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Path of Exile Review – A Bigger Skill Tree Than Yggdrasil

If you’re over the age of 21 and/or a college student and need to make up an easy drinking game, I have a rather effective one for you to try out. Load up any review of an isometric action RPG and take a drink every time the writer mentions Diablo. I bet you won’t make it past the first page before passing out and blaming me for your unfairly suffered case of alcohol poisoning.

That’s not a joke either, since you’d be hard-pressed to find a review that didn’t mention Diablo…and with good reason.

Blizzard’s action RPG had the same effect on the gaming hobby that iD’s DOOM had before it. Though it wasn’t the first roguelike, it was the one that made the genre accessible and added easy-to-use multiplayer. These features, combined with one of the earliest and most successful uses of DirectX as a platform, helped Diablo become the kind of game that not only sells millions of copies, but also spawns millions of imitators as well.

Over the years however, many of the action RPGs that attempted to out-do Blizzard’s masterpiece tried to do so by being as different as possible. Whether it was Revenant’s joystick-based combo system, Sacred’s Elder Scrolls-esque open world or Hellgate’s inclusion of first person shooter mechanics, the genre was doing absolutely everything it could to try and improve on an ancient formula whose success seemed impossible to replicate.

Path of Exile, as much hype as it’s received over the past year, isn’t really trying to change or even add to Blizzard’s award winning formula. Matter of fact, it’s the game’s strict adherence to the standard Diablo play mechanic that seems to separate it from its contemporaries. At a time when even Blizzard itself has refused to make a standard “Diablo-esque” action RPG, Path of Exile’s acceptance and continued community growth has proven that the best improvement over Diablo is to simply just re-make it with better graphics and community options.

If you haven’t noticed, Path of Exile has become a sort of rallying cry now; a title used in arguments with Blizzard supporters that still (for some odd reason) support the developer’s poorly received third Diablo game. The simplistic gameplay, the constantly changing schedule of events, the well-done PVP, the huge skill grid which affords for supreme character builds…everything that we got a taste of with Diablo 2 in 2000 we now have a more stable and well-thought out version of it in 2013 thanks to Path of Exile.

Now while the core game is almost identical to Diablo, such as the three difficulty levels and the usage of portal scrolls, there are a few additions that have made Path of Exile a more playable game than its predecessor. Some of them are borrowed from competitors, such as the post-game challenge dungeon maps found in torchlight. Others are more original, such as healing potions only filling up when you kill monsters or merchants only accepting crafting items as payment for items rather than gold pieces. It’s these little improvements, as well as a few much bigger ones, that help Path of Exile climb to the top of the Diablo clone mountain.

Chief among the improvements to this old formula would obviously be the graphics, which are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in an action RPG. When you take into account that this game is free to play, and the fact that it is significantly better looking than its peers it becomes even more impressive. The animations, the spell effects, the hazy blurring of colors around the edges of heat sources.. It’s a fantastic engine that is so bleeding edge that my $1200 gaming laptop can barely run it with everything ramped up to max at 1080p.

…but Graphics aren’t what action RPGs are about, and there is a lot more to this community darling then her looks.

The most treasured aspect of Diablo 2, or really any action RPG for that matter, is the ability to craft varied and extremely specific character builds. Look at the Gamefaqs page for Diablo 2 or Torchlight 2 and you’ll see a myriad of different documents all detailing some awkward sounding class that is outlined in esoteric slang and requires a few weeks of study to interpret. It’s this in-depth character building that the hardcore fans crave, which is unfortunate since many companies have shied away from providing that level of complexity for fear of scaring away the wallets of the mainstream crowd.

Not Path of Exile.

When you open up the skill tab in game you’ll see how truly gargantuan the ability “tree” is. With far more skills than the level limit will even allow, the game requires you to carefully place each of your skill points in such a way that it will open up a path to other passive abilities that augment your previous choices. Want a Witch that focuses on ice and mana regen? How about one that forfeits armor bonuses in order to bolster the abilities of her summoned creatures and specifically focuses on pets to do her dirty work? How about a tank mage that only uses spells that augment weapons and passive abilities which increase elemental damage dealt over time?

