WillPower began Nightmare difficulty on the cusp of reaching CLVL 37 thanks to the additional experience he'd picked up in the Secret Cow Level. His Holy Fire skill was dealing the displayed 198-514 damage at a healthy range of 19.3 yards thanks to having SLVL 24 in the base skill plus SLVL 16 in the Resist Fire synergy skill. That was still solid damage for Nightmare difficulty, especially given that WillPower could usually hit the 514 upper end of the damage range by standing close to his foes, however it would clearly be far insufficient for Hell difficulty down the road. My hope was that this issue could be solved by finding more +skills gears to take Holy Fire further beyond the normal cap of SLVL 20; WillPower should be able to make his Lore helmet and Spirit shield runewords in the near future for +3 skills, followed by the much rarer Principle runeword using his donated Gul rune at CLVL 53 for another +2 skills. I also intended to respec his skills and swap from Holy Fire over to Holy Shock as the primary damage skill at the start of the next difficulty which would also add to overall damage capacity.
For the moment though, WillPower remained in excellent shape. His health total was outstanding thanks to my renlentless dumping of all stat points into Vitality while resistances were nothing short of amazing thanks to being a Paladin who could run an extra Diamond in the shield slot. I'd be losing some of those bonuses when swapping over to a Spirit runeword while fortunately having room to spare. WillPower was even able to take his fire resistance above the normal cap of 75% thanks to the passive benefit of placing so many skill points into the Resist Fire skill. I still had a few more levels before Resist Fire would be maxed out and then I'd have to decide if I wanted to begin skilling Holy Freeze or begin working on Holy Fire's other synergy skill in the form of Salvation. WillPower had multiple copies of all the runes up to Ort but nothing beyond that yet - I was really hoping to find at least one Thul, Amn, and Sol rune to unlock those Lore and Spirit runewords.
The early parts of Act One were not particuarly difficult and in all honesty were probably easier than what WillPower had experienced back in Normal difficulty when he was working with low-level Holy Fire. The fallen monsters don't have any fire resistance in Nightmare difficulty (not picking up their fire immunity until Hell) and their low base HP meant that they all died instantly from a single tick of Holy Fire. Only the shamans had solid fire resistance which meant that their minions would collapse instantly and then the shaman would be left by himself to be easy pickings for mercenary Durga. Most other enemies took two or three pulses of Holy Fire to drop dead which wasn't much different from what I had experienced in Act Five Normal. Blood Raven was laughably simple to defeat as the whole zombie mob collapsed instantly and then she was left to run around by herself for the next few minutes as the Paladin aura slowly sapped away her health. Progress continued to be smooth and steady with no real danger faced along the way.
The biggest change when going to Nightmare difficulty was the increased rate of bosses and champ packs, just as the same thing happens again in Hell difficulty. Most areas went from 1-2 bosses up to 4-5 bosses and of course they all had two affixes apiece in Nightmare. WillPower found himself up against more bosses with Cursed trait, or Multishot on the archers packing Act One, or auras like Might or Fanaticism. (I still don't understand why Might and Holy Fire are nearly identical from a graphical perspective.) The bosses and champs that WillPower encountered didn't have enough health to last for long against his Holy Fire aura and I was able to deal with them by walking in circles for 10 seconds or so until the minions began dropping, followed by the boss itself a little while later. I could see that this was going to cause problems later on when WillPower had less room to operate and monster health continued to scale up while Holy Fire's damage began falling off. I'd likely have to start leaning on Durga for more tanking protection in those cases; we'd see what developed over time.
