Check your expectations. The Darkening Of Tristam, the free, time-limited new mini-campaign recently added to Diablo 3 [official site], is most certainly not the full-on Diablo 1 (number added merely for clarity) we hoped for. Nor is it a meaningful bolt-on for those D3 die-hards who crave another hit of over-statted loot. If, however, you are a filthy casual, it's a refreshingly straightforward, aesthetically-tweaked way to return to an otherwise bloated game.
Here's the deal. The Darkening Of Tristam is only available in Diablo III's 'adventure' mode, which requires that you both own and have completed Act V from the Reaper of Souls expansion pack. Presuming you have, you can find a new rift waiting for you in the Old Tristram area, which will transport you to the new stuff. However, said rift will purportedly disappear at the end of this month, set to return again next year.
The most immediate change is that a 3D game from 2012 tries to look like a 2D game from 1996. This seems inherently unwise - surely better to recreate D1's gloomier, Doomier aesthetic in gleaming 2016-o-vision than use a filter to try and make it look like it's running in 640x480? But no, maximum nostalgia is the goal here.
The effect can look lousy and lovely by turns. The generally increased darkness does, to some extent, make this feel a touch more like olden Diablos, and the deliberately jerkier movement (the player character has fewer degrees of rotation and changed animations) gives it a lovely Harryhausen vibe that's missing from the ultra-slick D3 proper. However, the pixel filter looks a lot like some rendering mode you'd turn on in a SNES emulator then turn off again ten minutes later. It's... OK, but it ain't fooling anyone.
You also get a faux-retro overhaul of the UI and some 'classic' sounds in there. It's a wonky old package all told, but I must admit it feels rather nice, it feels like a thing - as compared to D3 vanilla, which is so glossy and flashy that it almost falls into a weird sort of over-produced blandness.
Sadly, the critical failure is that, underneath this remember-the-90s sleeve-tugging, the 'new' dungeon just isn't interesting. You get sixteen levels of gothic-demonic architecture that are meant to ape the cathedral descent of the original Diablo, but in reality just make for a couple of hours of indistinguishable floors, from which a few semi-new bosses sporadically burst.
Not that Diablo 1 was/is exactly a fountain of variety (Diablo II holds up far better), but this is still the faintly ridiculous pinata of Diablo III, not the ever so slightly survivalish, more punitive Diablo. Most enemies and items are simply returning D3 stuff, and skills and mechanics wise it's identical to the main game. This is Diablo III wearing its dad's old hat, and that's about it. You can't kid yourself that this is somehow a different game to D3 - either the less ideal straight-up D1 remake or the more ideal revisiting and improving. It's Diablo III with a skin. It is not un-fun, but it's brief and perfunctory.
However! I've not played Diablo III in earnest for quite some time. Diving back into it is somewhat overwhelming - all these modes and seasons and costume add-ons and pets and God help me if I want to try and remember my loot'n'skill priorities for my level 50-ish main character.
There are various options for the frightened and tired player to dodge this tidal wave of stuff, from starting a whole new campaign to sticking to do random dungeoneering of Adventure mode, but there's much to be said for The Darkening Of Tristram as a short, self-contained experience.
As it stands, Diablo III is a bloody long game about essentially doing the same thing forever, and I don't think I'm alone in saying that neither the patience or the time sufficient to replay the thing are guaranteed.
In this new mode, I got to do a couple of hours of monster-splatting with a brand-new character (you can use an existing one if you like, but you'll make it last ten minutes rather than a couple of hours), with a pleasing visual darkness to it, a final fight against a certain big red bastard and got rewarded with a certain cutscene.
Yes, my character can continue on doing standard D3 stuff afterwards if I so wish, but that's something I can leave for another day. I appreciate the completeness of this. And people who are hooked on special loot and followers and whatnot get some new gimmes, like a Butcher pet and special cleaver.
The Darkening Of Tristram is a wobbly affair, and certainly not the full-fat remake we perhaps deludedly hoped for. Even so, this is the sort of direction I'd like to see Diablo III continue to head in - self-contained vignettes, brief but complete experiences for the time-starved, and mercifully free from the tiresome barrage of stony-faced lore that bogs down the main campaign. Clearly, Diablo III is going to be around for quite a few years yet; I don't have any interest in playing the campaign again, but I'd totally come back for annual (or more) jaunts like this.
The Darkening Of Tristram is available now, as part of Diablo III's 2.4.3 patch. It is due to disappear at the end of the month.