Path of Exile went into open beta recently, and as a connoisseur of fine loot, I dove right in. 30 some-odd levels later, and I thought I’d offer some slightly-beyond-first impressions. Anyone familiar with action RPGs will feel right at home. Path of Exile’s got acts, and waypoints, and randomly generated dungeons out the wazoo. In many ways, the game harkens back to the action RPGs of yore. The graphical presentation is strikingly similar to that of Diablo 2. Path of Exile is dark, grim, bloody, and mature.
But Path of Exile isn’t just a Diablo 2 knock off; it has a fair share of tricks up its sleeve. Gold is gone; instead the game uses a bartering system, in which a merchant will offer a few consumable items in exchange for a piece of armor. The reverse is also true. Want that sword? Better fork over that Orb of Alteration. Since most of these consumables have nifty benefits such as increasing a weapon’s damage, or a piece of armor’s defense rating, might want to hold onto them instead.
Then there is Path of Exile’s gargantuan passive skill tree, nay a forest. And even calling it a forest is selling it short—1350 skills to choose from. Although technically the six classes all share this tree, so really it’s six skill trees all mashed together as one. A duelist starts in one quadrant, and a witch starts in another. Snaking around to take skills intended for another class is possible, but probably not at all sensible. But hey, if that’s your thing. These passives will affect a character’s stats, such as damage, health, mana, armor, etc. There are a few “big-ticket” skills that increase statistics more greatly.
All in all, the entire thing is laid out intelligently, and has a nice flow to it. But since most skills only add a slight bonus to stats, there’s no marked difference from level to level, but the next big skill is never too far away, and those do cause a noticeable boost in proficiency. Points in the passive skill tree can be refunded, but not freely. Refund credits are earned through quest rewards and bartered items. These are finite and must be used sparingly.
Path of Exile, expectedly, still has stuff to cast, spells and other abilities, but these come in the form of gems. When socketed into an item, a character gains the ability to use that given spell. Then, as that character gains experience, so do gems, which level up and become more powerful. Gems can be freely removed from any socket and placed in another on the fly without having to worry about destroying gems. In this manner, a duelist can easily equip a fireball spell, assuming they have enough intelligence. The openness of the gem and passive skill system opens up a lot of possibilities for different builds and experimentation. Even if that means a character ends up unable to fight off arthritic gerbils.
Path of Exile still has potion chugging, but Grinding Gear Games improves upon that with flasks. These drop throughout the world, and are basically rechargeable potions. Killing enemies causes the charges increase. Drink from the flask to regain health or mana, and the charges are expended. These items can also come in rarer varieties, so it’s not uncommon to find flasks with special bonuses, such as dispelling cold effects, or restoring more health/mana. The system is certainly an improvement over running back and forth to town in order to buy more potions, but having to constantly chug anything during combat is something that perhaps is a little too dated.
Also dated, to an extent, is the combat. In Path of Exile, most of the attacks feel like they have little weight behind them. Enemies sort of flinch slightly, and then fall over dead once their health is depleted. Until a few hours in—once you’ve gathered a bunch of skill gems and have some options at your disposal—the game is just sort of slow. Exacerbating the slowness, at times, are some of the randomly-generated areas. They can be quite large, and finding an exit or a waypoint boils down to systematically running back and forth hoping the best, which certainly elicits a sense of déjà vu for anyone fond of Diablo 2. The map can help to make sense of these randomly generated areas, but making sense of the map can take a little getting used to.
As a free-to-play title, there are the micro-transactions. But those are only cosmetic things, such as new spell animations, or in game pets. Grinding Gear Games have stated that they’re starkly against pay-to-win, so assuming they abide by that philosophy, nothing in the store will ever have a significant impact on a character’s power. Fortunately for them it seems people are more than willing to support the game anyway. During closed beta, a kickstarter-esq system was set up, and by the time open beta rolled around, Grinding Gear Games had earned over two-million bucks.
What might be planned to do with all that money, and any to come? The patch just preceding open beta included the third act, and Grinding Gear Games will just keep building upon that. New areas, new monsters, new items, new skills, eventually new acts. On and on, for ten years, or so they say. It’s a good bet that in a year’s time, Path of Exile will be in a very different state than it is now. And in ten years? Who knows?
As is the case with almost all other free-to-play games, Path of Exile is completely online with no option for offline play, and despite the initial rush of players during open beta, the game servers have been quite reliable. Playing alone is the norm, but inviting friends to your game is easy enough. Towns also have a noticeboard, which can be used to group with random other players. So playing with other people is never more than a few clicks away. There’s also PvP, but I haven’t delved into that yet.
In certain ways, Path of Exile feels more like a spiritual successor to Diablo 2 than Diablo 3 did. Its feet are firmly planted in 2000, but at the same time, the game has its fair share of new ideas. Right now loot and the depth of its character customization carry Path of Exile more than the thrill of ‘sploding demons. That’s more than enough to keep players playing, but both would be splendid. Of course certain things can easily be forgiven since the game costs nothing to play.