Skulla Part Six: Crowning the Skeleton King

One of the unusual things about Diablo 3's gameplay is that it can be difficult to know when to stop playing. This is something that I've written about on a number of previous occasions: Adventure mode has no definitive ending (this is a deliberate design choice), intended to keep players grinding away until they finally decide to stop. I was never one of those people who did endless Mephisto runs in Diablo 2 hoping for slightly more optimal gear, and the lack of any kind of real finishing point in Reaper of Souls has always left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. My personal ending criteria for my solo characters has been to collect a full set of bounties on the top difficulty level (Torment XVI) and to complete a Greater Nephalem Rift at Rift 70 rating without dying. Those are rather arbitrary parameters but they seem to be as good of a choice as anything else that I could come up with.

Skulla was getting close to hitting that pair of self-determined goals that I had set for him. His build was nearly maxed out by this point, with all of the key legendary items found and most of them upgraded to ancient legendary status; there wasn't too much more that I could do to make him stronger aside from grinding out more legendary gem ranks and rerolling item stats over and over again in Kanai's Cube. Now I previously ended the last section of the report by showcasing Skulla's latest takedown of Diablo. I belatedly realized that this was part of collecting a full set of bounties on Torment XV difficulty, which concluded with a final set of quests to fulfill in Act Five. While Skulla was in the middle of that task, he ran across one of the very rare Rainbow Goblins and opened up a portal to Whimsydale. That's always a fun place to visit with its greatly increased legendary drop rate, let's see what was lurking inside:

All of my previous characters had made it to Whimsydale at least once and I believe that this was the second time that Skulla had found his own portal there. This is the secret area that the designers created in response to those comments about how Diablo 3 was "too colorful" before release, mocking their critics with a kindergarten coloring books satured with bright images. (I'm a bit depressed that Diablo 4 seems to be going in the opposite direction with a gritty, grungy aesthestic; the early screenshots look terrible to me. We'll see how the final product turns out.) Anyway, while I'd been to this secret zone several times previously, I'd never been here at a difficulty level as high as Torment XV. The drop rate for legendary items goes up with each difficulty rating, and when combined together with the natural item bonanza of Whimsydale, the result was a deluge of legendary stuff. I managed to fill up every single slot in Skulla's inventory with a legendary or set item of some kind! (At least, when paired alongside all of the gems that he was picking up.) If anyone ever wondered why the Book of Cain was added to the towns in the expansion, this is why. Needing to identify each of these items one at a time would be tedious in the extreme.

There was actually one item of use in this treasure haul, another version of the Rathma shoulders visible in the bottom-right corner of the screenshot. I was able to replace cooldown reduction on the previous Rathma shoulders with extra armor on this new version and get a small bonus to Toughness and Recovery. However, note the modest nature of the stat gains from upgrading this item to a better version. Pretty slim pickings, right? The truth is that Skulla was getting rather maxed out at this point and there wasn't a whole lot that I could do to make him stronger, not without the endless grinding that I wasn't about to engage in. He was clearly approaching the end of his journey as a D3 character.

I was continuing to test Skulla inside more difficult Greater Rifts as he worked towards the goal of clearing one at Rank 70. Since Skulla had been running through Rank 60 rifts without breaking much of a sweat, Rank 65 was the next obstacle on the table. I drew the swampy outdoor tileset pictured above for this attempt, which is probably my single favorite one to get in the Greater Rifts. This dungeon layout features nice straight lines where the monsters almost always approach from the same direction, making it easy to keep your character in a safe position. This was about as easy as it ever got for Skulla from a tactical perspective, walking behind the minions tossing out curses as the front lines moved forward across the landscape. He was able to stay well ahead of the timer and finish the rift with 7:53 remaining on the clock. While gambling with the blood shards that resulted from the successful rift clear, Skulla turned up an ancient version of the Rathma helmet. Once again, the stat gains were minimal and reflected the fact that Skulla was pushing up against the limits of his character build.

