It seems Diablo 4’s troubles are very much not behind it. After it looked like Blizzard had learned some key lessons from the reaction to the game’s launch, and the disastrous first post-launch balance patch, the developer has seemingly - and inexplicably - reset the clock with Season 3.
Season of the Construct is a strange step backwards in both its focus, along with the mechanics and seasonal quest it introduced. It makes it appear fairly slight for what is the third major content update. You could tell that Blizzard knew it, too, having very quickly tried to make the best of the situation with wide-sweeping buffs, and other changes that lessen the effects of Season 3’s controversial mechanics. All of that is especially alarming coming off the solid Season 2, which truly made it feel like the game had started coming into its own.
As luck would have it, however, the current situation has played right into the hands of Diablo 4’s first big competitor this year: Last Epoch.
Last Epoch is a name most casual ARPG players may not be familiar with. The game has been in Steam Early Access for close to five years. Last Epoch is a moderately-priced title from a small studio, and has only really registered on the radar of the more hardcore crowd, the type that will endlessly debate which games offer best loot variety and which have the deepest class progression.
But Last Epoch’s, well, Epoch in the mainstream scene is about to begin in earnest when it finally launches its 1.0 version and leave early access on February 21, which coincides with a Twitch Drops event that’s bound to get it on the radar of many who follow the big Diablo 4, Path of Exile, and ARPG streamers in general. Being locked to PC certainly limits some of that potential, but the game offers some controller support, and really, ARPGs have always been PC-first games.
Had Diablo 4’s Season of the Construct made any (good) waves, it would’ve likely sapped out a lot of the oxygen in the room. For it to be as controversial as it has been, however, means anyone looking for an ARPG fix has an affordable new alternative waiting for them, at a time when it feels okay to put a pin in Diablo 4 for now. I found it quite amusing that the game’s Lunar New Year event ends one day before Last Epoch’s launch, almost as if Blizzard is giving players room to check out the week’s hot ARPG release.
This situation brings to mind the launch of another long-in-development indie ARPG that you’d often see on lists of most anticipated ARPGs. Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem (what is it with these hard-to-retain names?) had its fair share of troubles during its development, and many of the original Kickstarter backers abandoned all hope that the initial vision would ever become reality.
Also a February Steam Early Access graduation – though this time in 2020 – Lords of Mayhem was one of Steam’s hottest games early in that year, peaking at an outstanding 127,542 concurrent players in its release week. The team was clearly underprepared for how quickly things took off, having to delay patches for polish, prioritise addressing major server issues, and fix save file bugs in the live game.
Last Epoch’s Steam peaks, by comparison, are much less modest. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that while the figures may be smaller, they represent a game in early access, so there’s every chance the launch hype and coverage will cause a big spike. It’s also wise to pay attention to the number of positive reviews it has (which is incidentally much higher than Diablo 4’s); this is a game that’s been built alongside its community, and the dedication shows. That all sets it up nicely for a banger launch, perhaps even bigger than Wolcen’s.
You can tell Diablo 4’s players have taken notice of Last Epoch, too. Its name has been getting dropped more and more in posts on Diablo’s subreddit, and some are starting to outright compare the two games directly, particularly when it comes to Diablo 4’s perceived shortcomings. The Last Epoch subreddit, too, is gaining popularity among Diablo 4 refugees, seemingly driven by a lot of the major ARPG content creators shifting their coverage to Last Epoch. Someone even took it upon themselves to create a guide for Path of Exile players, and you can bet one will exist for Diablo 4 in due course.
None of this is to declare Diablo 4 dead or that it’s over for Blizzard; let’s leave doom and gloom coverage to clickbait YouTube thumbnails. One can’t deny, however, that Blizzard’s unforced error will only help Last Epoch’s chances.
In reality, of course, the space allows for more than just one or two competing games, and as someone who plays a lot of ARPGs, I can tell you that the very same reasons driving people towards Last Epoch could well be why it won’t gain traction with casual Diablo 4 players.
It is, nevertheless, exciting to get something fresh in a genre as old as this. And it’s okay for different players to gravitate to different things, and be excited by one game’s way of doing things over another’s. Heavy hitters like Path of Exile 2 - which already seems to be learning from some of Blizzard’s pitfalls with Diablo 4 - are still on the horizon, and may themselves drop at yet another rough patch for Diablo 4. For now, all eyes are on Last Epoch.