. This is a legacy of Diablo 3 — and arguably of World of Warcraft too — where the designers’ focus was less on giving the player minute control over their build and more on giving them a swappable kit of distinctive skills in different categories — damage, defense, movement, situational — that interact well with each other. Blizzard is brilliant at this, so letting the players muck around too much with these designs would defeat the point.

Playing Last Epoch, I was struck that although the game plays very smoothly, the classes’ early skills lack the flavor, punch, and distinctive utility Blizzard offers. No doubt you can unearth these qualities in the skill trees, but a sense of authorship from the developers is missing. It’s a similar case with the game’s art, which is polished but generic, lacking not just the production values but the strong character and atmosphere of Blizzard’s work.

Last Epoch is fine — I’d recommend it to fans of hack-and-slash RPGs — but it sacrifices some of its own refinement and personality on the altar of player choice. I don’t love Diablo 4 either, and I think that’s because it’s trying to deny its own more authored nature, resulting in a lot of very lackluster customization, as opposed to the smaller number of more impactful choices offered by Diablo 3. An issue for both games is, of course, that Diablo 3 is still right there, and it’s still great. (So, for that matter, is Diablo 2.)

The bigger question, perhaps, is why this subgenre remains so in thrall to the Diablo games and is stuck in a cycle of litigating design and aesthetic choices within a very narrow spectrum. There’s got to be more out there for action RPGs — more of the varied worlds and innovative designs hinted at by games like Titan Quest and Torchlight.

But that is not the way things are fated to be, it seems. We have our Diablo, and we have its mirror image, our Not-Diablo. So it was before, and so it shall be again.

Last Epoch is the not-Diablo game every generation must have (2024)
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