Having played Minecraft Dungeons, essentially a Diablo reskin (not to be unkind to either game) and loving it, I wanted to dive into Diablo IV's early access beta and see what was in store, especially given how much accessibility has come on since the 3rd main-line installment in the series released around a decade ago.
After securing early access codes for both Xbox and PS5 from a UK-based promotion, I dived in to the PS5 version, live on stream, but first, a little context.
Note: I'll be referring to the game as D4 from hereon out just for shortness.
Once I'd got through said queues though, I had to link my Battle Net account to the game.
As a result, I got sighted assistance to read the written code that OCR wouldn't pick up, which I was then able to enter into the accessible connection site without issue. Having the TTS able to speak the code on this screen as well as the instructions could help immensely here, though given the way the game's flow is structured at present I'm not sure how viable that might be.
Once I got past this screen and was logged in, the brightness screen, the final one which didn't speak really, appeared. Getting through this and the following screens, at least in this beta build, was an interesting experience, for a number of reasons, but first, let's cover a huge win in my book:
The narration, though off by default, is enabled by pressing X on the text to speech icon. Moving up or down afterwards should enable TTS for the menus, though there are a few caveates.
The inability to use your actual prefered speech synthesiser and screen readre commands, including interrupting said speech if you so wish, might seem like a small point to some, but when reading so much in a videogame, any and all customisation as to how that works is most welcome.
Moreover, not everything reads. There are screens with buttons or elements that do not currently read at present or are unclear, such as how to leave a party, how to finalise any selections in the configuration process (which sometimes use unusual buttons like R1 to proceed to the next screen), or what buttons drop, unequip or mark an item as junk.
Though thankfully experimentation came to my aid, I would hope that in the final game, nobody would have to resort to that to know what to press to simply get rid of items they couldn't carry for instance.
The second positive is being able to choose between a male and female voice. Any options are useful to have in terms of personal preference for your voice and, of the two available (female being the default) I switched to male immediately and preferred it, using it throughout my entire experience.
Though I'll cover the scale of this a little later, the final and biggest positive is just how much actually reads in the first place. Of course there are things that don't like menu-based button prompts, how much gold you have etc, but these can likely be solved for in the final game.
Let's continue onwards to where my gameplay started, after the numerous configuration screens that I had sighted assistance to work with due to an interesting quirk. Specifically, throughout my testing of the PS5 build, narration didn't quite read as you would expect. For instance, even when setting up the game, instead of reading "enable text to speech", I'd hear enables use of text to speech", just by way of an example. This was because, as far as I could determine, the game was reading the tooltip alone, rather than the main text of the item and then said tooltip alongside it. But now, to the main game itself.
I created a Barbarian, with a little help. Why did I need help? because on PS5 at least, narrated content was not working as intended, or so it seemed to me due to the aforementioned quirk, including at times, no information reading at all.
The game first lets you select a class, most of which weren't available when I first started, with more planned to unlock in the second weekend of the beta.
Picking Barbarian as previously stated, I chose between male or female, again neither of which were narrated. Picking this then allowed me to select from 8 presets, arranged in two columns of 4. With sighted description, given there was no alt text or description of any kind provided by the game, something I wish we'd see in an RPG of this style to allow gamers without sight to enjoy the looks of their character the same way as sighted counterparts, I selected a character with red hair and blue warpaint. In a further tribute to the Horizon Playstation franchise, I named her Sobek, using an external keyboard to do so. If you aren't aware, the PS5 keyboard UI does not speak, unlike its Xbox counterpart, at least when in games, therefore facilitating that I have a wired equivalent connected or nearby at all times just in case.
Sobek then proceeded to be involved in a cutscene, after which you are in the first area of the game, or more specifically, a cave.
Diablo IV's first cutscene After you create your character, then, presented an interesting problem. Specifically, during said cutscene, there is whispering heard very audibly and setting an ominous tone. However, I discovered thanks to Jennissary (a collaborator from the states who streamed the game with me) that those whispers are not included in the subtitle track, which I personally thought would not make the horror element as clear in that sequence were they to be removed audibly.
This meant we had to resort to a rather crude strategy, especially given that there was no simultaneous control (as I was running the PS5 build). However, simple instructions like up and left, up and right, down a little etc seemed to work pretty well and I was soon on my way to a new quest area, specifically the ruins, the first dungeon of the game.
Dungeons are, essentially, small, contained quest areas where you kill pretty much everything in sight, usually complete some objectives and take on a boss enemy of some kind, though this can vary.
Fighting through the dungeon was far from easy, but that's simply because I, in an effort to experiment, decided to try Veteran Difficulty (in part to see if I could level up more quickly and given I knew in essence how the formula worked, in spite of never playing an entry in this series previously).
