I’ll be honest, I couldn’t really see a space in Diablo III for a Necromancer. Another class that’s based on raising gross minions and smashing up mobs from afar? The Witch Doctor seemed to have that amply covered, commanding zombie dogs, harvesting souls and erupting towers of zombies from the ground.
Oh but it’s great to be completely wrong. I’ve been having a wonderful time, raising the dead and casting dark curses. Here’s wot I think. (Note: this DLC review was based on playing the PlayStation 4 of the game. There are some minor differences between the base game on each platform, but the DLC is the same and everything expressed here is true of the PC release. –Ed)
Rise of the Necromancer adds just one major new thing to Diablo III [official site], a new class, bringing its total count to seven. The last one that appeared, the Crusader in the Reaper of Souls expansion, released – good lord, could it really be three years ago?
So it’s been a long time since Diablo III got anything as substantial as a new class. And it’s true that the Necromancer in Diablo II is much-loved. But with the Witch Doctor already performing a necromancing role so well, and the Demon Hunter providing all the high-goth skulls and pointy armour anyone could ever need, I just couldn’t see where a Necromancer could fit.
It turns out that the Necromancer really is something else. For one thing, the regal looks are a nice surprise. This isn’t some decrepit, tomb-loving pervert. The Necromancer is a proud priest of Rathma, sworn to uphold the balance of death and life.
Mind you, it feels a little odd to be spending so much time killing skeletons raised by dark magic with skeletons raised by dark magic, but the Necromancer’s male and female voice performances (Ioan ‘Poldark and Hornblower!’ Gruffudd and Eliza Jane ‘Mikhaila Ilyushin out of Prey!’ Schneider) are grimly histrionic enough to get you over all the vague incongruity.
More importantly, the Necromancer plays very differently to the other classes. The core resource is Essence, which is accrued through hitting with your primary attack. So far so Monk. But Necromancers have a second resource which makes all the difference: corpses.
For the other classes, dead enemies are just limp ragdolls, but the Necromancer gets to do stuff with them, blowing them up, transforming them into shards of bone that seek enemies, consuming them for essence, or raising them into briefly animated armies. It’s so elegant, producing a novel and finely balanced system out of the narrative point that necromancers raise the dead, and I love it.
The battlefield becomes a steadily filling reservoir, a shifting locus of opportunities to lay explosive waste to groups of enemies, to recoup Essence, or to create up to 10 enemies to fight for you. Fundamentally, you’re converting kills into kills. The more kills you make, the more kills you get. Kills upon kills. With many builds that use the Necromancer’s corpse abilities, you can become a steadily accelerating deathball, requiring you to start things off before you can start spending corpses and sweep onward. The only thing that can stop you is running out of bodies.
And there are ways you don’t even need to kill to get corpses. The Golem, which is one of the Necromancer’s more visually disappointing abilities because it so closely mirrors the Witch Doctor’s Gargantuan, has a Rune which belly-flops it into a targeted position and turns into a pile of corpses. This is handy for when you’re fighting bosses, where you don’t get an easy supply of mobs.
That’s not all. Necromancers have a third resource: their own life. Several high-level runes and skills take a percentage of health when you use them. Some take just a little, like Blood Rush, a dash-like teleport that gets you out of trouble. Others can be accidentally life-threatening, such as Corpse Explosion’s Final Embrace rune, which costs 2% life per corpse in return for the corpse homing towards the nearest enemy on scuttling limbs.
(Right at the end of the final Act in the campaign this actually nearly killed my Necro, which I’d called Gove, after Michael. (OK, yes, I wasn’t expecting to love him as much as I came to.) I found myself absently spamming the button, and only realised he was about to die when the screen went red. It wouldn’t have been so bad but I was playing Hardcore, where death is permanent.)
To mitigate this, many of the abilities are about recouping health, draining it from your enemies or gathered by your minions. Along with the sense of having constructed an engine of death as you trample across the levels, you also get the sense of constructing an engine of life as it shoots into your veins.
With this three-pointed triangle of things to spend comes surprising flexibility. You can go melee or ranged, damage-dealing or armour-based. Let me describe a couple of the builds I cobbled together.
Early on, I tried out one about raising as many minions as I could. I suppose you have to get these things out of your system. At maximum I had seven skeletons, one golem, 10 raised enemies and 10 Skeletal Mages rushing about. But as much as Gove was safe in a cocoon of skellingtons, it did curiously low amounts of damage and the screen was utter chaos.
What got me through the late game was my deathball build, which was all about running really fast and pumping out Essence-expensive Skeletal Mages. These ranged horrors did the bulk of my damage if I had the maximum of 10 out at once. To pay for them I used Devour’s aura rune to automatically suck up nearby corpses and turn it into Essence, complemented by a passive ability that increased my movement speed for each one, so I could gather them incredibly rapidly.
To extend the Skeletal Mages’ short lives I used Life Support, which cost 10% of my heath for an extra two seconds. To ensure my health didn’t go too low and to supplement my Essence gathering, I used the ranged Siphon Blood as my primary attack. To top it off, I cast the Frailty curse with the Volatile Death rune, so enemies would explode when they died. In practice, I got to run through dungeons with gathering speed, pumping out skeletons and watching waves of mobs explode before me. It felt dangerous, even foolhardy for a Hardcore character, and it was wonderful.
In fact, it took quite a lot for me to try something new, but I forced myself to try a build about being in the thick of the scrum, based around the Grim Scythes primary ability. I used Revive to raise the dead from around Gove’s feet and deflect attention, the Leech curse with the Cursed Ground rune to heal me for each enemy in an area, and Death Nova to deliver bursts of damage to everything around me. Blood and the raised dead were everywhere.
Diablo III’s moment-to-moment thrill was always about watching the utter power you’ve accrued expressed in gouts of blood, explosions and flames, and Necromancer has all of that. Maybe some of the Necromancer’s abilities are overpowered when applied in certain situations. A friend managed to game the powerful Singularity rune’d Skeletal Mage, which you’re meant only to have one of, so that he had six of the things. (If you’re interested, he used the Circle of Nailuj’s Evol ring’s ability to double the mage, plus the Simulacrum ability with its Blood and Bone rune to mimic the double mage twice, making six in total.) The combination is so powerful he can’t face going back.
But this is the kind of imbalance that exposes the depth and creativity that provides Diablo III’s lasting appeal. Should it be there? Probably not. Is it good that it’s there? Actually, yes. The Necromancer has turned out to be a fantastically gruesome expression of all Diablo III best qualities. With nice skills and good looks, it’s an enormous pleasure to tour all Sanctuary’s old haunts with a new special someone.
Diablo III: Rise of the Necromancer is out now for £13/$15 via Battle.net. It requires both Diablo III ($20) and Reaper of Souls ($20) to play.