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Path of Exile Review: An Evolution, Not A Spiritual Successor
Note: Path of Exile is currently in Open Beta, however there will be no character wipes before release. Therefore you can safely play the game now without worrying about the beta-to-release transition.
Path of Exile was played during Closed Beta and now Open Beta. I played all six classes up to at least level 30 and beat Normal difficulty with both a 2-handed melee Marauder and an Ice Witch (currently on Cruel with her).
2012 saw plenty of action RPG release and two very important loot fests from fan favorites Diablo and Torchlight. While most of us were busy playing those two and killing, looting, and speccing our brains out there was another player hiding in the shadows waiting for the right time to strike.
This new competitor, while playing similar as most loot fests do, offers the kind of genre evolution that players wanted from this generation of games.
While Diablo 3 departed from its roots for a new direction of story-telling and accessibility and Torchlight 2 focused purely on the traditional, this game offers the dark and gritty style of Diablo 2 combined with unique gameplay mechanics to make the experience fresh and worthwhile.
This new game is called Path of Exile and it is developed by Grinding Gear Games. It was publicly announced in 2010 but had been in development for three years before that. On January 23rd of this year the game went into Open Beta. That’s a long dev time and it really shows. Path of Exile is a beautiful game and the unique mechanics of the game are very polished and add much to the experience.
In essence Path of Exile is exactly what Diablo 2 fans wanted out of Diablo 3. Grinding Gear kept the dark, hellish, gothic, and disturbing that we oh-so loved from the 10-plus year classic but managed to make us not feel like we’ve “been there, done that”. This is the pinnacle of loot fests, my friends. This is the game we wanted in 2012.
While the game is in Open Beta right now, you can safely play it without worry of character wipes. The devs have promised that there will not be a wipe. The only thing you’ll have to contend with is bugs and server problems. It’s no different than how Diablo 3 launched last year, actually a bit better then that. We’ll get into the issues later on in the review. Still, no sense in waiting for the official release. You can play the full game right now for free.
You can download the game at the official site after you make an account.
Design & Presentation – Recreating The Magic Of Diablo 2
That’s what it’s always been about, right? Since Diablo 2 any studio trying to create a game like this has strived to recreate what Blizzard did back in 2000.
Not only was Diablo 2 successful, it became an everlasting phenomenon that is still played today. The blend of story, complex synergy skill sets, item crafting with runes, difficulty spread across 100 levels, and the many different ways players could spend their time in the game all factored into how well Diablo 2 did. That is the platinum example of what developers should try and topple. It has been a long time since Diablo 2 came out and there have been many who have tried to take the throne. No a one of them were able to.
There have been some notables, however. Games like Titan Quest, Dungeon Siege, Sacred, and Torchlight have done their best with Titan Quest and Torchlight being the highlights in that list.
The problem for most of those games is that they try to recreate the phenomenon by sticking to traditional methods of gameplay and story-telling. We were essentially playing the same game over and over again in a different location and with different art styles. Some try and buck tradition with a different way of utilizing classes, skills, or ways to customize or power up your weapons and gear but when you look at it nothing really changed. Titan Quest had a hybrid class system which was cool and all but it got very convoluted and easy to mess up. There were plenty of tries and plenty of ideas but none of them ever felt new. Until now…
There are a few things that make Path of Exile feel fresh but most notably is its open class system thanks to the gargantuan Passive Skill Tree. Containing 1350 skill nodes, the game’s Passive Skill Tree allows every character to be unique if that’s what you desire to do. While Path of Exile features six playable classes, you can essentially use each one of them for any purpose. Unless you’re intent on following a pre-defined build and are worrying about your character’s survivability against a certain element or type of damage then you can follow your own path through the skill tree in any way you wish.
If you want to be a mage warrior hybrid that uses a staff, block nodes, and fire damaging skill gems then you can go ahead and do that. How about a bow-wielder that specializes in high defense so she can stand in the midst of enemies and rain arrows of elemental death upon them? Sure, why not? How about a rogue that slips between the shadows and can get out of any mess while dual wielding and mastering ice attacks to freeze his enemies? Sounds pretty cool.
That’s the glory of Path of Exile in a nutshell: you aren’t contained to a class name and three little trees of skills. The way your character is built and how he or she fights is up to you. That being said, there is plenty of room for build creators and those who look for ultimate survival, power, or a hybrid of both. You can specialize in certain weapons or magics, as well. The Passive Skill Tree is enough to look at Path of Exile as a breath of fresh air in hack and slash games.
