Path of Exile Review – Still Alive, Are We?
By John Shadle (Sephorus), OnRPG Journalist
Path of Exile, the debut title from Grinding Gear Games, is a project born out of ambition. Billed as a completely free-to-play action RPG – a genre made popular with the likes of the Diablo franchise - Path of Exile promises an unforgiving world with incredibly deep levels of customization. In preparation for their Open Beta release, I set out to give this title a look – and found what I might consider one of the better action RPGs I've ever played.
Character creation is simple enough. You select one of six exiles bound for the forsaken continent of Wraeclast. Each has a very distinct style and personality, and while there's nothing explicit to tell you what each of the six is good at, watching their movements and hearing their stories gives you a good sense of what they're capable of. After a name selection and choice of league – another name for server ruleset – you're dumped, rather unceremoniously, on the shores of your destination. You learn very quickly everything you need to know about being here – namely that your ship wrecked, most people on board didn't survive, the island is crawling with the undead, and most of the natives (zombified or otherwise) plan on turning you into their next meal. So begins your struggle for survival in Wraeclast.
Atmospherically, Path of Exile delivers. Each area you can visit, from a meager survivor's camp to an abandoned prison to a bandit-infested forest, reeks of its own style while further cementing just how bleak and forsaken the life of an exile is. Beaches are littered with driftwood from wrecked ships. Looters and bandits are found slow-roasting their own kinsmen for a future meal. Shadows dance from your light source in dark areas – and there's always something shuffling, crawling, or chittering off in the distance. More than once, I found myself motionless in a room, merely listening to skeletal footsteps emanating from close by and feeling slightly unnerved when I realized that the sound came from everywhere. There are lots of little touches across the world that come together to imprint one simple message – nowhere is safe here.
One of the biggest changes for Path of Exile compared to other action RPGs is its equipment system. The most jarring thing is currency – namely, there isn't any in the traditional sense. While you can sell off extra equipment, you'll get upgrade items which allow you to alter the properties of other pieces of gear. Selling enough high-quality weapons at one time gives you an item to improve the quality of another weapon. Selling identified magic items give shards that combine to let you reroll the properties of another magic item. It takes some getting used to, and perhaps a bit of research in what you can get for selling certain combinations of things, but it eventually gives a fair amount of flexibility for being able to forge a non-magical item into something far more potent.
Another welcome change is how Path of Exile handles potions. Rather than carry a stack of consumable potions that require resupplying at towns, each exile carries five flasks on their belt. These flasks can restore health, mana, or both depending on what kind you're using, with higher-end flasks restoring more over time. These flasks will empty as you use them and refill as you defeat enemies, meaning you'll still need to manage how much you're using, but can keep your flasks topped off almost indefinitely – as long as there's a growing trail of bodies in your wake.
The absolute biggest change that Path of Exile presents, though, is its ability system. In short, most of your equipment has gem sockets; these sockets can be linked to each other or they can be standalone. You'll find ability gems through your travels (either through quests or random drops from enemies) that can freely be placed and removed from these sockets. These gems can gain experience as you have them socketed, which lets them grow in potency, but also increases the level and stat requirements needed to use them. Gems come in three styles – red for Strength-based, green for Dexterity-based, or blue for Intelligence-based. As each of the exiles favors either one or two of these three stats, they also generally have ability gems that will be more of a natural fit for them. However, there are no class-specific gems, so as long as the attribute and level requirements of the gem are met (along with the right kind of weapon, in the case of some attack skills), any exile can use any gem.
Linked sockets come into play when you factor in support gems; these do nothing on their own, but instead modify other abilities they are linked to. For example, one of the gems I came across was Shield Charge, which unsurprisingly let me run a short distance and bash an enemy with my equipped shield. Putting a support gem of Added Fire Damage in a linked socket would augment Shield Charge to also set targets on fire when I hit them. There are tons of ability gems and support gems available in Path of Exile, with the developers looking to add more as time goes on, which makes the prospect of abilities much deeper (and depending on what you link together, much more awesome) than initially expected.
Exiles will also earn passive ability points as they level and occasionally as quest rewards. These points can be spent in a massive ability grid to grant passive bonuses or alterations to your playstyle. Each exile starts in a different place on this grid, which determines what they have easier access to unlock. However, there are absolutely no restrictions to how you maneuver the ability grid, meaning that it's possible, albeit over time, to bring your Intelligence-favoring Witch over to the Marauder's Strength-heavy area of the grid and spend the majority of your points there. Some of these passive abilities are simple, with straight bonuses to stats, increased damage with a particular weapon type, better armor ratings from your equipment, etc. Some are more potent, with things like Resolute Technique making your attacks unavoidable but unable to critical hit or Blood Magic removing your mana pool and making your abilities cost health instead. I hesitate to call it simple – not when the ability grid sports somewhere around 1350 possible nodes, making it so large that you can't zoom out far enough to see it all at once – but it grants an absolute flexibility and diversity that's rarely seen in games nowadays.
Grinding Gear Games set out to bring an unforgiving, difficult action RPG experience with incredibly deep customization potential to the free-to-play world, and in that regard, Path of Exile is absolutely set to deliver. With what the team has put together so far and with what's to come in the months ahead, the bar's about to be raised on the action RPG genre. I doubt the exiles will give that spot up without a fight.