If Skulla was able to complete Rift 65 difficulty with that much time remaining on the clock, it suggested that Rift 70 was well within his reach. I decided that I would give this a try in order to check off one of the two major goals remaining for this character. Skulla headed into the glowing purple portal and found that he had drawn the tileset from the Act One Cathedral. That's a decent if not great location, with more side corridors that I tend to like and with a lot of opportunities for monsters to flank your character. One of the random monsters proved to be the ghouls that leave poisonous corpses behind on death, something that ends up being highly annoying on the higher difficulties because the poison clouds hurt a lot and limit the areas where your character can move freely. Skulla had his Final Service passive triggered as I was trying to maneuver through a narrow corridor, and then a boss appeared with the Vortex ability shortly thereafter. Skulla had no escape skills by my own choice, and when he was pulled into the middle of an enemy mob, I wasn't able to get him out of the danger zone in time:

Thus he ended up suffering another death. I'd like to tell you that this was only the second death but that would be a lie. Although I did a good job of keeping Skulla alive, certainly better than I did with poor Snowbelle earlier, he ended up having about half a dozen deaths in total over the course of his character run. The lack of an escape skill definitely hurt in that regard, but more often, the problem was Skulla having his health reduced to zero from some effect that I didn't even notice. There's a lot going on in every fight in Diablo 3 and sometimes your character will be one-shotted by some minor thing that's easy to overlook. Once such example is the fat zombies that explode when they die: that's an instant death on the upper Torment difficulties and it's hard to see it happening in chaotic fights with 25 enemies on screen at once. I also had a lot of issues with the Mortar elite ability, which would toss out a bunch of fireballs in rapid succession that proved very difficult to avoid. Getting hit by two or three of them could also spell a very quick doom. Skulla's Final Service passive was triggered probably something like a hundred times, and I was pretty happy about limiting his actual deaths to such a modest amount.

Now dying in Reaper of Souls carries essentially no penalty whatsoever, at least for non-Hardcore characters. You revive at the exact same spot where your character fell, with all of their same equipment intact, and with no loss of experience. The only "penalty" is paying a slightly higher repair bill back at the Blacksmith: wow, 10k gold instead of the usual 3k gold, what a hardship. That will be real tough to afford with the 500 million gold that Skulla has on hand. There really should be some kind of penalty for non-Hardcore games to discourage folks from not caring about death at all. This is another one of those places where the original design of Diablo 3 was flawed and the expansion wasn't able to paper over it with something better.

Having failed on my first attempt at Rift 70 difficulty, I came back the next day and decided to try again. It was definitely within Skulla's capabilities to complete the rift without dying, I simply needed to execute better on my end. The initial tileset on this occasion was one of the outdoor forests from Act Five, a setup that fortunately proved to be highly linear in nature. The monsters were mostly melee on this map and Skulla was able to stay safe behind the front line of his skeletal protectors. When an elite with dangerous crowd control abilities like this one appeared, I did my best to run backwards to avoid getting sucked into the worst of the action. I remember that the Vortex went off about two seconds after this image was taken and pulled in most of Skulla's archers, but avoided him because I had retreated preemptively. Whew.

The second floor of the rift held the Cathedral tileset again, with different background coloring but still the same dungeon pieces stitched together. Skulla was making fantastic time on the clock and only had to focus on avoiding a death. That proved to be easier said than done, with this nasty elite accosting him at the doorway on the left hand side of the screenshot above. There were enough monsters on screen that I failed to notice one of the Frozen explosions of ice going off, and the stunning effect was enough to drop Skulla's HP down to zero. Argh! The resulting Final Service passive is visible above, it's the little gravestone indicator on the right side of the interface along with the glowing bubble surrounding Skulla. Now I had to finish off this elite without letting Skulla die for real. Worse yet, the progress bar was sitting at 99% and that meant that the Rift Guardian would show up the instant that this elite was defeated with no chance to pause and wait out the Final Service timer. Look guys, just because I was going to be writing this up later, we didn't need to make it this dramatic, OK?

