The musty stench of a dungeon, the savage growls of diabolical monsters, the glint of gold neatly tucked away in a wooden strongbox, these three things define the essence of the Action RPG genre, a subset of Role-Playing Games where the most complicated role-playing most players will be doing is imitating a walking blender. While perhaps not as sophisticated as more story-driven RPGs like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, this subgenre has managed to grow into a marketable genre with its own ups and downs over the years.
Path of Exile, one of three mature dungeon-crawling Action RPGs out to… alright let’s be honest, if you love Diablo 3 then there isn’t a game out there that can kill it but if you hated it, Diablo 3 killed Diablo 3. Regardless, Path of Exile is one of three promising alternatives to the reigning king of the genre, joining Torchlight and Grim Dawn in trying to take the world of hack-and-slash out of the world of gothic high fantasy and into somewhere different. For the most part, the game succeeds rather well despite selling itself under the dreaded “free to play” banner.
Path of Exile casts players in the boots of one of seven relatively shady characters, six available at start and one, the multi-talented Scion, unlocked after a certain point in the game. These individuals have been accused of various crimes, with charges ranging from unjustified to very justified, and thus exiled to the continent of Wraeclast, a harsh land populated by cannibals, vicious animal life, and several different kinds of undead. Wraeclast is basically a dark fantasy version of penal colony-era Australia… with the added bonus of a ruined culture that nearly wiped itself out in the search for unlimited magical power. Path of Exile is a bleak world that calls up memories of not just the first two Diablo games, but also to Spiderweb Software’s similarly depressing but brilliant Avernum series, blending traditional fantasy with elements of the post-apocalypse genre.
Much like Avernum, Wraeclast is home to a crude civilization built entirely out of spite and defiance. Unlike Avernum, Wraeclast isn’t quite as far along with building said civilization, the towns are towns in name only and there’s no traditional currency system based upon hammered coins of precious metals. Instead of gold coins, players sell their unwanted items for small trinkets like armorer’s scraps and blacksmith’s whetstones. These “currency objects” can be used as money in Path of Exile’s barter-based system or can be used to enhance the various properties equipment. The result is a complete shift in how players appraise an item’s worth. Instead of valuing an item based on the color of its name (like Diablo 2, PoE uses a system where different colored lettering allows players to immediately distinguish between a butter knife and King Arthur’s Excalibur,) your loot becomes priced based on how much of your limited inventory space it takes up. Suddenly that full suit of leather armor, worth one-fifth of a scroll of identification to an NPC vendor, becomes much less appealing unless its immediately better then what you’re wearing. Meanwhile a magic ring with basic enchantments, worth just as much at the market, becomes infinitely more valuable by taking up a fraction of the space.
The progression system, much like the game’s economy, is something a bit different compared to what most role-players are used to. Instead of the system of skill trees and relatively passive attributes popularized by Diablo 2, characters in PoE augment their combat abilities with skill gems and a “sphere grid” system that will appear very familiar to fans of a certain series of Japanese role-playing games… The result is a system that initially takes some getting used to but is incredibly fluid once it becomes second nature, all seven classes share the same grid so branching out into another class’s specialty is simply a matter of working ones way out towards their starting point on the grid.
Overall, there is very little reason not to recommend Path of Exile to Action RPG fans. It’s free (really, it is,) it runs fairly well on most contemporary PCs, it hits all the right notes for ARPG fans, and the game’s content can be experienced alone even though several boss encounters are rather difficult without companions. PoE’s only real shortcomings stem from its user interface and its need for a constant Internet connection. Diablo 3 players who remember the game’s launch day woes may be apprehensive but they are worrying for nothing. In the process of reviewing PoE, the game ran smoothly on Steam despite some minor lag spikes occurring primarily in the town areas. The knock against the UI is similarly minor, the default interface is needlessly cluttered with a real-time chat window and a translucent map overlay. Both can be turned off after a minute in the options menu.
Finally, there is the one question that is most frequently asked with free to play games and rightfully so, exactly how “free” is free? Surely the item shop is full of horrible cheats designed to create a divide between the gamer haves and have-nots all in the name of unbridled capitalism, right? Actually, the exact opposite is the case, the cash shop only sells vanity items, extra tabs on the player’s private equipment stash (there’s a chest in every town that allows characters to store excess equipment they do not wish to sell,) and extra character slots (all of which are entirely optional and barely impact the player’s gameplay experience.) That is it; an exhaustive, detailed search performed at the time of writing revealed absolutely no boosts, no “cash only” premium items, absolutely nothing that could give a player an immediate or potentially unfair advantage. Though, if you want a spiffy pilgrim’s hat that does absolutely nothing, be sure to check the shop around November 25th.
In conclusion, Path of Exile is worth a try, especially for fans of action RPGs that have been looking for a new game since Diablo 3. There are some minor issues with lag, some changes to the traditional formula to get used to but for the (non-existent) price of admission, this experiment is a successful one. Path of Exile earns a 4/5 stars.