If there's a single phrase I'd associate with the original Diablo, it'd have to be: "Fresh meat!" That's the line The Butcher growls as he strides towards you from a room full of festering corpses. He wasn't the biggest or baddest villain in the game. He wasn't even a Lord of Hell. But he was the first boss you encountered. And he was absolutely terrifying.
Seeing this pink, fleshy demon heading towards you wielding an almost comically oversized meat cleaver was a defining moment for Diablo fans. When Blizzard revealed they were turning The Butcher into a playable character in their new MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, the developers said that they wanted to "capture the fear" of that first confrontation players had with the villain so many years ago.
I loved the creepiness of the first Diablo, the macabre gothic art style of each dungeon's architecture that mixed so grotesquely with all the hellish monsters you encountered. But I wasn't sure if I could believe Blizzard's promise here. When the developer tried to recreate The Butcher for Diablo III, they turned him into a different sort of monster than the original villain. He was much larger, his movements far more exaggerated. He didn't snarl the phrase "fresh meat" with a palpable hunger to his voice as he walked towards you with a deliberate gait. He shouted it as he lunged towards you. And you didn't fight him in a small dark corner of a dungeon -- the floor littered with the spare parts of his former victims. That was replaced by a large metal-enclosed fighting pit that would spit fire from the floor at regular intervals. The bewildering tension of the original game had been replaced by colourful bombast in this Diablo III version of him.
Heroes of the Storm's new Butcher character is a picture-perfect rendition of the boss from Diablo III. But while he looks very similar to the newer and lamer Butcher, he doesn't feel anything like that guy. Blizzard managed to keep its promise with this new MOBA character: they actually made The Butcher scary again. How they did so is seriously impressive.
Like any character in a MOBA like Heroes of the Storm or its peers League of Legends and Dota 2, The Butcher has four main abilities in addition to his standard auto-attack move. These are superpowers you can deploy in battle by pressing their corresponding key: Q, W, E and R -- the most powerful "heroic ability" that unlocks when you reach level 10 in a match.
The Butcher is a melee assassin, so most of his moves serve to help him deal a ton of damage very quickly -- either by slowing or crippling an enemy target in some way, overpowering his attacks, or doing both at the same time. His Q, for instance, is a ground-pound move where he slams his cleaver into the earth and causes a shockwave that slows any opponents in range. Butcher's Brand, his W, marks an enemy for five seconds. And if he keeps attacking a marked target, he'll steal health from them.
MOBA characters also have a passive trait. Butcher's is a stackable ability aptly called "Fresh Meat". The way it works is: any time The Butcher kills someone -- be it an enemy minion or an opposing hero character -- the slain foe drops "meat," which is depicted in-game as tiny, bright-red drops of blood. Each time you walk over a drop, it's added to your overall amount of meat. And the more meat The Butcher has, the stronger he becomes. Why do you think he likes fresh meat so much?
Placed in the right hands, these abilities can make The Butcher borderline unkillable. Since he snowballs over the course of a match thanks to his passive, he becomes tougher and tougher to tangle with -- dealing more damage to his targets and receiving less from them in turn. But that's not really what makes The Butcher special. He only just came out this Tuesday, and all MOBA characters tend to be overpowered when they're first released.
What's really cool about The Butcher's kit is the way his in-game moves manage to reinforce the themes his character is meant to convey. Having a passive that stacks every time he kills someone and pairing that with a life-steal ability reinforces a strong image: this is a monster that's literally feeding off his enemies' corpses to sustain himself.
Two of his moves are particularly ingenious in this regard. First, there's one of his two heroic abilities: "Lamb to the Slaughter". When it's cast, The Butcher summons a large metal post. Any opponent caught in its immediate radius gets chained to the post for a precious few seconds. It's a surprisingly upsetting animation to watch as another hero character struggles to escape the chain's grasp. They look like an angry dog forced to struggle against a leash:
Then there's my favourite of The Butcher's moves: his E, "Ruthless Onslaught". When cast, The Butcher charges at an enemy target, stunning them on impact. That might not sound like much. But the beauty is in the production values. Whenever you cast it, the game announces the move with a short, punctuating sound of crashing metal as The Butcher roars "Fresh meat!" Or, sometimes, just, "Meat!" The target, meanwhile, has a small grey icon of The Butcher's face appear above their head.
The important thing to understand about Ruthless Onslaught is that it's a very difficult move to escape from. If you try to jump out of the way or run in a different direction, he'll just change his trajectory and keep barreling towards you. Even teleporting the way some Heroes characters can doesn't make you safe. I discovered this in the second or third game I played as The Butcher, when an enemy Sylvanas tried to use a dash move right after I got her in my sights:
It's the little quirks of both these moves that make them work so well. If you compare The Butcher to any number of other MOBA characters, Blizzard could have easily made Ruthless Onslaught and Lamb To The Slaughter far more standard genre fare. The ult could've just rooted an enemy target in place, showing some animation of chains (or whatever) popping out of the ground and wrapping around his or her feet. His E, meanwhile, is very similar to another scary character's moves in League of Legends -- Sion's. But there's one key difference. Sion just charges forward in a straight line, you have to aim him in a particular direction to make sure he actually hits something. He doesn't stalk his target the way The Butcher does.
The in-game effect of these seemingly subtle tweaks is that Heroes of the Storm has convinced its players that they're supposed to fear The Butcher. He's only been out for a few days, but that harsh metallic ring, and his ensuing cry for "fresh meat" is already a recognisable signal that something very bad is about to happen. Especially if you're the one with a mark over your head.
You can try to run and hide, the game seems to be saying, but The Butcher is still going to catch you.
The Butcher isn't a perfect character yet. There are things that will likely need to be fine-tuned in later patches to make him a tad less powerful. Despite his generally wonderful production values, the little droplets of blood meant to be meat look cartoonishly cheap and gimmicky -- especially when they're right next to a big scary-looking demon. And then there are all the awkward instances of seeing human players suddenly embodying an iconic villain for the first time. I've seen many people (myself included) make the mistake of thinking The Butcher is far tankier than he actually is, and therefore using his E to rush blindly into a group of enemies that almost instantly kill him
But awkward stumbles like that are also part of the fun of getting the chance to try and become The Butcher after only knowing him as the bad guy you had to fight against for 20 years. The challenge in playing a game like Heroes of the Storm is trying to use all the tools a character provides for you so efficiently that you unlock their full devastating potential. And The Butcher's full potential is a terror to behold.