Vesalius proved to be the Rift Guardian in question and he had a deadly projectile attack that I had no intention of facing with Skulla. The boss tagged Skulla with his attack once and took out something like 75% of Skulla's health bar, yikes! I don't know if Moratorium made the difference there but it certainly didn't hurt. I drank Skulla's Potion and stood a full screen's length away from Vesalius, recasting more skeletal archers as the current ones timed out. The boss ended up getting stuck at the top of a thin staircase and that was where he died to the skeletal minions:

There it was, Rift 70 completed with 5:59 remaining on the clock and no deaths suffered. I found that this was the consistent pattern for Skulla, usually not struggling at all to meet the time requirement in these rifts and focusing instead on the need to stay alive. (Technically I could have ignored this entirely and simply bent all efforts on finishing as fast as possible. That seems to be how the obsessive Diablo 3 players approach the game when not playing Hardcore.) With the completion of Rift 70, now I shifted my efforts towards completing a full set of bounties on Torment XVI difficulty without dying. While there would be no time requirement to meet there, I would have to avoid an actual death for a much longer period of time. This would be a test of patience as well as skill.

One of the most common bounty targets in the game seems to be the one that involves killing Leoric. It's a good one to draw because it's one of the shortest and easiest ones to complete, and I've used it as a testing metric of sorts when evaluating a new difficulty level just because it pops up so often. If there's a downside to this bounty, it's the repetitive nature of the task: each playthrough is essentially identical because the same monsters always appear in the same spots while passing through the corridors leading up to the skeleton king. Leoric himself is very straightforward as a boss, charging forward with highly telegraphed swings of his mace and then pausing to summon his own skeletal minions. Here on the maximum Torment XVI difficulty he was sporting a ridiculous 6 trillion HP, although that wasn't helping him too much given that each individual skeletal archer could crit for 40-50 billion damage and there were ten of them firing at once. I think that this was one of the best images that I captured of the "pincushion squad" in action, peppering a single target with an endless flurry of arrows. This fight lasted for a little over 30 seconds and never came remotely close to triggering the Enrage timer.

I did find one genuinely useful new item while running through the bounties in Act One. This was the Dayntee's Binding legendary belt which held additional damage reduction for Skulla whenever an enemy was afflicted by one of his curses, i.e. all of the time. This was clearly the best available item for the belt slot and it was something that I had simply missed when putting together his character build. All of my blood shard gambles had involved either weapons/shields for the Jesseth Arms set or the six armor items that made up the Bones of Rathma set. I hadn't gambled for belts at all and therefore missed on the chance to get this particular item. If it hadn't dropped from a random enemy I wouldn't have known about it at all - whoops! I happily made this switch even if the extra damage reduction wasn't terribly noticeable.

Act Two had some of the hardest bounties for Skulla to collect on this particular set of missions. Not defeating Maghda, of course, who remained as much of a joke as ever. She has much less health as compared to the other major bosses (about half of Leoric's total) and goes down too quickly against any character with a decent damage output. In the screenshot above, she was nearly dead before her minions could even finish their summoning animations. No, the biggest danger came from the random elites that popped up along the way, in this fashion being similar to the gameplay back in classic Diablo 2. One the bounties took place in the Dahlgur Oasis and it involved freeing captive Iron Wolves mercenaries. One of them was tied up right next to the Keywarden that spawns in Act Two, and Sokahr kept using his spinning attack to shoot projectiles back at Skulla. Every time that the Keywarden hit Skulla with this particular attack, it emptied his entire life orb instantly and triggered the Final Service passive. Whenever this happened, I would immediately head back to town to wait out the rest of the 60 second duration because I really didn't want to die. I think this happened about eight times in all, and I thought that the only way to complete the bounty might be leading the Keywarden away and portal parking him somewhere far removed from the bounty goal. Skulla's minions did eventually manage to get the offending boss with Skulla a full screen's distance away. No pictures here, the situation was too dangerous to allow it.

