2012 featured sequels to arguably two of the best examples of ARPGs in all of video game land. One was met with quiet enthusiasm while the other was met with a lukewarm reception. Unbeknownst to some, however another ARPG watched behind the safety of beta, learning from both valuable lessons in the art of clicking the denizens of evil into the graves they just don’t seem to stay in. For those of you not interested in wasting time with boring things like words, Path of Exile is well worth your time as long as you a.) like point and click action RPG’s b.) aren’t sick of pointing and clicking on things. Okay, you now have my permission to go play the game and smile or shout, whichever happens to be your mode of emotional transmission.
It’s a Dark World
Path of Exile is essentially the tale of some exiles embarking on some sort of quest and the dark and twisted paths they take along the way. I appreciate how to the point Grinding Gear Games was with the title, as it’s always annoying to try to figure out what a “Halo” or “Call of Duty” is…but I digress. Anyway, these folks find themselves on a boat that will dump them onto the horror filled continent (yes continent) known as Wraeclast. Imagine breaking the law and being sent to Antarctica except that the Antartica in this scenario features the worst landscapes Earth has to offer and billions of monsters. Don’t expect vivid color schemes or anything that could be considered cute; Path of Exile exudes nightmare inducing darkness.
Being that the main characters have been exiled from the general population, the wholesome goodness that tends to envelop normal heroes is non-existent. These people aren’t necessarily bad, per se, but they certainly have plenty of baggage while still maintaining the motivation needed to explore the filthy outhouse they’ve been banished to.
Getting Your Adventure On
The World of Wraeclast looks really nice in a super gritty, scary-as-hell sort of way, featuring a host of different landscapes throughout the 3 acts available in the beta. Because the levels are generated randomly, the prospect for replayability is definitely apparent, although I have to admit that certain areas (while looking gorgeous) feel a bit bland. This is not a problem with PoE solely, as many games with such features have to scale back the minute details in exchange for the freshness that comes with a new layout.
The same can be said for the monsters you face since most of them are recycled throughout the 3 acts and a majority are essentially “humans” in some form or another. Perhaps it’s a bit nit picky on my part, but I hope for a bit more variety once the full release rolls around. That being said, everything in the game looks ultra creepy so don’t expect anthropomorphic creatures wielding weapons in their precious little paws; there’s a reason Wraeclast is known as the Land of the Damned and not Land of The Goo-Goo Eyed Monsters That You Feel Guilty About Killing. I personally appreciate the pace of PoE as it feels a bit slowed down and more “stable” than some other action RPG’s. I felt like I had the chance to turn the tide of battle or retreat should I get overwhelmed. Still, it took me a bit of getting used to since I was used to a more frantic pace. That’s not a bad thing, just something to keep in mind.
Nothing Passive about this Skill Tree
PoE has six character “classes”, 3 of them aligned with the attributes of strength, dexterity and magic while the others are hybrids. I’m cautious to use the term classes because to me a class implies a focus on specific attributes and a predetermined skillset. The thing is, the classes of PoE may start with specific attributes but from there it’s completely up to you to shape them as you want. There’s no hand holding involved here, folks, you can either make the greatest hero of all time or a useless dope who’s forced to flee more than fight. The foundation of this system is the passive skills tree, an incredibly large (1350 to be exact) grouping of passive traits that can be assigned every time a character gains a level. While some of them grant the character increases in one of the three attributes, others help them excel with a certain weapon/spell or gain additional bonuses like armor or critical hit rating. This is the part of the game where meticulous planning will be rewarded and lackadaisical development is punished. If you want a character that punches first and asks questions later, you got it. Magic user that focuses on ice? It’s yours! Am arrow slinger that prefers using two-handed weapons but got into archery because it runs in the family? Great, that’s great (note: PoE cannot help with repressed feelings towards overbearing parents).
Gems and the Skills They Bring
While passive traits are essential to a successful adventurer, the people want skills and when the people want something then you’d better give it to them. Characters in PoE do not start out with specific skill sets, instead they can find (through drops or quest rewards) magical gemstones that can be socketed into your equipment and grant or supplement special powers. These gemstones are aligned with the three base attributes so your ability to use them will depend on both your character’s level and the amount of strength, dexterity or intelligence you happen to have. While the skill gems give you abilities like fireballs, shield charges, traps and a whole host of other tricks, the support gems add traits to those powers (not the armor/weapon they are socketed into) such as elemental damage or faster casting speeds. These gems can gain levels like you do, acquiring experience by merely being placed in the weapons or armor you have equipped. While this gem system may seem a bit odd at first, it equates to unbelievable customization potential. As I mentioned above, there’s really not much of a limit to how your character plays. Because you have a linked item box, useless gems can be transferred to other character builds, thus adding to your PoE army. They can also be traded or sold as well, so feel free to do what you want with your special little stones!
I know people have a love/hate relationship with loot and whether or not the acquisition of it overshadows the actual gameplay. I’m not going to say that the hunt for shiny new pieces of armor, weaponry and trinkets is any less important in PoE (especially because you have to hunt skill gems, too) but I do think Grinding Gear Games have done some pretty interesting things in regards to loot. For one thing, the economy of PoE isn’t run on gold, it’s run on bartering. This actually makes quite a bit of sense because Wraeclast isn’t really the type of place where currency could be easily regulated. When you sell items to the merchants, you will receive a number of different items (based on the item type and number of sockets) that can modify your character or the weapons you have. Some of them can be applied to unidentified weapons while others give you respec points or alter the rarity of a certain item. What this amounts to is that everything you find in the field can be useful in one way or another, even the dreaded “white label” items that people tend to leave behind in other ARPGs. For example, there are currency items called Orbs of Alchemy that will turn the aforementioned “normal” quality items to “rare” quality items, thus turning a piece of jank into something truly useful. I actually found a suit of normal armor that had 4 connected sockets (which means I could apply support gems to my skill gems) and altered it’s rarity in order to make a stronger item with far better socket space than my previous rare equipment could offer. There are all kinds of tweaks one can make to their equipment, which takes a bit of focus away from gear grinding.
Outside of a couple tiny little beta-related issues with server load, etc I have had a great time with Path of Exile. It’s not breaking the mold, but it doesn’t have to. The best thing is, it’s completely free-to-play. Not free for a short time. Not free for limited content. You don’t even have to spend money to succeed; the whole package is free. I have a feeling that everyone will be getting exiled in the very near future.