A few more levels were enough to max out the Resist Fire skill at SLVL 20 and leave me with the decision of which skill to start prioritizing next. At first I started placing points into the Salvation skill as the other synergy option for Holy Fire. However, the damage increase was pretty minimal at only 10% per synergy point which translated to only 5-12 more damage even at SLVL 24 for Holy Fire; the base damage simply isn't very high for Holy Fire even with a good amount of +skills gear. I looked at the upcoming monster stats and realized that the Doom Knights in Act Four would all be Fire Immune here in Nightmare, plus there were a number of guest monsters in Act Five which would be immune to fire damage as well. That meant that it made more sense to start skilling Holy Freeze in advance of that need since the cold version of the Paladin elemental aura was also going to need a ton of investment to be viable. Thus I began the slow process of building up Holy Freeze skill while leaving Holy Fire capped out on damage for the moment.
The enemies continued to be a breeze as WillPower progressed through Act One. Most opponents have less than 1000 HP here and few of them had fire resistance which meant that the 600-ish damage that Holy Fire was producing was more than adequate. I thought that the tight spaces in the Forgotten Tower might prove otherwise but nope, the floors down there didn't cause any issues either. Bosses and their minions fell quickly to the pulses of Holy Fire without much fuss. The Countess usually won't come out of her chamber and I used this tidbit to kill her through the door, standing on the other side and letting Holy Fire burn away her healthbar in amusing fashion. The Pit Level 2 was once again shockingly easy to complete, with WillPower simply walking down the stairs and watching all of the fallens die in a single pulse of holy flame. Wasn't this supposed to be a difficult variant?
For once the Countess quest had been a major help to me as it delivered Amn and Ort runes to WillPower. Along with a Sol rune that I'd found from a random drop in the Black Marsh, this was enough to complete both the Lore and Spirit runewords for my Paladin (after Cubing 3 Orts into the missing Thul rune). I cleared up to the Outer Cloister waypoint and then hopped back into a Normal game where WillPower could purchase a helmet with two sockets available for the Lore runeword and +1 skills. The Spirit shield was a bit more complicated; I actually had turned up a Rondache with 4 sockets in a random drop which had no other item affixes. Then I also found a superior Targe with no sockets but an innate 11% resist all property. That was good enough that I took it back to Normal difficulty and used my socket quest on it, then dropped in the four runes needed to create the pictured Spirit runeword. This would be a terrible waste of a socket quest reward for a character who intended to spend a lot of time running endgame content. However, it made great use of the available resources for WillPower who was only passing through the game once and didn't care about doing endless Mephisto runs. I would have had only 50/50 odds to land the maximum 4 sockets from using the Horadric Cube socketing recipe and I did not have spare Amn runes (or spare Paladin shields) to keep rolling until WillPower hit. Besides, he only needed two more socket rewards anyway: one for his final weapon and one for his final circlet, which could be covered by the Nightmare and Hell rewards. There would be no need for extra sockets in the armor slot which would be holding the Principle runeword.
In any case, these two runewords added another +3 skills to WillPower's setup which took Holy Fire up to SLVL 27. Along with its synergy bonuses, the skill had reached the displayed 308-780 damage and an enormous range of 21 yards which reached essentially the entire screen. I was typically able to get WillPower close enough to his foes to hit the upper end of that damage range such that he was consistently landing 700+ damage against his unfortunate opponents throughout the rest of Act One. On the one hand this was very impressive: devilkin and corrupted rogues and ghosts were all dying in a single pulse of Holy Fire with practically everything else falling in two pulses. On the other hand, I had taken Holy Fire all the way to SLVL 27 and added 20+ synergy skill points only to get a grand total of less than 800 damage? Granted, that was on an area-of-effect skill that didn't require aiming or spending mana, but it still wasn't that amazing in terms of raw numbers. Hopefully it would be sufficient to get me through the rest of Nightmare.
