This new take on Diablo 2’s zombie master is to die for.
While Diablo 3 has generally done an admirable job giving all of its classes a distinct identity and interesting mechanics, Rise of the Necromancer sets the bar a few notches higher. Even as someone who’s played half a dozen builds of each of the other six Nephalem heroes, the Necromancer managed to surprise me and change the way I think about slaying demons en masse.
While the Necromancer has a resource pool like the other classes – Essence, effectively a magic meter which recharges when you hurt things with basic attacks – their real resource is actually corpses. Anything you kill leaves behind a pile of gore and bones that can be turned into a bomb, revived as an undead minion, or consumed to restore your health or essence. I found this to be a fun and tactically interesting twist. When the fuel for some of your most important abilities is actually an entity out in the environment rather than an internal wellspring of power, how you move through a fight and set up combos completely changes. This makes the Necromancer probably the most divergent class Diablo 3 has in terms of mechanical fundamentals, and that variety is very welcome in a five-year-old game.
You can have a chain reaction of carnage that can clear entire rooms.
The other implication of the corpse mechanic is that the Necromancer becomes exponentially more deadly as a fight progresses, at the cost of struggling a bit at the onset of combat. It kind of reminds me of a ramp deck in Magic: The Gathering. As things start to die, and more corpses litter the battlefield, you gain access to more potent ability options and can usually snowball that into a runaway victory. Kill a minion. Blow up its corpse, creating five more corpses. Blow those up and you have a chain reaction of carnage that can clear entire rooms before the second body even hits the floor.
It’s also worth noting that I’ve never seen a pet class quite as crazy as the Necromancer in any previous action RPG. One of the core skills you’ll get early on grants you an infinitely respawning army of seven skeleton warriors. You can add onto that a beefy abomination, an essence spender that temporarily summons a skeletal mage, and eventually an area effect spell that raises up to ten intact corpses to fight on your side. They’ll even take the shape of the enemy killed, which is a really cool touch! Altogether, with the right build, I was able to have upwards of 20 undead under my command between permanent and temporary minions, which can get a little visually chaotic, but is also just a ton of fun. The core fantasy of playing an evil mastermind is strong here. If the other Diablo 3 classes are virtuosos, the Necromancer feels more like playing a conductor.
There are some other interesting builds possible, but none that were quite as fun or unique as the undead pet army. One of your passive skills allows you to eschew minions completely to gain a huge boost to armor, allowing you to play a tanky grim reaper who literally rips the bones out of enemies to armor himself. This strategy relies a lot more on life regeneration than straight toughness, meaning it’s still possible to get overloaded with elemental damage by elites and be totally screwed. It reminded me a lot of some of the really squishy, high-damage Barbarian builds, except while the Barbarian can be very mobile the Necromancer probably has the fewest useful movement powers of any hero. Still, I appreciate that the option is there to prevent the class from feeling one-note.