That’s not all that this game offers, though. It is easy to see that fans of these games like their experiences dark, gritty, and disturbing. They want things that will add an aura of uneasiness to the game as you kill and loot. I think Diablo 3 had a good amount of that but it was in no way close to Diablo 2. Torchlight didn’t feel that way at all. Titan Quest felt more vibrant and magical than the others thanks to the Greek mythology. It’s here in Path of Exile that you finally feel like you’re back in that dreary, desolate, and depressing state of the world. Wraeclast is an outcast’s limbo. It isn’t a paradise. It isn’t a place where you can even rest and just live out your exile. Wraeclast is a damned place where only the worst of the worst go in order to pay for their crimes with their lives. You aren’t expected to live and judging by what’s crawling about, you aren’t expected to even get off the shore they left you on.
This all amounts to a winning strategy for Path of Exile. While it doesn’t focus on story like Diablo 3, it has that perfect balance of gameplay, unique mechanics, and story that kept the flow of Diablo 2 moving and moving. There was no downtime in that aside from throwing stuff in your stash or selling. It’s the same way in Path of Exile. The game wants you to keep playing and it does a good job at keeping you interesting in going forward and getting that next level.
Gameplay – Being Unique In A Sea Of Clones
Diablo clone. I never liked that term. It was easy enough to just call a new hack and slash game that and forget about anything it tried to do to separate itself from that classification.
Still, the term sticks to many games and one of the main goals of new hack and slash titles was to become more than just a “Diablo clone”. It was hard enough to get people not to begin their description of a game as “So-and-So is a Diablo clone and…”
There are a ton of action RPG dungeon crawlers out there and unfortunately most of them still go by “Diablo clone”. Only Torchlight has escaped that fate and became its own entity. In fact, it was Torchlight 2 that held the “safe haven” banner when so many gamers started hating on Diablo 3 and leaving that game. Torchlight 2 did everything it could to be more like Diablo 2 instead of 3 and that won over many fans. It was unfortunate that when it finally released it became clear that, once again, we were playing Diablo 2 with a different set of scenery. The only difference being that Torchlight 2’s story was jumbled and not even worth reading or listening to.
While beating Diablo 2 in terms of success, longevity, and fan response is a key goal to have for hack and slash games, another has to be the attempt at being unique among so many that have tried and failed and even those that have become something like Torchlight. This is where Path of Exile shines. There are so many unique aspects to this game that it doesn’t quite feel like any other game you’ve played.
Passive Skill Tree
We’ve already went over this but it truly is the center of the pie for this game. While daunting at first, the game gives you plenty of chances to look at the Passive Skill Tree and either just examine it or pick our your path. You can view it on their website or just create a character and before doing anything just hitting the P key and checking it out in-game.
Take some time and look over the skill tree. It offers so many more than just +10 to Strength or +8% mana. There are key Passives in the tree that will change your character. For instance, the Blood Magic node will get rid of your mana completely and make your skills take away from your health instead. This is extremely helpful to a class like the Marauder that generally has the highest health pool and low mana. There’s plenty more like this node including Iron Reflexes that converts all of your Evasion rating into Armour rating which can be very helpful to a Duelist or Shadow that is focusing on Dexterity and is a higher level where Evasion can be a bit dangerous to rely on.
You can find something that will whet your appetite for any class in Path of Exile. Each one of them has so many different options open to them. If you want to be a mage you have a decision to make. You can pick the Witch class and then become either a Necromancer, Ice Witch, Fire Witch, Lightning Witch, Elemental Witch, or a Support Witch that shares her buffs, Energy Shield, and elemental damage with her allies and minions. You have so many options at your disposal that it is impossible to feel constrained by class limitations or linearity with normal skill trees.
Your abilites are determined by what gems you have attached to your gear. Almost every piece of gear has a number of sockets on them that allow you to put in place a specific colored gem. There are three colors: red (strength), green (dexterity), and blue (intelligence). The color of your sockets tell you what kind of gem can be put in there.
You can change the color of your sockets and even link them together which can provide other benefits.
Just like the Passive Skill Tree, Skill Gems are another unique and complex gameplay mechanic that you’ll have to master. It isn’t hard but it certainly adds to your decision making. You’ll either have to pick and choose your gear wisely in order to have the correct number and color of sockets you’l need for your available skill gems or use rare Orbs to change your sockets up.
