Path of Exile
Game Name: Path of Exile
Developer & Publisher: Grinding Gear Games
Release Date: October 23, 2013
I’ve never been a fan of the MMO genre. Something about mindless, repetitive quests for menial rewards while being swarmed with shouting twelve year-olds just reminded me too much of middle school. But I’m always open to having my opinion changed. So when I started hearing people raving about Path of Exile I figured I would take a look. My productivity has cursed me ever since.
Path of Exile is an action RPG developed by Grinding Gear Games and released on October 23rd of this year. It is the first game created by the New Zealand based developer and has been in production for the past seven years. It is a free-to-play MMO that is available for download either through Steam or the Path of Exile website.
Path of Exile is set in the land of Wraeclast, a dark and twisted place and the noble’s dumping ground for unwanted people. Everything from the bugs to the rocks are polluted with darkness and out to render you piece by piece. You are one of seven playable characters who have wronged society in one form or another. Initially your goal is to survive, but once that’s well in hand it’s time to have a talk with the nobles who banished you, tearing a bloody path through whoever steps in your way.
If you’ve ever played an RPG like Diablo or Torchlight, much of Path of Exile will be very familiar to you. You control your character from an overhead view where you can manage your own particular battlefield. Using your skills to fend off wave after wave of enemy as you take little jaunts through the forest or crawl through the dungeons, completing quests for the locals. The environments themselves, though perhaps not made with the latest in graphics, are wonderfully scenic. Even when the sun is shining bright in the middle of a grassy field you still get the feeling that there’s some evil goatman waiting around the corner. It’s all about the little touches. Like traipsing through the giant spider’s den and noticing that some of the cocooned bodies are still wriggling (you can’t cut them out, I’ve tried).
The story is split up into three acts. In each act you are given a town to call your home. These are the only truly safe places in the game and where you will find the NPCs to give you quests and vendors to trade in your goods. Located here is also your stash where you can store your choice items. Thankfully Path of Exile has taken to turning its stash into a shared stash that you can use between all of your characters, making it incredibly easy to slip extra special equipment from one character to another. This is a trend I dearly hope continues being reused in games as it encourages replayability.
The areas outside the towns are fraught with danger (I don’t get to use the word ‘fraught’ often enough). Though the towns can become a bit crowded from other online players, the outdoor areas are instanced, giving each group their own map to play on. Each map also has a shelf life of about fifteen minutes if they are left empty. Once that time is up enemies and chests will be refreshed. Doing it this way makes grinding through enemies for items or experience much easier as you can just comb through a few given areas instead of having to restart the entire game.
Beginning the game you are given the option of one of six playable classes, each aligned with one or more of the three main attributes: Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. Each character has their own detailed back-story to why they are being sent to Wraeclast. After listening to each of their stories it’s a bit hard to find a truly likable character in the bunch. The lot of them are either murderers or thieves, or both. But I actually find this to be a plus. Any character that revokes a reaction is a detailed character and that’s never a bad thing.
While choosing your class you can also decide which particular league you want that character to be in. Choosing a league is important as your character will only be able to interact with other characters that exist in that league. The two base leagues are Standard and Hardcore. Unlike hardcore modes in other games, dying in Hardcore in Path of Exile is not permanent. Instead, your character is kicked back down to Standard. I find this to be a great change to the status quo. As much as I enjoy a challenge, there’s something incredibly bleak about putting fifty hours into a character just to have all that time and effort lost because you skimped on the mana potions.
Outside of the two base leagues there are temporary leagues that can last anywhere from a day to months. These leagues have their own difficulties placed within them that separate them from the standard game experience like having special shrines that give you and monsters a boost, or having enemies with greater resistances. But don’t worry, with greater difficulty comes greater reward. There are ranked ladders for the leagues and prizes given to those who gain top position.
Typically, the short-term leagues are more competition-based with a set goal to be reached and awards given to players who complete them. Currently, the two longer leagues last for a few months and include eight challenges to be completed. Grinding Gear Games has said that anyone who completes all of the challenges will be given free shirts. After the longer term leagues have finished the characters in them will be moved back to their “parent league”, which will be one of the two base leagues mentioned before. So no worries on having the ranger (ranged class) you’ve spent three months developing suddenly disappearing.
