Path of Exile Preview: A Hack and Slash with a LOT of Choice

Path of Exile Preview: A Hack and Slash with a LOT of Choice

Platforms: Windows PC

Game Name: Path of Exile

Developer: Grinding Gear Games

Genre: Action RPG, Free to Play

Developer Summary:

Path of Exile is a free online-only action role-playing game set in the dark fantasy world of Wraeclast currently under development by Grinding Gear Games in New Zealand. It features a persistent online world capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of players and randomly generated levels and items for extreme replayability. New players are being added continuously to the Closed Beta Test.

What We Think:

It’s the year of the Action RPG. Diablo 3 has already had its run. Torchlight 2 is just around the corner. Grim Dawn is not too far way off as well. But the next thing to come down the pipe will be Path of Exile, a game by Grinding Gear Games, a small company in New Zealand. Their entry into the ARPG pool will be Free to Play, but NOT pay to win and from what I’ve seen of it so far, it would be worth any price tag they could slap on it had they chosen to go that route.

What is an ARPG? An Action Role Playing Game, at its core; you could just call them “Diablo-Clones” and people would know exactly what you are talking about. There are a few exceptions, like Borderlands, which is a first person shooter ARPG.

At first glance Path of Exile looks like it could have lifted assets from Diablo 2. The models on screen quickly reveal themselves to be 3D characters however, whereas in Diablo 2 they were sprites. But right away you can see how the visual style will invoke some nostalgia. As you play though, you’ll see how much more gritty it is.

Path of Exile - Sewer Map screenshot

Graphical themes aside, the actual world is dark, but makes sense. The first act starts you on a shore, then a swamp, which leads into a cave, then across a cliff and up a rocky incline, a boss and then a forest which leads into the next act. The transitions are believable and do not take you out of the progression at all. You won’t ever find yourself going from a desert to a forest, to an ice cave and back to a desert again. But when you do make such transitions, there is enough in between that you could see such changes as existing in real life.

PoE - goatmenMonsters are also not static HP bags. They sometimes enter the map in interesting ways, and they might have a few extra abilities to change up the gameplay. From a recent patch I noticed how zombies now rise out of the mud in the swamp or a bird-type monster charges at you with horns on its shoulders.

Pirate ghosts blink behind you and attempt a backstab. Goatman shamen cast a fire shield that will explode on you if you try to damage them through it. Some apes will pound on their chest and give a frenzy buff to smaller monkeys who swing down from a tree to get close to you. This had been my biggest worry, and at the beginning of my playing it bugged me. But as the game came together more and the Beta entered later stages of development, monsters just got more and more interesting, and even whole maps and zones demonstrated more personality.

The old gameplay is still there as well: You hack, slash, and spellcast your way through hordes of creatures on your way to the next zone. The only thing negative to say about it, which has been echoed elsewhere, is that it feels a bit clunky. Just a bit. It’s nothing game-breaking though, and can be gotten used to and overlooked once you start sinking your teeth into all the other mechanics used to make the game fresh compared to similar predecessors.

There are basically four things Path of Exile does to set it apart:

1. The way it uses currency.
2. How you customize your character’s passive stats like Str/Dex/Int.
3. How you customize your active abilities that you use to smash monsters.
4. Its approach to end-game.

Its two-character customization it has borrowed from Final Fantasy, but trust me, Grinding Gear handles it here in an awesome way. Another thing to keep in mind during all of this is that the game uses three methods for keeping you alive, not counting your Health. The easiest to understand is “flat armor,” which is based on your Strength stat, and items that require Strength to equip.

The next is Evasion which requires Dexterity to raise its effectiveness and use Dex/Evasion items to enhance it. Finally you can gain an Energy Shield, which acts a lot like a Halo over-shield that recharges over time if you’re not getting hit, and is affected by your Intelligence score. There are six classes in the game, one for each core Stat, and three that act as a hybrid between each one.

When Choice Is Not An Illusion

Let’s check out PoE’s handling of currency–there is no gold! Your currency is actually comprised of items that modify other items in some way. While at first look the game says it uses a barter system for its currency, what it’s really telling you is that you’re trading items that modify your existing gear, for new gear, which you ‘trade’ with NPCs for their wares. Let me attempt to clarify this a little:

The most basic three items you’ll be getting in lieu of gold will be your classic Scrolls of Identify – an item that turns a non-magic item into a magic item – and an item that takes a magic item, and re-rolls the enchantments on it for totally new effects. There are others that do both subtle and radical things, but with these you should get the idea. When you sell items, you get back mostly these three types of items in return.

Sometimes you get back different things if you choose not to first identify what you are selling. All of this changes how you handle your items; there are tiers of items, and once you find something you like that has good stats, for example the appropriate style of defense or offense, but maybe not quite the right modifiers, you can reroll its enchantments until you get something you like.