Aside from how to equip the Skill Gems, these things go hand-in-hand with your Passive Skill Tree. You’ll want to look for gems that compliment the nodes you’ve taken already. If you’ve been taking nodes that increase the effectiveness of daggers, then you may want to equip some daggers that have green sockets so you can utilize Skill Gems such as Ethereal Blades or Whirling Blades. If you’ve been focusing on cold damage then you’ll want a weapon that enhances cold damage and if you’re a strength-based character look for the Glacial Hammer gem or if you’re a mage then you’ll have your pick of Ice Nova, Frozen Pulse, Ice Spear, and many others.
This is where you can start seeing how genius Path of Exile’s mechanics are. The game will allow you to pick and choose whatever you want but if you coordinate your Passive Skill Tree nodes with the kind of gear, sockets, and gems you use then you’ll quickly become more and more powerful.
The Barter System
This is a rare thing to see in a game, especially one like this. There is no currency in Path of Exile – no gold, silver, or platinum. Instead the game uses a barter system for all NPC trades and player trades. You’ll be trading items for items in this game.
The main source of trading negotiations are scroll, Orbs, and shards. Orbs and scrolls are the bread and butter of the game’s bartering system. Orbs are highly sought after because they change items, properties, sockets, and other things. You’ll come across Orbs in our NPC trades, chests, enemy drops, and player trades.
Common Orbs you can find as Transmutation (reforges a Normal item into a Magic one), Chance (changes a Normal item into a random rarity), and Augmentation (adds a property to a Magic item – up to two). There are many more orbs and even some extremely rare ones like Regret (grants a skill tree respec point), Alchemy (changes a Normal item into a Rare one), Divine (randomizes the amount of properties a Magic, Rare, or Unique item has), and Fusing (reforges or creates a link between sockets on an item).
It is these Orbs that will be mainly asked for by players and even NPCs. You’ll also see players ask for shards. Shards are pieces of Orbs. You need typically 20 of them to create an Orb and any shard for a rare Orb can be used for bartering. Shards of Alchemy are highly sought after.
Scrolls are either for identifying or creating portals to towns. You’ll can find pieces of the identifying scrolls but Portal scrolls must be found or traded for.
This system promotes fairness and player trading. There is a hefty amount of trades going on in chat and you should never have a problem finding something you need be it an Orb, Scroll, weapon, or gear piece.
If you’ve saved up your Orbs, Shards, and even some good Rare items you can’t use, you’ll find trading with other players a breeze. If you’re desperately in need of an item upgrade or see a Unique item up for trade, you can negotiate with as many Orbs as you want to try and get it. You aren’t bogged down by gold prices in Path of Exile. Trading is up to you in terms of how much you are willing to give up. If you’re being asked for a few Orbs of Alchemy, Chance, Chaos, and a couple Shards, you may want to walk away from the trade unless you’re in dire need of the item or the item is so rare that the asking “price” isn’t ridiculous.
You’ll have to be careful with how you utilize the barter system. This is one aspect of the game you’ll want to brush up on fairly quickly so you aren’t taken for a fool during a trade.
As you can see, Path of Exile has plenty of unique systems in it to make it stand out in a crowd. This isn’t your typical Diablo game or clone.
Story – Walking The Path Of The Exile
The story in Path of Exile isn’t anything to write home about but it is easy to follow and has plenty to sink your teeth into.
One thing to remember is that the story here is told just like Diablo’s. You’ll have to click on NPCs and listen to them talk about subjects. If you do that, however, you’ll find that Path of Exile has a lot to offer in terms of lore.
Let me try and sum up the story without spoiling:
There is a land called Wraeclast which used to be filled with beautiful cities, temples, and creatures. The land was invaded by the authoritarian nation of Theopolis. It was destroyed and the people scattered in order to survive. Now Wraeclast is viewed as an outcast’s prison.
You have been exiled to Wraeclast for a crime (which crime depends on the class you choose). Now you must survive and find a way to get off Wraeclast while clearing the way for the others you find along your journey.
Your quest is not easy as you find that some from Theopolis remain on Wraeclast and they do not care for the lives of outcasts and exiles. You’ll find have to battle the land’s natives, rampaging creatures, its ancient and powerful past, and the invaders that destroyed the place.