Though the starting character you choose is important, it’s not nearly as important as in other action RPGs. There is no specialized equipment that’s locked to a certain class. The tiny witch can swing the giant pole-axe as much as she likes so long as she meets the stat requirements. Classes do not have access to their own special skill tree. Instead each are given a starting point on a giant “skill map” with passive skill nodes that give bonuses to your stats and skills (+10 intelligence, +5% damage with wands, etc). From there you are free to go any path you wish. If you want to invest the points you could turn your marauder (fighter class) into a necromancer. The only thing keeping you from doing so is that the particular nodes are a bit further away and the marauder himself does not specialize in intelligence, which gives greater mana and thus more minions. This skill map is massive and, with the limited ability to reset skill points, daunting to navigate. It rewards people who plan ahead and chart out the path they want to take, and punishes those who blindly go through. But the ability to customize your character build to such an extent is incredibly freeing. The problem with skill trees is that often you’ll find abilities down a particular branch that you would like to use, but in order to get to them you would have to put points in skills that you would otherwise never use. The map system itself isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely an improvement.
While cruising through the skill map in Path of Exile you might notice that the nodes in particular only give bonuses to attributes and abilities as opposed to actually giving you skills that you can actively use (throwing fireballs and the like). Skills in Path of Exile have been split between active and passive. Passive skills you can gain by assigning skill points into the proper nodes upon leveling up or gaining a skill book. Active skills are held in small gems which you have to insert into your equipment in order to use. As I mentioned before, a big problem with skill trees was being forced to take unnecessary skills. The gems eliminate this problem by allowing you to custom outfit your character with whatever abilities you want. Want your Templar (paladin class) to raise the dead or shoot lightning bolts? All you need to do is socket the necessary gems into your equipment. Skill gems also gain experience as the character does, allowing you to increase their level and potency. Each of the gems can be easily un-socketed and plugged back into new items, making it much easier to change out your equipment while still keeping your same skills.
One of my favorite things about Path of Exile is how they handle their money both in the game and out of it. No game released can ever be truly “Free-to-play”. Developing and producing a game cost money. If you have it online then there are server costs and general maintenance fees to account for as well. For free-to-play games this typically means either living off of sponsored ads or microtransactions.
Microtransactions involve players spending real money on specialized equipment for their characters in-game. They are a bit of a tender spot in the gaming community. On the one hand it allows the developers to continue having their game up and running, but on the other it often becomes a “play to win” scenario. Players will spend outrageous amounts of money on premium equipment and gain advantages over players who can’t/won’t shell out the cash. Path of Exile uses a microtransaction system, but in a decidedly different manner. Instead of exclusive weapons and armor, players can buy cosmetic items that make your character look cool, but don’t really do anything (pets, special item effects, animations). This “ethical microtransaction” system is an incredibly ingenious way to go about raising money. It keeps the game balanced while also giving the developers a reliable source of income.
Keeping in line with their unusual economic systems in the real world, Path of Exile’s economy in-game is fairly unique in the RPG genre. There is no gold. None. At all. Well, there are gold rings and such, but the game lacks any type of monetary gold pieces that are typically seen in most other RPG games. Instead, the economy is run on a barter system based on scrolls and orbs. Each item you find will have a set value of so many scrolls or orbs that you can trade merchants for.
Now while this sounds like gold with a different coat, keep in mind that these scrolls and orbs have actual function in-game. The scrolls are used to identify magical items or create portals to town, while the orbs can be used to change equipment (adding sockets, magical properties, or increasing rarity). This is great not only because it allows players a steady supply of tools to customize their equipment, but it also keeps the online economy from suffering from inflation.
Massively Multiplayer Online games are pretty well designed as a genre to inspire multiple playthroughs and creating different characters. But Path of Exile manages to out-step its brethren. Between the high number of playable classes and the even greater variety in ways to customize your character, there are any number of different builds you can utilize. There are also the leagues, player-versus-player matches, in-game challenges and achievements, and various difficulty levels that will allow a large number of unique consecutive playthroughs.
There is so much more I could say about Path of Exile, but I fear I’ve gabbed on long enough. Suffice to say, this is an extremely large game with extremely large ambitions. Although it holds many similar facets with modern and classic RPGs, Path of Exile has taken great strides to fix some of the old recurring problems with the genre (skill trees, pay-to-win gaming, stale gameplay). It manages to be both innovative and nostalgic. Rarely have I found a game that sucks you in quite as well and holds you fast.
I will warn that in its current state Path of Exile has its share of bugs, though this is a common feature of every online game on its first launch and will likely be patched in the coming months. The complex nature of the skill map will deter many more casual players and requires a decent amount of planning and strategy. You are also pretty well required to grind for experience/items if you want to be able to go through just a normal playthrough. But this is more a facet of the RPG genre than a fault of Path of Exile itself.
If you’re looking for an immersive online game that you can sink hours upon hours into (either on your own or with friends with surplus free time) I can’t recommend it enough. As is, Path of Exile stands in a class of its own as one of the best RPGs released in years. Now, back to Wraeclast.
Path of Exile for the PC: 6/6
2 responses to Path of Exile