Path of Exile is a comparatively small game by small New Zealand-based studio Grinding Gear Games that’s trying to do some very big things. How big? How does standing up to Blizzard and trading blows with Diablo 3 sound? Currently deep into its extended Beta development phase, the game has earned no shortage of praise from players and critics alike, and while the final build of the game will be fully free-to-play, you can get early access now by putting down $10 on cash-shop currency. It’s not a large price to ask, but is it worth your money, even in this early state? Well, let’s see if we can’t answer that.
If you’ve ever played a fantasy action-RPG in the style of Diablo, Torchlight, Titan Quest or countless others, you’ll be right at home here. While PoE makes a lot of interesting changes under the hood, this is a game that any genre fan can leap straight into. Playing as one of six character classes, you’ve been condemned to exile for various crimes against the kingdom and are being unceremoniously dumped on the cursed continent of Wraeclast. A haunted place where mutant monsters roam, jungle temples lie overgrown, and the dead walk. Good place to hoard loot and level up, really.
The closest point of reference I can reach within the action-RPG genre here is the original Diablo. While Diablo 2 opened up the environments more and increased both player and combat speed, Path of Exile is a more deliberate, controlled sort of hack n’ slash. You’ve got more time to think and react, but it’s more demanding of the player, too, with stern difficulty right off the bat and a huge focus on player freedom in creating your own character. It also does several things very differently from genre norms, making it stand out somewhat from the crowd. Still, that’s for covering later – with a game like this, first impressions count, and Path of Exile doesn’t seem to be slacking off there.
If I had to describe Path of Exile‘s aesthetic in three words, they would be ‘dark’, ‘bleak’ and ‘oppressive’. The graphical quality is really impressive for a lower-budget game. They decided to go for a more realistic art-style here, which is much harder for smaller studios to pull off effectively, but I think they’ve just about managed it. Some of the animations can be a little stiff or abrupt, but the quality of the character models – enemy, ally or player – are all excellent. Every piece of weaponry or armour is visible on your character, and are nicely detailed, with early-game gear being rusted and ramshackle makeshift gear scavenged from the shipwreck you start out in. Even higher-level (within the current beta) gear doesn’t look too glamorous. It might not make loot-fiends happy, but it meshes very nicely with the grim and unforgiving look of the game.
What Path of Exile does differently becomes obvious right from the start. The first thing is how potions work. In most action-RPGs, you hoard these at town in exchange for your hard-earned gold, and chug them continually. Every now and then you need to hop back to town and buy more. Not so here; you have a belt of five potion bottles, each of them a unique piece of equipment with their own stats and perks. Each bottle has a certain number of charges which are drained as you use it. Killing enemies restores charges, so a high-mana-cost mage character can keep up a near-endless killing spree if you have fast-acting mana bottles, and a high-armor barbarian type might want to look at slower-acting health potions that’ll passively repair him through a fight.
The next big thing that PoE does different from the norm is money: There isn’t any. Instead, the standard currency units have inherent value – things like identification and portal scrolls are your standard coin-equivalents, and more exotic items, like upgrade widgets that increase the quality or number of enchantments on a piece of equipment are used in trading for more costly and noteworthy gear from the NPC shopkeepers. This effectively cripples gold-farming before it can begin, and actually makes you weigh up the value of what you have on hand, how it can be used, and what it might be traded for. It makes you think, and they’re actually pretty important calls.
The biggest thing, and the one thing that sets Path of Exile apart from most other games in the genre is character progression. You character grows in two key ways – via the passive skill grid, which is patterned after the sphere grid from Final Fantasy 10, and via skill gems, which behave somewhat like Materia from Final Fantasy 7 – between these two systems, it’s possible to build your character in almost any way you like. Each of the six classes has a different starting set of stats, and a specific starting point on the passive skill grid, but the game never limits you in how you grow from there. You can change the waifish Witch into a broadsword-swinging berserker, or the enormous Marauder into a zombie-summoning, spell-chucking necromancer.
Every level, you gain one point to spend on the passive skill grid, working your way outwards from your class starting position. The grid is enormous, and while most of the individual items have a small effect (+8% max HP, 10+ Strength and so on), some have enormous effects on how you play the game, such as the Blood Magic passive trait, which removes your mana bar entirely and has spells draw directly from your HP – ideal for high-armor, high-endurance fighters. While each change is small, after 15-20 levels your character will feel very much like your own design. The developers have started running a series of videos looking at various interesting player builds, and there’s enormous variation in how they play after 40-50 levels.
This theme continues on via the skill-gem system. Each piece of gear you wear usually has one or more coloured gem slots. Into these slots, you place skill gems which determine all your attacks and powers outside of the most basic of stabbing and shooting. Through use, these gems level up and the skills become more powerful, and you can remove, re-slot and hoard them as you see fit, or use your cross-character stash to trade skills with your other characters, or even other players. There are also Augmentation gems – some gem-slots are ‘linked’ to adjacent spaces, and augment gems will amplify the power of skill gems in some fashion, by making them faster, more cost-efficient, adding elemental damage or more. Aside from quests handing out what they deem to be ‘class-appropriate’ skill gems as rewards, there’s no limitation on which ones you use.
The action RPG might not be the deepest of genres, but Path of Exile refuses to talk down to the player. The difficulty level right off the bat is quite high, and the later difficulty loops require intelligent play as well as a solid character build. It’s easy to find friends to help out, as each town acts as a public lobby where players can organize parties, but as with other games in the genre, enemies become more numerous and tougher as you add players. This is balanced out by more frequent loot drops, which provides a solid incentive to play with friends, but there’s no requirement to play with others, although you do still need to be connected to the servers at all times to play.
Being an F2P game, Path of Exile is online-only, although the servers are quite stable to date, and latency doesn’t seem to affect solo play at all, outside of harvesting gear. The game will be supported via a cash-shop, although the developers insist that there will be nothing imbalancing or ‘pay to win’ available. So far, the only things that players can buy are extended shared stash space and new character slots, both of which are convenient to have, but neither of which give players any kind of edge. It’s yet to be seen whether they’ll be able to keep things this way, but as it’s largely a cooperative or solo game, then aside from leaderboard bragging rights being drawn into question, it’s not too big of an issue.
While there’s only a limited amount of actual game content on show here (just two acts and some extra bits, plus looping difficulty settings) there’s going to be significantly more in the final build, and the developers have long-term plans to expand the game, including a rather ingenious system where you can use your currency/crafting items to build your own perfect dungeons. From what I’ve played of the game so far, I’m loving it. There’s a greater sense of challenge and player agency than in most other action-RPGs, and it’s very satisfying to develop a character that plays exactly how you want them to play. The dark aesthetics hark back to the original Diablo‘s hostile world, and meshes well with the obsessive pursuit of blood to spill in order to grow further.
Path of Exile has no fixed release date yet, but it’s nearing completion. It’ll be completely free to download and play when version 1.0 rolls round, but until then, you can either sign up on the official site now for a chance to win a beta key in regular drawings, or put $10 down now on cash-shop credit to jump the queue and start playing now. Personally, I’ve had more fun with PoE already than Diablo 2 and 3 combined, so consider this a glowing recommendation. Just don’t expect the game to go easy on you, especially in Hardcore mode.