That being said, the boss of this particular dungeon was no pushover. Thanks to some helpful guidance from Jennissary as to health locations, we were able to get through the fight within a reasonable number of attempts though I did feel rather restricted when trying to attack it as it had greater range than I did at points.
I was very pleased with what I'd seen so far on the accessibility front, but wanted to put it to a true test by...
On the Xbox version I decided to create a new character, a sorcerer named by the random generator as Ayiza. Knowing what I had learnt from my previous run as the Barbarian Sobek, I wanted to see how far I could get, playing on Tier 1 (i.e. the easier of the two available difficulties, at least to start with).
Without any sighted assistance, I made my way out of the opening cave,, murdering any foes I came across with my newly found long range powers and utilising that glorious stereo audio to great effect to locate enemies and loot (how this works will become clear later). Wandering around for a while, I came across more enemies and the abandoned settlement, managing to find the door in part by focusing on ambient audio cues present in the world. That's not to say that it was easy, not having a specific cue for things like doors and having to try and think what was ambient and what was potnetially near an interactible was not necessarily a straightforward task, though I did adjust to it eventually.
Dialogue options narrated as I browsed through them, as did the skill tre. Speaking of said skill tree, which I did explore during my PS5 stream as well, it is free-cursor but does narrate and seems pretty confined, so it seemed as I played through to be workable all things considered, even if at times it was still tedious in places.
A DPad-based approach would make things less stressful in my opinion, as then you can guarantee you'll get to the item you want as opposed to floundering around for it for longer than a sighted person might.
Locating the door to the ruins after receiving the quest, I returned to the character select screen, then discovered on re-entering I'd have to find the ruins entrance again, even though on leaving I was already inside. As it had taken a while to find the ruins in the first place, this was a frustrating inconvenience, though given the nature of the game I can see why they put you outside, even if a closer location would've helped.
Speaking of enemies, Sound design should never be underestimated. The ease with which you can tell enemies apart can be the difference between life or death. Diablo 4, of course, has this in spades, with one particular example being the Fallen Shaman, a foe you find in the earliest dungeon in the game.
When I first heard this live on stream, I realised how distinct the audio cues were. This meant that when I next heard the furious rattling, I called out "Shaman" before the game even had time to do so. This instant gratification of understanding the same information as sighted players will doubtless help immensely in group scenarios in particular, though I was unable to find a full group to run with for this set of sessions.
All this makes for a much less stressful experience since, as you wander around, you can press A on anything, knowing what it is before you do so, without having to repeatedly hit the button (which is also your default attack button). Even if the text of most notes, tablets and suchlike don't read yet, this (like so many other aspects) can likely be improved for launch or afterwards).
That being said, there's a pretty strong omission as well in the audio department, which most might not consider:
This track allows you to hear visual descriptions of character gestures, interactions and, essentially, anything that isn't dialogue, though that is a simplification.
Having this in cutscenes would massively help with the comprehension of the game's story, as well as keep people engaged during what can sometimes be lengthy sequences.
This turned out to be a good idea, at least for the most part, as I discovered that you could drop items by holding X, so if I needed to pick things up that had just appeared, I didn't have to find a vendor to sell off other, less useful inventory elements to make room.
However, time came for a quest to locate a building outside of town and, though I wandered aimlessly for a very long time, in excess of probably 45 minutes (twice, on two separate attempts), I only got close once and that was by sheer luck.
Getting sighted assistance, once again, proved to be the best solution and, once we found that particular NPC, I was on my way. Similarly, when a new town was the point of destination, I managed to get there by a series of wanderings, luck and courage in the face of overwhelming enemy odds.
The best part was though that once I did find a merchant, selling everything and building my character the way I wanted to was pretty straightforward, even if seeing how I was progressing in terms ov levels and XP gain was not possible (I could see my level but not the XP left to get to the next one for example).
Once we got to Kyovashad, that new town I'd mentioned, I hoped I'd be able to progress from here with relative ease. But after spawning in the middle of town and spending hours trying to find an NPC, again I had to call on sighted assistance to get it done. After said sighted assistance left me to my own devices, I went off and fought a bunch of tougher enemies in something called The Deep White, An area that, due to the number of enemies I could farm for XP (repeatedly battling the same ones over and over) I definitely wanted to easily visit again. I discovered that I could do so with town portals (which returned me to the nearest capital.
However, I found that on leaving the game and reconnecting, the waypoint I had to that area vanished and so I was left stuck in the town once again trying to find my way out, which is not ideal if all you want to do is level up and slay enemies.
Incidentally, the town portal, when unlocked, is activated by pressing down on the Dpad. However, though the animation takes a while to trigger and can be broken by evading, having it be an optional hold could prevent accidentally triggering it when the game forces you out of a menu, for instance.