The back half of Act One didn't end up being too eventful for this character. The Spirit runeword granted 22 additional points of Vitality which translated into 66 more HP, enough that WillPower found himself topping 900 total health before the end of the act. Higher damage from three additional skill levels of Holy Fire wasn't too noticeable since the monsters had already been perishing in short order even before adding the latest runewords. Weaker enemies like devilkin and skeleton archers continued to die in a single pulse of elemental fire; this nearly got me into trouble in a couple places as I kept blithely walking WillPower right into the middle of crowded rooms, counting on Holy Fire to thin out the ranks of his opponents in short order. Pitspawn Fouldog and his crew drew the Extra Strong trait to go along with their innate Cursed property, fortunately though they were on the other side of a fence where Holy Fire could do its thing in safety. Durga died a couple of times when I wasn't paying enough attention to his position while WillPower himself stayed nice and safe.
The liveliest encounter took place in the Cathedral where the central nave portion had the always-present Bone Ash plus a shaman boss and a tainted boss. The triple boss grouping put a lot of projectiles onto the screen at once (Bone Ash was Multishot), enough to kill Durga before I could sort things out with WillPower himself. Down in the Catacombs, there was a hilarious fight against four Dark One shamans who kept reviving their minions only to have them die again in the next flash of Holy Fire. Over the course of the 20 or so seconds needed to kill them, we went through repeated cycles of revive/die, revive/die, revive/die over and over again. Those poor dark one minions were having a rough day, let me tell you! As for Andariel, her well-known weakness to fire means that she has -50% fire resistance and that left her easy pickings for WillPower. We walked in circles around the blood pool for a minute or so, with Andariel not even using her poison shot projectiles until she was below 1/3 health remaining. Durga fell to the poison but otherwise this was a total cinch.
Act Two meant a return to the Sewers before venturing out into the deserts. The first two floors were business as usual for WillPower, lots of mummies and skeletons dropping to Holy Fire without much fuss as I was used to by now. The Burning Dead skeletons actually had a lot of fire resistance (75%) but even having effectively 4x health wasn't enough to keep them standing upright for long. Then WillPower entered the third floor and I was confronted with the first real obstacle of the run:
All of the Burning Dead mages were Fire Immune, the first such class of opponents to have that property. I should have remembered that these monsters start out with fire immunity on Nightmare difficulty, for whatever reason I didn't think WillPower would run across this problem until the Doom Knights in Act Four. This meant that I had to fall back on the Holy Freeze aura to deal damage, and even though I had already begun adding skill points there in anticipation of future use, Holy Freeze was still pretty sad at the moment. I think that it was SLVL 9 with no synergy points invested in Resist Cold yet which meant the damage was, uh, 11-24 per pulse of Holy Freeze. Yeah, that wasn't going to get the job done against foes with 500 HP! However, even though the damage from Holy Freeze was pathetic at the moment, it did shoot out a freezing wave that slowed everything in range along with each pulse. This is the real benefit of Holy Freeze as the slow was already a healthy 48% and ticking upwards to higher amounts with each additional skill point invested. This slow applied to both enemy movement and enemy attack speed which made it function like a Paladin version of Decrepify, unfortunately without the physical resistance debuff.
Thus WillPower was forced to apply Holy Freeze's slow and then work through the deliberately limited damage of his mercenary companion Durga. I had intentionally kept him using that sad little Prevent Monster Heal bardiche that had no increased damage on it whatsoever and it took some real tactical execution to get Durga into position where he was only facing one or two mages at a time. Against mixed mobs I would run Holy Fire until everything other than the Fire Immune mages were dead, then swap over to Holy Freeze to slow the survivors for Durga to cut them down. All told, this one floor took far more effort on my part than the previous dozen areas put together. Radament himself was honestly easier than the run-of-the-mill opponents because he was hanging out with Horror skeletons that lacked fire immunity. I put the extra skill point in - you guessed it - Holy Freeze.
