Sometimes it takes a while to make a judgement. I spent a fair amount of time with Path Of Exile's beta but hadn't revisited the release version for more than seven or eight hours in total until I decided to write something about it a few weeks ago. Now that I've been back to the grim shores of Wraeclast for a long vacation and have stared deep into the heart of the passive skill tree's labyrinth depths, I'm ready to tell you wot I think.
I can only imagine what Path Of Exile would do to a person determined to build the most capable character possible. ARPGs in the Diablo mould are often comparable to a city of slot machines or endless piles of piñatas. You, the player, make an occasional choice as to how you’d like to insert your coin or crack open the containers, but you’ll mostly be hovering up whatever’s inside, your role set by the contents as much as your actions. We don’t own loot, loot owns us.
Path Of Exile is different. You’re taking the contents of those piñatas and trying to make a five course gourmet dinner or slumping in front of the slot machines and hoping to find the final pieces of a numismatist’s dream. This is a game packed with tricky decisions, though they’re set within the webbed matrix of an enormous skill tree and studded Tetris block inventory system rather than the shifting sliders of a mechanical moral absolutism.
Rather than asking if you want to kill the monster or kiss the monster, Path Of Exile asks if you’d rather freeze your enemies with a cone of cold or obliterate them with explosive fire traps. Character customisation is far more important than it ever was in the Diablo series or Torchlight, with a passive skill screen that looks like the night sky, pricked with shining possibilities forming constellations that grow and spiral from each of the character classes.
It’s easy to forget that the classes exist after playing for such a long time. They act as starting points rather than blueprints, malleable clay rather than vessels to be filled with slightly different flavours of battle-soup. My first build* was a Shadow, which is basically a goth bastard type that likes to stab and claw people while dropping mines at their feet. As a former goth bastard type in the real world (it was the nineties, I was young and slightly in love with Robert Smith and Trent Reznor), I felt that it was important to be true to my roots. The roots quickly became tangled, as did the branches and the twisting of the trunk. Guiding a character through the levels isn’t like riding the escalator to legendary hero status – it’s more like navigating the Escher-Penrose Memorial Tower Block.
Passive skills are selected from the aforementioned night sky. The system isn’t as bewildering as it appears, with each class acting as an island and anchor point amidst all the choices, but it’s entirely possible to build a bit of a duffer. Balanced characters are all well and good during a first play through, on normal difficulty, but the meat of the game is found on the more challenging settings.
That’s irritating, particularly for someone (like me) who doesn’t have hundreds of hours to sink into the game. It’s taken me half a year to find time to play for long enough that I feel justified in casting judgement, but to explore every cranny of its crafty item sets and skill combinations would require full-time commitment for several weeks. I’ve been grazing on Path Of Exile for months (a few withered shrubs break through the paving) and that’s how I tend to enjoy this kind of game. A varied diet keeps me keen on all manner of pointing and clicking.
Enough of that diversion though because there’s more to say about skills. In fact, I could write thousands of words about the skills and how clever the two systems behind them are. Alongside the passive set, which form a character’s bedrock, there are active skills, which sit along a hotbar at the bottom of the screen, ready for fingers to stab them into action, attaching to the cursor and dealing all kinds of dazzling death. You don’t get to choose those skills though, not in a conventional sense. Instead, they’re part of your equipment, affixed to equipped items to allow new actions.
Such a simple idea but superbly executed. It prevents loot from being nothing more than a series of pluses and minuses, and encourages experimentation with new equipment sets. Fancy converting your beefy marauder into a force of fiery elemental doom? Fiddle with his mace and just the right set of components and you might just manage it. The real trick lies in balancing the passive and active skills to create a fearsome golem, fused with just the right powers and abilities to take down everything in its path while remaining flexible enough to switch when the opponents change gear.
Path Of Exile is an elegantly designed ARPG, which ensures that there is a meaning behind the decisions about which skill to activate and which loot to equip. It’s a game about clicking on grisly things repeatedly until they explode in a shower of gore, and it doesn’t do much of anything else, but it does ensure that the moments in between the mostly mindless combat demand actual input from the player. The environments and enemies are occasionally attractive, in their grimdark way, but they’re not the source of appeal – this is a game about exploring the possibilities of its numerical systems rather than about exploring a world.
There are other clever touches. The world doesn’t have a currency system so ‘merchants’ will swap unwanted loot for fragments of scrolls, and other bits and bobs. Potions regenerate so that restoration is effectively on a cool-down system, neatly circumnavigating the busywork of stocking up and arranging inventory space. I haven’t dabbled with multiplayer a great deal, except to trade, which is easily done and a fine way to strengthen a build.
I almost forgot to mention that it’s free to play. That’s because it hasn’t once begged me to spend money, cap of +6 freemium fuckwittery in hand. In fact, the monetisation is so slight and invisible that I couldn’t even tell you what it’s possible to buy without looking it up. Extra character slots and stash space – that sort of thing. Considering how easy it’d be to exploit the randomised drops of the genre by adding premium petards and poleaxes.
Like Card Hunter, Path Of Exile does free to play the right way, as far as players are concerned. I worry about how the profits will arrive though, and whether this is the right way for developers and publishers. Updates have been regular and impressive though, so it seems Grinding Gear have found their market. I always find something to worry about. I’d happily have paid for the game as it stands if there’d been an offline mode. I suppose the fact that it’s an online game with multiplayer that was peripheral to my playtime is another worrying point, as is the zoom level of the camera, which is far too close for my liking and means I tend to play with my eyes on the overlaid map most of the time rather than looking at the scenery.
Oh dear. I seem to be ending on a negative note, which is silly because if anyone were to skip to the end they might think I’d been grumpy throughout. Go and read the rest if that’s the case because Path Of Exile is a smart and content-rich ARPG. It doesn’t rewrite the click-for-loot formula but it does tweak just the right parts to make the repetitious hacking and casting a more involved and intricate experience. Those interested in the multiplayer and scientific analysis of character builds could spend hundreds of hours happily enthralled. I'm just happy to have found a conventional ARPG that managed to hold my interest for more than a couple of hours**.
Path Of Exile is free and you can sign up for an account right now.
* I’m wary of using that word, ‘build’, when discussing characters in many games. ARPG player characters are often discovered rather than built, a series of happy (or at least tolerable) accidents with an occasional nudge. They’re like two Duplo blocks glued together rather than a construction. Path Of Exile earns ‘builds’.
** Interested in Reaper Of Souls despite myself.