To be honest, I was surprised by the story of Path of Exile. It isn’t a masterpiece but coming off the extremely disappointing “story” of Torchlight 2, I was happy to see something well constructed and thought out. Diablo 3’s story (read: not writing) was well done and well presented and while you won’t find that here on Wraeclast, you’ll be given plenty to listen and read to that will perk up your interest.
The most important thing is that it isn’t hard to understand why you’re fighting and why you’re where you are at in any given time. That’s a giant plus in a game like this.
Experience – The Journey, The Endgame, The Longevity of An Exile
Hack and slash games are never typically long. Path of Exile is currently 3 acts long and while they all have a decent length, you’ll be begging for more soon enough. Luckily the game contains plenty of things to keep you going.
You’ll find three difficulties: Normal, Cruel, and Merciless. After Normal you’ll start seeing penalties for dying such as XP loss and resistance loss. You’ll have to be much more careful in Cruel and Merciless than in Normal, which is to be expected.
Aside from difficulties, Path of Exile has a method of prolonging the endgame that is just as unique as the skill system and bartering. Once you have completed the game on Mericless difficulty you can start finding Maps. Maps are items that can be taken to a new location that unlocks after Mericless is done. These items take you to special areas that contain monsters of higher level than 60. Currently the known Maps can take you to level 70 which is when your XP gain will become a long haul.
Levels 70-100 will take you quite a long time to go through. Grinding Gear has said that it will take people more than a year to hit level 100. Last night I saw a player hit level 83 and it’s only been since the 23rd when Open Beta started. We’ll see if the dev’s claim will stand.
Right now the only thing you gain from leveling past 70 is more skill points to flesh out your build. The game’s content stops at level 70 but that doesn’t mean there won’t be more later on.
Still, 70 levels in Path of Exile take a long time to reach unless you’re running through the hours like crazy. The players I’ve seen at high level, like the one at 83, must be playing like mad to achieve that. The game’s chat window will tell everyone logged in when someone has reached a new high level. I’m not sure if 84 has been obtained yet or not but as of this writing, 83 is the highest I’ve seen on the American league.
You’ll have plenty to do, see, and conquer on your way to level 70. The game right now if designed to go that high and if any more content is coming out, you may want to stop there and see what is in store for us. Otherwise you’ll find yourself spending hours and hours in the same Maps trying to hit level 100 and killing the game for yourself.
Overall – Getting Lost in Wraeclast
For so long we’ve longed for the “spiritual successor” to Diablo 2. We got that in Torchlight 2. However, when the 2012 hack and slash games came out we started longing for something new. Diablo 3 tried but it did so when fans wanted more of the same thing. It was a quick turn from the wanting of “the same old but in HD” to “something new and exciting”. You can’t blame Blizzard for Diablo 3. They tried something new with an existing IP. It didn’t work out very well but hell, they still have plenty and plenty of players online killing, looting, and conquering Paragon levels.
I know I’ve been harsh on Torchlight 2 in this review, a game I gave a high score for in my review. Let me say that I don’t dislike Torchlight 2. It was a great game to play through but it was quick to forget. My mind the whole time was set on my experiences in Diablo 2 and how Torchlight 2 was giving me an HD version of the same thing with less story. I was high on the loot and the combat of old. I found myself quickly wanting something new.
Path of Exile has quenched my want. This is the hack and slash game for the new generation.It provides an interesting lore combined with the depressive and destroyed land of Wraeclast. It brings together so many new and ingenious ways to play, customize, and interact.
Even the website for the game is built to let you check your characters out, talk with other players using your personas, and mess around with the massive Passive Skill Tree while you’re away from the computer or just planning out a new character.
Even though the game is still in Open Beta, the devs are constantly working on improving server stability and fixing bugs. There is no hesitation of bringing the servers down for a minute to fix something (literally, just a minute). The support from the devs and mods in chat has been wonderful. This is a company that truly cares for their product.
Grinding Gear Games has created the evolution that hack and slash needed. This is no spiritual successor. This is the new king of hack and slash. Diablo 2 may hold the throne still due to longevity but a new nation with a new king has risen up and taken a foothold. Now all that is left is to see how Grinding Hear supports the game, its community, the continuation of the story and content, and if Path of Exile can dethrone Diablo 2 as the go-to favorite in the hack and slash arena.