Path of Exile’s new Breach leagues started not too long ago, and so I figured it’s as good a time as any to introduce the game to a wider world. For those not familiar with it, Path of Exile, made by Grinding Gear Games out of New Zealand, is a free-to-play action RPG loot grinder with a surprising (sometimes frankly astonishing) level of detail in its customization and character building. It manages to be one of the most obsessively fair games with regard to its microtransactions that I have ever known, and for fans of the genre, it’s a true treat.
Path of Exile owes an enormous debt to the Diablo series, whose first iteration essentially created the modern hack-and-slash-and-loot action RPG and whose second round codified and streamlined the best and most successful systems that would later become the bread and butter of the genre. Things like random prefixes and suffixes on weapons and armor, unique items, set items, and enemies with varying and procedurally generated abilities that mix and match may have existed before, but they first became a major part of cohesive gameplay systems in Diablo II. In Path of Exile, these systems feel first ripped directly from their inspiration but then heavily and successfully iterated on.
Banished from your lifelong home in the theocratic dictatorship of Oriath, at the start of the game you are unceremoniously dumped into the ocean off the coast of Wraeclast, a wretched continent of the damned where everything wants to kill you and where the dead spontaneously rise as zombies. You pick one of six exiles based on some combination of the three major attributes—strength, dexterity, intelligence, or a combination of two—and then it’s off to the coast hunting for loot and currency.
Speaking of currency, Path of Exile has no single one. Instead, in a brilliant move, the same items that are used to craft and upgrade weapons and armor are also used to buy items from vendors and are generally used to trade between players as well. These currency orbs can also be expended to take base items and reroll them, generating a new set of affixes as though the item had been dropped by the same enemy again. This means that the trading currency is self-depleting, putting a damper on the extreme inflation that causes serious problems for trading in most online RPGs.
The most interesting and powerful part of Path of Exile is its skill tree. Rather than assigning you attribute increases based on your class as you level up, the game assigns you passive skill points that you assign to a massive web of over 1,300 nodes. The system is reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, but more involved, complex and choice based. Because you can go in any direction at any time, and because even a max-level character can assign less than 10 percent of nodes, the system demands customization. Want to play a heavily armored, dual-wielding wand user? You can! A black knight minion master who charges the front side by side with his zombies? Yes! A ranger who also throws traps that curse enemies? That too!
Much of this is also made possible by the active skill system that allows you to link abilities together to change the way that they function. A regular burning-arrow skill gem could, for example, be linked to a gem that makes it deal less damage but fire three projectiles. Then that combination could be linked to a gem that adds knockback, then to one that changes the skill to summon a totem that fires this attack. Critically, however, most skill gems work with most modifiers, so I could change out the burning arrow in my previous example for a knife-throwing skill or any other projectile skill and achieve the same modifiers. This allows for a level of customization I’ve not seen elsewhere.
Roughly every three to four months, Grinding Gear Games starts a new league for Path of Exile—a new brand self-contained environment where previous characters and items aren’t allowed. Although it’s a chance for the developers to try out new mechanics before they are added to the core game, I think it’s also an acknowledgment that the most interesting and alive-feeling parts of ARPGs are the early and middle stages, and that the formula can become a bit stale after months of grinding the endgame. Though they’ve done a great job creating a customizable experience with endgame maps and the Atlas of Worlds, allowing you to reroll endgame areas with random monster buffs while searching for new areas, I’ve always been drawn to the development stage of the game for its sense of wide-open possibility.
Unlike most free-to-play games, Path of Exile has set a hard line on microtransactions and how they can impact gameplay. Every microtransaction either is purely cosmetic or affords you only an additional character slot or stash space. The developers could have gotten away with something slightly closer to gameplay-influencing effects, such as providing extra respecialization points to change your character build, but—probably due to the creeping nature of “pay to win” and “pay for convenience” in free-to-play games—they chose not to.
As I’m searching for something negative to say and coming up blank, I realize that I’m missing a number of the deep complexities of this game’s systems, and that might very well be the one drawback: though Path of Exile does a great deal to ease you into its interlocking parts, you will eventually reach a point where you must master those parts, and master them well, to continue playing. High-level bosses are very unforgiving, and it is possible to reach a point where your build simply isn’t viable anymore and respecializing is very expensive.
Also, Path of Exile is very much a game for diehards and fans of the formula. It’s taken the grind-for-loot experience and iterated on it many times over, each time not redesigning or redefining, but rather “only” developing what’s already there to an extremely polished experience. That’s not a knock, as they’ve done this better than anyone, but it does mean that if you’ve played other action RPGs and they haven’t quite gripped you, Path of Exile simply won’t do it either.
If you’ve ever enjoyed an action RPG loot grinder, however, Grinding Gear Games’ love for the genre really shows through in their development choices, and Path of Exile comes highly recommended.