As soon as the Sewers were finished, it was back to cruising on easy street for WillPower. I avoided drawing Sand Leapers in the Rocky Waste which meant that everything WillPower was facing had no fire resistance whatsoever. Vultures and spear cats and beetles all died in a single flash of Holy Fire if WillPower could get close enough to them. The underground areas were a bit tighter on movement without being any harder in terms of opposition. The Stony Tomb had the same monster mix of skeletons and beetles and mummies which had been dying with great prejudice everywhere else. (I will say that the skeletons have a really cool death animation here in D2R which I was able to capture in a couple of different pictures.) The Halls of the Dead added greater mummies into the picture for the first time which... didn't really do anything to increase the challenge level. The Returned skeletons had no fire resistance and died in one shot of Holy Fire (again, presuming that WillPower could get into melee range) which left the greater mummies with nothing to protect them. The Paladin elemental auras continued to be awesome at area-of-effect damage and therefore had zero problems mowing down big crowds of skeletons. The Burning Dead in the Tombs should be a bit tougher since they would at least take several pulses of Holy Fire before they croaked.
The most noteworthy area in this part of the game was the Maggot Lair since the tight corridors are so different from everywhere else. This wasn't a particularly tough place for WillPower to navigate since he could usually only be attacked by one enemy at a time. It wasn't much fun to be unable to maneuver though and he spent a lot of time tanking the attacks from individual beetles and maggots as Holy Fire burned through their health. At least Coldworm was really easy since the area damage properties of Holy Fire cut right through all of the maggots in the back and instantly eliminated any of the little bugs when they popped out of eggs.
The Lost City and Ancient Tunnels passed by without leaving much of an impression on me. I remember that Dark Elder and his minions were the only zombies to spawn in the Lost City and the artificial darkness from the Black Sun quest (the single most pointless quest in the whole game) made the Holy Fire particles pop out more distinctly on the screen. The only unkillable enemies here were the Fire Towers who had 90% fire resistance and therefore were taking something like 70-80 damage at a time against their 13k health total. I took the time to kill one of them to prove it could be done and then skipped the handful of others that popped up because it was just too tedious. By contrast, the Claw Viper Temple was packed full of snakes that had zero fire resistance and relatively low HP; they were mostly dying in two pulses of Holy Fire and almost never survived for a third blast. The tiny second floor of the temple also had nothing but snakes, only a single Guardian in the back corner, which WillPower did his best to lure out in small groups. Fangskin turned out to be lurking behind the central altar and most of the vipers were dead by the time that the confrontation took place; I tossed a Super Healing potion at Durga and fortunately he survived long enough for Holy Fire to take down the boss.
The Palace was mostly routine for WillPower as he was one character that wasn't terribly bothered by the swarms of skeleton archers always lurking down there. He could walk in circles dodging their arrows - not needing to pause to attack or cast spells as basically every other character would require - while waiting for Holy Fire to burn through them. It was all going swimmingly until WillPower ran into this Fire Enchanted / Spectral Hit blunderbore boss on the third floor:
Blunderbores naturally have no fire resistance in Nightmare but the Fire Enchanted trait added 75% resistance to this customer. Now I still didn't think much of this opponent since WillPower confronted bosses all the time with various different boss traits, only to find that the extra fire resistance made this boss too study to be overcome with Holy Fire alone. The innate monster regen was enough to completely counteract the damage from the fire pulses! This was why I had given a weapon with Prevent Monster Heal to my mercenary companion, specifically so that heavily resistant bosses could be whittled down over time, except that I found to my shock that the boss was still regenerating health! What?! Was there some kind of a bug introduced into D2R in one of the patches or have mercenaries always failed to apply Prevent Monster Heal from their weapons (?) Regardless, my original plan for dealing with these situations was now in shambles. I actually had better luck by swapping over to Holy Freeze as the chilling effect allowed Durga to get in enough attacks without being interrupted to overcome the monster regen rate. This was a real problem going forward though and I resolved to find a better solution for the future. Eventually I would find a polearm with poison damage on it which would effectively function as a form of Prevent Monster Heal and swap Durga over to that.