Acts Three and Four were more routine, without any one threat posing the same level of danger to Skulla and his crew. That's not to say that they were easy though, at least not while working within my goal of avoiding any deaths. Skulla's Final Service passive was triggered on a number of occasions and forced him back to town to wait out the rest of the timer. The single most frustrating thing about these drops to zero HP was the lack of feedback about what was happening. Again and again I would notice that Skulla's passive had triggered without having any idea what might have damaged him. This is the biggest downside to the flashy effects that crowd the battlefields in D3: yeah, they look cool and everything, but it can be really hard to tell what's taking place! I know that I've seen similar comparisons between large fights in Starcraft 1 versus Starcraft 2, and it's far easier to see everything taking place in the older RTS game as well. It was frustrating to be sitting in the back lines surrounded by the skeletal archers, minding Skulla's business, and then suddenly he's apparently been reduced to zero health and needs to go hang out in town for a minute. I hope that the developers keep this in mind when they're thinking about the visual effects for Diablo 4.

If Acts Three and Four were relatively straightforward, then Act Five most definitely was not. This always seems to be the hardest Act in terms of completing the bounties, with the missions asking the player to pass through more total territory and confront more dangerous monster types as compared with the other Acts. Unfortunately I had the bad luck to draw the Cursed Shrines bounty as one the five targets, and I knew immediately that this would be a problem. This particular mission tasks the player with triggering six shrines in a room that's full of continuously spawning monsters. The shrines are trapped and caused monsters to appear when activated, but to make matters even worse, Skulla was wearing the Nemesis Bracers which causes each shrine to spawn an enemy champion. That was really bad here given the cramped quarters and the double packs of opponents which would appear each time that a shrine was activated. (I considered taking the bracers off but didn't have anything to put in their place.) So Skulla very carefully opened up each shrine, one at a time, and defeated all of the monsters that popped out before triggering the next one. Despite taking every precaution that I could manage, his Final Service passive was triggered against five of the six shrines, sheesh! I did eventually finish up the bounty without suffering an actual death but it took close to 15 minutes to get through this room that's intended to be completed in less than 45 seconds. That was still better than Snowbelle's experience though, as she suffered multiple deaths claiming this same bounty.

The other bounties weren't quite as bad while still being a major pain. Skulla had to clear out the Plague Tunnels, and that always takes a while since it's packed full of little scorpion critters. Skulla also had to defeat Urzael one last time, and with 9 trillion HP to play around with, the skeleton army couldn't burst him down in the same fashion that I'd seen on lower difficulties. I had to spend about a minute running Skulla around in circles dodging fire projectiles and debris raining down from the ceiling before the minions could finish the boss. The last bounty took place in the Pandemonium Fortress and I hate going in there with my characters due to the narrow walkways and strong enemies. One of the monster types in there would leap on top of Skulla and I could never avoid taking damage from them; the elite versions of those enemies frequently triggered the Final Service passive with little that I could do about it. Nevertheless, I kept playing cautiously and taking my time, until finally:

There it was, the "Grand Bounty" achievement. I thought that this was in recognition of clearing all of the bounties for the first time on Torment XVI difficulty but nope, turns out that it's totally unrelated: this is the pop-up message for clearing 1000 total bounties on an account. What a coincidence that it triggered on the very final mission completion of Skulla's career. I didn't even know that this existed and I can promise you that I didn't plan for this in any way. Total serendipity in action. (Here's a depressing thought: this was the achievement for 1000 bounties. There's another achievement at 10,000 bounties and then another at 50,000 bounties and then another at 100,000 bounties and then ANOTHER at 150,000 bounties! Please folks, for your own health and sanity, do not chase after that particular achievement. I had more than 200 hours invested across the three characters I wrote about on this website and there's an achievement for 150x more bounties than I completed? Horrifying stuff.)

By finishing a full round of bounties on Torment XVI difficulty without dying, I had finished my other self-imposed goal for Skulla. The only thing to do now was to try higher levels of Greater Nephalem Rifts and see how far he could make it before lacking the damage capacity to continue onwards. I decided to give Rift 75 a try first:

The clear pace was noticeably slower here as compared to Rift 70. For the first five minutes of the rift, I couldn't seem to get ahead of the ticking progress bar over on the right hand side of the screen. Skulla wasn't falling behind where he needed to be on the meter, he simply couldn't see to get out in front either. His Final Service passive triggered twice and I played ultra-safe on both occasions until the timer managed to wear off. I've compared this situation to playing a League of Legends character while their Flash is on cooldown and I think the comparison is apt. In the second half of the rift, I managed to get better monster draws and more total elite opponents to fill up the meter faster and finally get ahead of the progress bar. This culminated in a fight against the Rift Guardian:

