I cannot imagine how daunting it must be to begin making a Diablo-like action-RPG. Not only are there so very few of them, but those that are known are behemoths. Diablo, obviously, then Titan Quest, Torchlight, Grim Dawn… Who’d want to deliberately step into their shadows, especially with Diablo IV coming out next week to a chorus of stellar reviews. Now imagine attempting it anyway, when there’s just two people making the game. That’s Ghostlore, just released to Xbox Game Pass, and wow, it succeeds.
To be a Diablo-like, there are a few boxes that have to be ticked. You need an isometric perspective, thousands of enemies to attack with an ever-growing number of skills, portals to stores, and most of all, a near-infinite amount of loot. All of these are incredibly tough asks for any developer, demanding not only a frightening volume of content to create, but also a spiderweb of aspects to perfectly balance. I can immediately see why most wouldn’t want to try. And it only grows my respect for developers Andrew Teo and Adam Teo (not related), who were undaunted.
Ghostlore achieves all of the above, only slipping slightly on difficulty, and even adds a few unique twists of its own to the format. A lot of this is thanks to a great deal of sense when it comes to scope.
Bringing the RPG action to Southeast Asia
Described as an “Eastpunk” game by its creators, Ghostlore takes its inspiration from Southeast-Asian folklore, including mythologies from Singapore, Malaysia, China and Indonesia, set in a peculiar conflation of the modern world and monster-infested planes and forests. Rendered in superbly drawn sprites, the world has a smart ‘90s look to it, while playing like a classic ARPG, delivering all the enemy-bashing, loot-scooping antics you’d expect from the genre. Ghostlore then adds in unique enemies, including a fascinating bonus system, and the ability to combine classes to create whole new sets of skills and attacks.
For the most part, you know what you’re getting here. There’s a hub town with quest-givers, merchants, and that person who’ll remove gems from your equipment, or equipment from your gems. You then go off to different grayed-out regions, exploring and attacking and looting, leveling up, switching gear, getting furious that you just found a better shield right after you spent all your cash and gems improving your current one, and chugging health and mana potions like a strung-out wizard.
But between these familiar aspects are some really neat ideas. (Don’t hate me if you’ve seen them elsewhere—they were new to me.) The first is the Glyph system. Glyphs are found amongst loot in vast quantities, each with a boosting property, like, say, “+12% increased minion HP,” or, “+81 MP”. These are placed in a tiled grid next to your inventory, in which new spaces unlock as you increase your level. (By the end of the game I had 49 of the 60 total open.) However, you can also find Compound Glyphs, that are five-tile shapes, pentominoes if you will, that then boost the properties of all the other glyphs that fall within their tiles. It’s a whole mini-game in itself, trying to fit your best Compound Glyphs in the best possible arrangement into the grid. And for min-maxers, it’s manna from heaven.
Another fantastic idea I want to see copied everywhere is how Ghostlore handles classes. At the start you choose from one of six—Sentinel, Feral, Exorcist, Hashashin, Geomancer and Adept—and then unlock slots in another grid that allow you to choose from their selection of skills. You can swap these in an out whenever you want, and quickly unlock more slots to include more skills. Or, you can choose to slot a Skill Modifier or Class Bonus, the former boosting other skills on that row of the grid, the latter unlocked for every four tiles filled from that class. But it gets much more interesting when you reach level 15.
At this point, you can add a second class to your character, and thus access all their skills, too. But in a splendid feature, if you place particular skills from either class next to one another in the grid, they combine to create a third ability, unique to that specific class combination. Put Sentinel’s Summon Crows next to Feral’s Unleash, and the two combine to create Summon Sunbirds. These are more powerful creatures, used to help when attacking enemies. Or put the Exorcist’s Exorcise next to the Hashashin’s Dervish, and the result is Summon Taming Sari, and collection of possessed blades that fight alongside you. Get to level 30 and you can add a third and final class, and start making even more combinations in your skill grid.
The difficulty with Diablo-likes
So many aspects to tweak will come as a delight to those who play Diablo-likes to meticulously refine their characters. But also, for those who just want to hit stuff with a stick, it’s all possible to use with a more slapdash attitude and just kinda hope it’s helping.
That does bring us to Ghostlore’s significant issue: difficulty. There’s not enough of it. It’s important to read this knowing I’m usually the person advocating for better Easy modes, or being furious about difficulty spike-shaped bosses, so this isn’t about bravado or elitism. It’s just genuinely too easy for too long, to a point where for the first 25 levels. (I’m on level 39 now, playing post-game content.) In this genre, that’s not necessarily a terrible issue, given how many play ARPGs almost like idle games, something to click on while listening to a podcast. But it’s definitely more fun once it starts getting trickier. (It’s worth noting there is a permadeath mode, however.)
Finish the main story, though, and you get access to some entirely new areas that offer a much higher degree of challenge, which is splendid stuff. There’s also local co-op, and of course the replayability of trying different class builds.
Ghostlore clicked for me just as Titan Quest did, albeit on a smaller scale. But that’s a selling point here too—this isn’t going to take over your life as Diablo IV might next week, but rather provide you with a shorter burst of fun, and for a fraction of the price.