I've spent much of the report up to this point in time discussing how areas were surprisingly easy for WillPower. The Arcane Sanctuary in Nightmare was the first place where he had to exert some real effort to make progress:
The Arcane Sanctuary always has the same three monsters present: Hell Clan goats, Spectres, and Ghoul Lord vampires. The spectres were completely irrelevant for WillPower; with zero fire resistance and low health totals they were dying in a single flash of Holy Fire most of the time. However, the vampires were study enough that they took three or four pluses of the ability to drop and the goats were packing 70% fire resistance to make them genuinely tanky. They had over 1000 HP on average and Holy Fire was only doing about 150 damage at a time to them which meant a lot of footwork on the narrow passageways while chipping away at their lifebars. WillPower was a very study character himself with more than a thousand HP which meant that the danger factor was low. Still, it took more time than expected to clear out all four of the quadrants, especially when goat bosses or champ packs appeared. I was pretty happy to be finished with this area.
The Canyon of the Magi was full of crushers and beetles which would have been dangerous in tight spaces but didn't pose too much of a threat in the open desert. Those melee opponents don't become truly scary until they get juiced up with extra speed and much higher damage in Hell difficulty. The True Tomb was located in Tomb #5 and I started the process of going through the False Tombs over on the far left side of the Canyon. There were beeles and vampires in there which made for fun screenshots like this one:
The beetles had no fire resistance and just wilted to the power of Holy Fire, dying in one or two pulses in mass droves. Mummies were almost as easy to kill although they had a bit more health while apparitions were even weaker opponents since their physical resistance did them absolutely no good. Unfortunately the Tombs had plenty of Burning Dead / Unraveler combos as always and these were the toughest enemies to defeat by a wide margin. The skeletons were all heavily fire resistant which forced a lot of Holy Fire bursts before they could be killed while the Unravelers would sit in the rear and revive the buggers over and over again. The biggest tool in the arsenal for WillPower here was the sheer range of Holy Fire; at SLVL 27, it was reaching 21 yards away which was often enough to hit Unravelers through doorways in the next room over. The damage would be minimal at that distance, half the amount close up, but it was enough to kill off Unravelers after a dozen or so pulses. This definitely worked although it was a long process at times and I had to be careful not to expose WillPower to too many monsters at once.
The first False Tomb kept going on and on which meant that it was only a matter of time until this fellow appeared:
Unfortunately I had a terrible draw on one of Kaa's extra abilities: Fire Enchanted, ugh! This took him from 0% fire resistance up to 75% fire resistance, and if that random blunderbore boss back in the Palace has been a tough cookie thanks to this boss ability, you know it had to be vastly worse on Kaa himself. The first order of business was separating Kaa from his attending minions; I started by wiping out the beetles almost instantaneously and then settled down to the harder task of getting rid of the resurrectable skeletons. I had no option but to run Holy Freeze aura here so that their bodies had a chance of shattering upon death, the only way to stop Kaa from bringing them back to life. Kaa himself was regenerating health faster than WillPower could damage him which meant bum-rushing the boss himself was out. This was a tedious process that relied on Durga's damage since Holy Freeze was still outputting a rather pathetic 25-52 damage at a time, and despite my best efforts, the mercenary still died several times and had to be revived back in town. Eventually I managed to get Kaa's minions down to a single skeleton and then was trapped: Kaa was healing him faster than I could damage the stupid thing! Hmmm, I've been playing this game for 20 years and I didn't even know that the greater mummies COULD heal their skeleton minions. Usually the Burning Dead die so fast that there's no chance to watch that in action.
After some trial and error, I had WillPower himself stand next to Kaa and tank the greater mummy's melee blows while Durga killed the last skeleton, repeating the process a couple of times until Holy Freeze could get the corpse to shatter. Then the two of us together worked on Kaa once he was stripped of all minions, again with WillPower doing the tanking to ensure that Durga would keep auto attacking without interruption. Holy Freeze worked better here than Holy Fire and we very slowly cut through Kaa's lifebar until he too was finished. Whew, what a lot of work that was, close to 20 minutes of real-world time spent in this little corner of the False Tomb! This was when I resolved to get a spear with poison damage on it to prevent monster healing as I didn't want another repeat of this fiasco.