Like all of the other Rift Guardians at this difficulty level, Erethon had enough damage output to kill Skulla in short order if he could manage to get close enough. The good news was that this was an open map with enough space for Skulla to move around freely, and on this occasion I was successful at keeping my distance and letting the skeletal minions do the dirty work of attacking the boss. The picture above represents the ideal situation for a summoning Necromancer like Skulla, the character himself standing back at a safe remove while the warriors do their thing and the archers fire away. Total clear time finished with 3:59 remaining on the clock, once again on a successful deathless run.

Afterwards, I thought things over and decided that this was an appropriate stopping point for Skulla. I think that on a run with ideal conditions he could clear Rift 80 (which is where Snowbelle stopped) but he definitely wasn't going to make it to Rift 85 with his current itemization level. I didn't see any real point in pushing to complete higher and higher rift levels with Skulla, not when there was virtually nothing to be gained from doing so. Once again, this is where I feel that Diablo 3 is a bit too open-ended in its design, with no real stopping point or conclusion to Adventure mode. While that's great for the bigtime grinders, it keeps leaving me with a sense of disappointment because these characters are never really finished in their quests.

Final stats on Skulla for the curious. The Damage rating in this game once again demonstrates its lack of usefulness, with my old Witch Doctor Spyderman having double the score (a little over 2 million points) compared to Skulla but far less actual damage capacity. Spyderman, Snowbelle, and Skulla all finished right around 10,000 of their primary stat which is a good indication of where that number maxes out with normal item usage. There's a Cube recipe that allows players to take this stat much higher: Caldesann’s Despair enchants an item by converting a legendary gem into more stat points, with higher stats coming from higher ranks of legendary gems. You can sacrifice a Rank 30 gem to add 150 stat points to an item, or a Rank 40 gem to add 200 stat points to an item, and so on. Skulla could realistically complete Rift 80 and therefore would be able to get his legendary gems up to Rank 80 with enough time and effort. That's 400 additional points and there are 13 total item slots: 400 * 13 = 5200 more points of theoretical Intelligence. That's fully 50% more Intelligence than Skulla had right now and you can therefore see how some players are able to finish Greater Rifts that go well above 100. Keep upgrading those legendary gems and using them to get more total stats on your character. But embarking upon dozens and dozens of successful runs through Greaters Rifts just to use Caldesann’s Despair once, let alone a dozen times? No thank you. I had my finished character build for Skulla and a complete clear of the bounties on Torment XVI difficulty, that was enough for me. Fun is where you find it and I don't begrudge those players who enjoy this sort of thing, but it definitely wasn't a path that Skulla would be heading down.

Skulla's final summary page after some 64 hours of total time invested. This was a fun character to play and I'm glad that I managed to recreate some of the gameplay associated with the summoning Necromancer from Diablo 2. Skulla was a worthy character and I enjoyed exploring the reinvention of his skeleton abilities here in the context of Reaper of Souls. However, the Diablo 3 gameplay was starting to get somewhat stale for me after taking a third character through Adventure mode. For all of the great work and improvements that the expansion managed to achieve, the designers were still forced to work within some very clunky and poorly-envisioned systems that carried over from the original D3 mechanics. Character-building just isn't very good in this game, with a lack of meaningful decisions to make, and the "skills scaling off weapon DPS" concept has been a big loser from the very beginning. Reaper of Souls eventually settled on gearing everything around the class sets which ultimately wasn't a satisfying answer either. You can play four different setups for each class and that's pretty much it. I still give the expansion team an A+ for what they managed to achieve, but they could only do so much, and after playing three characters to completion I don't think I'm that interested in returning for more of the same.

I will be curious to see what the design looks like for Diablo 4 when it eventually releases down the road. I'm glad that I eventually managed to get my money's worth out of Diablo 3 even if it did come almost a full decade after the disaster of the initial release. Let's hope that things get off on the right track a lot sooner with its sequel.