Grinding Gear Games

A world of (literally) killer jewelry, and no two Witches alike: PAR plays Path of Exile

A world of (literally) killer jewelry, and no two Witches alike: PAR plays Path of Exile

Path of Exile is an Action RPG that pulls from Diablo, Dungeon Siege, and H.P. Lovecraft to create the unique, dark, and deadly world of Wraeclast. The Report spoke with Chris Wilson, CEO of developer Grinding Gear Games, and  Erik Olofsson, Path of Exile art director last week, but one question was left unanswered. How does it play? Path of Exile is currently in beta. Still, the game is a remarkably polished piece of work; this doesn't feel like an indie project made in someone's spare time. Path of Exile is a modern, well-rounded and creative game that may be ready to compete with the big boys.

I am Galstaff, sorcerer of light

You'll start the game by choosing a class. Each class is centered around one of PoE's three attributes: Dexterity, Strength, or Intelligence. Three of the classes are purely focused around one attribute, while the other three are hybrid classes that split their focus on two attributes. A Witch, for example, is based around only Intelligence, while a Duelist focuses on both Strength and Dexterity. The available options are familiar to anyone well-versed in Western RPG designs. They may not be called “barbarian,” “wizard,” or “rogue,” but it's pretty easy to pick out who's who and how each class will play. You won't – or shouldn't – think you'll be running up to bash monsters in the face as a Witch, for example. I chose the Ranger for my main character. What's interesting is that, while each class is designed to take advantage of their respective attributes, the way each character progresses allows for a ton of customization options. Characters themselves level up using a sphere grid, a la Final Fantasy X, so that while each class has a different starting point, the interconnectedness of the grid allows for all manner of off-shoots and cross-class skill compatibility. The example I gave above of a Witch in melee combat wasn't just hyperbole; it might take you forever and not really be worth it, but you can build toward that, if you so choose. There's no pressure to choose one path or the other, and navigation is easy. You can always mouse over each node to see what it will grant, and where the path will lead. Path of Exile refers to this map as the passive skill tree, since every activated node on the map only grants a character passive, not active, skills and abilities. There are a total of 1350 passive skill nodes, and you can even experiment with or theorycraft your own build here. In fact, you really should plan ahead, because while you can respec and take back mistakes, you can't just reset your entire path. Each point you undo costs a respec point, and you only start with two points. Items and quest rewards can give you more down the line, but you should still plan ahead.

Chaos (and fire, and lightning, and…) emeralds

If leveling up your character never grants you new abilities, how do you ever do more than a basic attack? Wilson told the Report that he and the team at Grinding Gear tried to push the concept of loot and collecting items as far as it will go, and nowhere is that more evident than in how a character gains skills. As your character travels the land of Wraeclast, they'll come across various gems. Each gem is a different color, each color is associated with a different Attribute; red for Strength, blue for Intelligence, green for Dexterity. These gems give your character their extra abilities. Here's how it works: Let's take my Ranger for example. She starts with Crude Bow. It does 3-10 physical damage, has a critical strike chance of 5%, and fires at a rate of 1.2 attacks per second. It also has three slots: one red, one green, one blue. Later, she slays a zombie and it drops a green gem of Split Arrow. This gem allows me to fire multiple arrows with a single click, at the cost of some mana. I slot it into the Crude Bow, and now I can use the ability by right-clicking. Any piece of equipment with an open slot could hold this gem, mind you – it doesn't have to be my weapon. I could slot the gem into my chest plate and still be able to perform the ability. Gems level up as you slay monsters while they're equipped, becoming more powerful versions of themselves as they do. Split Arrow, for example, starts out costing 10 mana and grants the wielder 2 additional arrows at level 1, but by level 10, it costs 16 mana, grants a 27% bonus to physical damage, and produces 4 additional arrows. It takes some getting used to the system, but it works quite well. There are a ton of potential modifiers and abilities to find on a given item, and combined with the sheer size and capacity of the passive skill tree, you're highly unlikely to come across anyone who's character is the same as yours, even if they have the same gear. If you want to put that to the test, you can search for adventuring parties in town by checking the noticeboard. Here you'll find public parties you can join, or create your own. The game is plenty fun solo, but watching how other people build and play their classes can be fascinating. I loved my Ranger's Split Arrow ability, but I seemed to be the only Ranger who either had it or used it.

That'll cost two breastplates and a helmet, sir

Items don't just feature prominently in character customization. The game's economy is based on bartering: When you want to purchase a new belt, you'll have to part with some of your scrolls or orbs. When you want to sell loot, you'll drag your chosen items to a window and, as you offer them to a vendor, they'll make an offer back. These offers typically come in the form of scraps and pieces of some larger item, such as fragments of an orb or shreds of a scroll. Collect enough pieces and you'll make the item whole. Path of Exile also offers several options for microtransactions – “ethical,” as they're described on the Path of Exile website. You'll get 46 coins for $5, 96 for $10, 200 coins for $20, 516 for $50, 1065 for $100, or 2850 for $250. You can purchase pets, animations, a larger stash, an extra character slot, or alternate visual effects for both items and skills, for starters. Prices vary wildly on these items. While most costs come in under the triple-digit mark and feel fairly priced, pets cost quite a hefty sum. A lightning scorpion pet, for example, will cost approximately ninety dollars. If you've got a spare grand, you can even design your own custom item.

But… is it fun?

Of course, all these niceties and focus on items would be for nothing if the game wasn't fun to play. Thankfully, it's as well-tuned and robust as an Action RPG fan could hope. You'll start off fighting what seem to be endless waves of zombies, but soon you'll graduate to giant crabs, spiked ostrich-like creatures, tentacle monsters, goatmen, and fire wolves. Each of these enemies possess unique looks and attacks, and the fighting can be brutal. Even in areas where I was several levels above the creatures I was fighting, I died regularly because I wasn't paying attention to the fact I was standing in poison or fire, or I got over-confident and was swarmed by a horde of whatever I was fighting at the time. Flasks, the vials which hold your health and mana potions, refill as you kill monsters, but you still have to activate them manually. No picking up health orbs like in Diablo 3. If you're not partied up with fellow adventurers, watch your resources and don't get cocky. Players argued in chat over which class was most overpowered, which is a good thing; the lack of consensus hints at a well-balanced game. I did notice I had a much easier time as my Witch, but that might be because by the time I played her, I had learned not to get too close, and to always keep my fingers hovering near the Flask activation button. The game is in beta, which means any obvious issues should be ironed out before launch. Path of Exile is good, clean, Action RPG fun that feels modern and intuitive. The game may pull from multiple, older sources - Diablo's sinister atmosphere, Final Fantasy X's sphere grid, etc – but it pulls these individual elements together into what feels like a new, comprehensive world. Nothing feels out of place, nothing feels broken. The game is in open beta now, but don't be scared off by that label. The game feels good, there are no more planned character wipes, and the experience is completely free. Just create an account and you're on your way. If you've been waiting for a breath of fresh air in the Action RPG genre, wake up and smell the bloated, rotting, animated corpses: Path of Exile is your game.