That was the worst fight that WillPower encountered in the False Tombs by a wide margin. Fortunately the remainder of the tombs were more straightforward, even if almost all of them had Unravelers and their skeleton minions present. I believe it was in Tomb #3 where a random critter dropped a gold-colored Full Plate Mail which sure enough was the unique Goldskin armor. I realized immediately that this would be a perfect choice for Durga to wear: a humongous defensive rating bonus to synergize with his Defiance aura and 35% resist all to protect him against elemental damge. Furthermore, I knew that I could use the Horadric Cube recipe to update this from full plate to its exceptional equivalent Chaos Armor type. I was missing a Shael rune for that particular recipe but had the good luck to find a third Sol rune in one of the next couple of False Tombs which allowed me to convert three Sols into a Shael. The upgraded Goldskin now had 766 base armor rating, 4138 Defense when Durga was running his Defiance aura - woohoo! Then I ran into another small problem: Chaos Armor has a requirement of 140 Strength and Durga only had 132 Strength at the moment. The solution there was to refresh the Act 2 merchants until one of them offered a spear with +8 Strength on it which only took about five minutes of searching, at which point in time I took the above screenshot. I could ditch the Strength polearm in favor of the poison damage one after a few more levels for Durga.
Speaking of levels, WillPower had hit Level 53 while clearing out the last few False Tombs. This meant that he could finally make the Principle runeword using his donated Gul rune and gain another +2 skills from the armor slot. Except that there was one problem: the runeword also requires Ral and Eld runes and I didn't have any Ral runes on hand! I had used up all of my Rals when making the Spirit runeword earlier (having to do a lot of rune upgrading to land all the pieces) and I'd never found a replacement since then. This is the kind of situation that your typical player can never imagine happening, as they'll just grab whatever low-tier rune they need from their stash where they have half a dozen of everything sitting around. WillPower has to find all of his own stuff though and, well, I had forgotten to make sure that I saved a Ral rune for this exact need. I was similarly looking to Cube him a Garnet Ring for some extra fire resistance and didn't have the Exploding Potion needed for that Cube recipe either! At least I was guaranteed a Ral rune from the Act Five quest reward; hopefully I'd find one (or seveal more Tals) at some point before then.
That left Duriel as the last remaining opponent in Act Two (after spending half an hour clearing out the True Tomb). I'm always at least somewhat nervous about this boss fight because there's no room at all to maneuver in Duriel's little chamber plus his own Holy Freeze aura slows all movement. The plan was to rely on Durga for tanking by taking advantage of that huge increase in his Defensive rating (the monsters in the True Tomb had been missing him MUCH more often after making the armor swap to Goldskin). I wasn't sure if I could use red potions or would have to feed Durga purple rejuvs to stay alive, one way or another though I'd be hiding behind the mercenary. Down we went into Duriel's lair and it turned out that this was one place where having a high Defense rating actually helped out. Durga proved to be study enough that I could feed him red potions without being in too much danger while we slowly watched Holy Fire tick away at the demon's health. This was a slow, slow process as Duriel has 55k health in Nightmare along with 50% fire resistance plus I wasn't sure if he was regenerating HP due to a lack of Prevent Monster Heal or poison damage. We had to go back to town several time for potion refills and there was one point where Duriel landed several blows in rapid succession and I had to feed Durga a full rejuv. Nevertheless, everything pretty much went exactly as I hoped and Duriel eventually keeled over, another foe fallen before the power of the holy flames.
I have every intention of continuing WillPower's journey since he still seems to be very viable at the moment in mid-Nightmare. However, he's likely to be on hold for a while since Diablo 4 is about to release and I'm more interested in checking out the new content there as opposed to continuing yet another character on a game that came out decades earlier. Sooner or later, I'll be back for more adventures with WillPower and his elemental auras - thanks for reading!