All of these navigational problems could be solved by some kind of ping system that creates small waypoint sets to follow based on your current area going all the way to the location of whatever you've selected to track, including NPCs, quest markers, dungeons, or anything else that a sighted player can view on the visual map. When testing, I was imagining something like Gears 5's Escpae Ping, where as you move, the game generates new breadcrumbs to follow.
Realising how frustrating this was though and wanting to level up and experience more of the game, I resolved to find a friend to run with if I could to also test related features for accessibility.
Consequently, I asked around and was informed that Mike, one of my regular crewmembers in Sea Of Thieves had the beta as well and was up for joining me.
Adding friends through BattleNet (or rather, in my case through Hearthstone as the Hearthstone Access mod makes finding your friends list very easy compared to the app's oversaturated layout) was the simple part. What wasn't so simple was actually trying to get together into the same world. I had to host a party and have Mike join, but initially he couldn't see me and, from what I understand, had to go through a portal to get to me in the first place.
Eventually though we were united, standing on the same ground. Now all we had to do was figure out how to follow each other in an accessible manner.
After the aforementioned group effort, through which I gained a few extra levels and even completed a quest boss fight whilst Mike and I revived each other several times over, all with just compass directions and melee cues, as well as the occasional emote, I wanted to try and push myself the last few virtual progress bars to get to that covetted milestone.
Well, with the assistance of a guide... or several, I managed to rebuild Ayiza's spell "loadout" so that I had both offensive and defensive capabilities to work with.
Doing so, though it did take a while and cost me varying amounts of gold (yes, you have to pay for your skill points to be reset, albeit in virtual currency), was comparatively painless, as by this time I'd got used to the interesting branching but free-cursor nature of the skill tree and its various sections.
Knowing that one of the final steps of the build guide I'd read was to get an enchantment, I resolved to level myself up enough to do so. However, that wasn't my only barrier.
It turned out that unlocking enchantment slots required completion of yet another quest and, as discussed previously, finding quest locations is achieved either through sheer luck or brute force as the map, though it narrates the names of locations and NPC icons for example, gives you no further accessible information on how to get there.
Some sighted assistance, enemy slaying and map usage later, we got there and realised an NPC had summoned us, for lack of a better word. Unfortunately, he didn't have the codex, instead asking us to find it ourselves and giving us a rough location.
It transpired that there were two objectives here, though only one was our main goal. We could find some items that would, eventually allow us to take on a boss (not that we knew it until we placed the final item where it needed to be and activated a nearby interaction) or we could find a chest containing the quest object we sought, the codex. Grabbing the codex after a long while of traipsing around just trying to find what we needed and getting overrun by mobs, trapped in a life or death scenario, I threw down a town portal (though I realised later I could've used the leave dungeon command from the emote wheel to potentially achieve the same result), I left the scary confines of the archive and returned to town.
Getting back to where we needed to go to complete the quest was straightforward, though of course it would've taken longer had I been trying to brute force it on my own. Thinking just handing the codex over would be all I needed, I revelled in the glory of a job finished, only to discover more enemies had been summoned in as a part of doing so. Taking out these foes was straightforward and, after talking with the NPC one final time (facilitated by his interaction being read aloud), I unlocked the ability to use enchantments.
With that, Ayiza's journey was pretty much complete, having hit level 20 during the earlier dungeon fights, though I could never figure out how to use enchantments in the short time I had left before the beta went offline for the days leading up to the open beta being available to everyone.
The accessibility here is staggering and, whilst you might think it seems an aweful lot like Minecraft Dungeons, that's because it works on similar principles but pushes the envelope further. Minecraft Dungeons after all is essentially a Diablo game with a Minecraft coat of paint, not to disparage any of the work put into it and many similar systems are in place, but evolve in D4 to be much more robust and workable, particularly with the speech rate adjustment seen here allowing for information to be read at a speed more befitting the player.
If examining those two games side-by-side though, it is evident how far Blizzard are pushing accessibility for this title, even at this stage in its lifecycle. I am so pleased to see menu narration in such abundance here and a lot of games could learn from the amount of information presented here, including the comparison element so you can see how much better or worse your items are when compared to each other, which is accessible and understandable once you learn the systems at play.
Though of course there are shortcomings, this is a beta. That's what's important to remember, there is time to improve these elements, make changes and add new implementations in for things like a sorely needed navigation assist, as having to rely on sighted assistance is something we want to do less of as gamers without sight (I think I speak for most people when i say that).
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this short slice of the D4 experience and will certainly be playing this on launch. I look forward to joining all of you in Sanctuary when the time comes, regardless of platform!
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