As you level, you get much more attached to your gear then you would in a different game, where you just toss whatever gives the best in whatever stat you want, and is easily replaceable. You really will only replace your gear as you enter the next tier, and then you’ll tweek what you have with your ‘currency’ items until you have the perfect thing you could want. Then you’re set for the next several levels.

When you level up, you gain one point to put into your passive skill tree. Upon opening this, you may be blown away by something that looks like the Final Fantasy X Sphere Grid. Choosing a class in Path of Exile does not actually change your limitation of what skills you can use, rather it actually only affects your starting point on this leveling map. Some people have said that the Final Fantasy grid is only an illusion of choice, but that could not be further from the truth here. There are branching-off paths and choices galore across this grid.

path_of_exile - passive skill tree
No this isn’t a picture from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider – this is the passive skill tree in Path of Exile

As there are only three stats in the game, Str/Dex/Int, they affect only your base hardiness. Less than half of the nodes across the map are actually flat stat buffs. Other small nodes can be things like Block Chance, Life Steal, Elemental Damage, or even extra necromancy-type pets. Bigger nodes around the edges of the grid allow for major game-changing effects designed for specialized builds. You can get a Barbarian to always hit, but never crit. You can have your mage cast from her health instead of her mana. The ‘illusion of choice’ is not an illusion in Path of Exile as you can take your character seemingly anywhere you desire, creating highly specialized and deadly builds, or kooky ‘fun’ builds that turn heads.

Mozzies and Gems

Now that we’re getting into the meat of it, let’s kill some monsters.

When you make your character and wake up on a muddy shore packed with zombies, you’ll find near you a weapon that is tailored to your class, and a Gem. The Gem system is how you use abilities and is the true meat of the game. It’s set up like the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII, except every piece of your equipment has colored slots. Red, Green, and Blue, that correspond with the three core stats in the game. Some items have slots that link to one another, and you can place ability gems into the links that add effects to the skill-granting gems.

For instance, if you had a Fireball spell in one slot, you could slot a multiple projectile support gem into its link and shoot two or more fireballs in a spread.

Path of Exile - Cartographers Chisel Screenshot

Gems level up with your character and can be freely moved and resocketed as you please. They can even be traded or sold to other players, and they’ll retain their level for the new owner. The only catch is that most of the time they will have stat requirements, and if the new owner can’t meet them, they won’t be able to use the skill or the item they into which they socket it. The synergy of use in currency to create the perfect item with just the right amount, and correctly-colored nodes bleeds into this aspect of character customization.


Finally, once you have a perfect build, and you’ve completed all the content of the game, what’s left but the end-game? What Path of Exile has done is create a system for making infinite amounts of end-game content, of varying difficulty, reward and scarcity. As you near higher levels you’ll begin to find shreds of treasure maps that can be taken to a laboratory in Act 3. When you use these maps you will open portals to a randomly generated area, that can be entered six times.

The glorious part of this is that these bits of map, like every other item, can be augmented, changed, and improved like every other item in the game. They can be enchanted, rare, legendary. They can have effects on them that say “Contains enemies that deal lightning damage” or “Extra large Map size” and add other bonuses to the quantity and quality of items that drop from killed monsters within the zone. This is your end game. It again ties into the currency system, and I’m sure will even be traded as a commodity between players.

A map that reads “Contains patches of flaming ground” will pose no problem to someone specialized in absorbing fire damage, and can be traded for other maps that he might have, that would be harder for them to fight. Very cool.


Where It’s At

While the game is still in closed beta, you can pay $10 to get access to it. The money will not be spent for naught, however, as even though it will be Free to Play, the money you paid will be usable as shop cash currency in-game. Thankfully, What you can buy are only convenience and cosmetic items. From what I’ve seen so far, only non-combat pets and banking stack slots are available.

The game holds up on its own, and Grinding Gear Games knows it. They are counting on players supporting them as a thank you to a great fun game, and not as a quick fix to get ahead of other players. This stance against pay-to-win should be adopted more often, in other words – always or there can be no real game balance. Whether you buy in to the beta now, or wait until it goes free in Open beta in a few months, Path of Exile will be a great place to spend your time if not your cash.

Though the game will benefit from a little more polish, it is great right now.

Path of Exile – Official Site

[xrr rating=”4/5″]

2 thoughts on “Path of Exile Preview: A Hack and Slash with a LOT of Choice

  1. Great article man. This game seems what I was looking for since I couldn’t reinstall Diablo 2 on my computer. Thanks.

  2. There is certainly a lot to know about this issue.
    I like all of the points you made.

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