Now granted, this is nothing new, but in an era where mainstreaming and simplicity have trumped depth and complexity, this refusal to relent to the casual crowd is a refreshing return to form for a once celebrated sub-genre. This extreme build system is so flexible and enticing that me and the friend I spent 80+ hours playing the game with changed the builds of our two level 50-ish characters at least a few times to suit the ever changing needs of the enemies.

Which brings me to another important aspect of the game: The immense difficulty.

If you’re an expert at build creation and item farming, chances are you won’t have too much trouble. Though the Steam forums for the game are filled with angry posters claiming to have given up midway through the second difficulty level, I had no problem making it as far as act 2 on the hardest difficulty before I began having serious problems. The strength of your build and your willingness to abandon it for a different character archetype are your only real obstacles to success in Path of Exile.

The constant adjustments you are required to do are your best ways to deal with the incredible leaps in difficulty that the game takes from section to section. While some may find this frustrating, there are many more who will celebrate this method’s triumphant return. This, more than anything, is what has made Path of Exile so popular.

That leaves us with Path of Exile’s most talked about draw, and that is the community events.

While PvP is an important feature that many applaud, it’s actually the player-versus-enemy events that seem to garner the most attention online. Every so often the developers will host “Races” that require you to start a new character and attempt to get as high a level as possible without dying, all while going through an endless repeating dungeon area. It seems monotonous, and perhaps it is to some, but these competitions have proven to be incredibly popular and are this game’s answer to Diablo 2’s famous seasonal ladder rankings.

So you have a vibrant community with a lot of competition, state-of-the-art graphics, tons of character build options and a very challenging PvE component… So, is Path of Exile the perfect 10 ARPG we’ve always wanted?

It could be, if the sever issues weren’t such a big problem.

Known as “De-syncing”, the constant splitting of the servers from your own machine is a frequent complaint screamed about on the forums. It makes playing a hardcore character a professional level exercise in anger management and caused roughly 90% of all the deaths I suffered. It could be due to the game being free and not having the strength to keep such a large community connected, or it could be that the developers don’t have a clue on how to write net code.

Either way, Path of Exile has the worst connection stability I’ve experienced in an online game, and I’ve been playing them since the 28.8bps days. It’s so bad that often times my friend and I would get bumped offline every 10 or so minutes for hours at a time, resulting in slow quest progress and a disturbing amount of lost experience. It’s a shame that such a stellar online RPG has to be nearly ruined by such horrendously bad connection problems, but this may be the price we all pay for not *having* to pay.

Which brings up an often asked question, “Do I need to pay to win”?

Unlike many other free-to-play RPGs, you do not have to pay any money to be competitive. Amazingly, all the paid services are optional and not at all unbalancing. Most are visual effects or pets that offer no real advantage to your character other than looking cool while walking around town. To my surprise, the default package you get with Path of Exile is very “Full” and never left me wanting. I had four large tabs in my stash which I just now finally filled and have only made up to four characters (Duelist, Templar, Scion and Marauder) that I routinely play…so whether or not I pay the developer money I’m still getting just as much, if not more, content than most other games of this type.

It seems silly to answer the “Should I play this?” question since, after all, the game is free. Though when you factor in the amount of time these games require it makes sense to ask it. My answer? Absolutely. While it’s true that the connection issues are a gigantic drawback, there is the good chance that the developers will eventually iron things out once the money from the more dedicated players starts pouring in. As the game stands now, it’s the best action RPG that has seen the light of day since Diablo 2… and that’s a fact.

So if you haven’t drunk yourself into a stupor by playing my drinking game, congratulations. Go play some Path of Exile and look for a level 59 Duelist named Jhavor. He’ll show you what a proper speed build looks like.

Carl Batchelor

About

Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.