Path of Exile is an engaging and polished action-RPG packed with addicting gameplay, deep character customization, and clever design decisions that will keep you coming back for more. If you’ve never played Path of Exile, or if you haven’t played it in a while, this hack and slash title by Grinding Gear Games is definitely worth picking up.
If you’re a fan of the genre, you may be tempted to compare it to Diablo III. In actuality though, Path of Exile harkens back to some of the best elements of games like Diablo II, Titan Quest, and even Champions of Norrath. It has an array of modern creature comforts such as quest logs, map overlays, and an easy to use UI, contrasted with elements that feel slightly old and harsh. There’s a distinct lack of hand holding in some cases. This may sound like a criticism, but it isn’t exactly; it’s approachable yet raw and it’s incredibly satisfying. It’s got a pretty face, but there’s real substance and depth there too.
In any action-RPG, the meat of the game is in how you develop your character and how you go about destroying hordes of monsters. In Path of Exile, while you can choose from seven different character classes, including the brutish Marauder, the sly Duelist, or the off-putting Witch, these choices are largely cosmetic. The reason behind this is that every skill or ability that you get comes from skill gems that are slotted into pieces of armor and equipment. These gems are not tied to a specific class, but instead have level and stat requirements – requiring a certain amount of Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence to use. On top of these active skill gems, there are also Support gems that allow you to augment your skill gems, sometimes radically changing what the skill does.
In addition to the active skills that come from the skill gems, there is also an enormous passive skill tree. Each class starts at a different area in the skill tree, with the stronger warrior type classes starting next to passive skills that increase strength or proficiency with two handed weapons, while the spell casters will start near increased mana regeneration, or intelligence bonuses. That being said, there is nothing stopping you from branching out into any direction that you choose.
Due to the nature of finding or purchasing skill gems and exploring the passive tree in exactly the manner of your choosing, you end up with characters that you feel truly connected to. As your character develops and you sculpt them into the right shape, you feel as though you’ve been on a journey with them. And as you destroy wave after wave of horrific creatures, you’ll find yourself feeling quite pleased with what you’ve accomplished, with what you’ve crafted.
As an example, the first character that I created was a Ranger. After a quick glance at the passive tree, I decided early on that I would focus entirely on increasing bow damage as much as possible. I would ignore additional evasion, and anything else for that matter, and just keep stacking bow damage. I also had a hunch that there would be some type of skill that would let me shoot through enemies (spoiler: I was correct). I ended up slotting a bow attack that had a 100% chance to pierce through enemies, and I attached a support gem that split my bow shot into three arrows. This meant that I was rapid firing tons of arrows that were piercing through entire packs of enemies. After that, I got my hands on a gem that made it so when I killed an enemy it would explode and set adjacent enemies on fire. You can see where this is going. Swarms of skeletons and beasts were suddenly exploding and bursting into flame, collapsing all around me. If things got really hairy, I also had a skill gem that would cause a ludicrous number of arrows to rain down on a targeted area. But that wasn’t good enough, so I attached a support gem to it that summoned a totem that would continuously use whichever skill it was attached to. In addition, I had a skill that created a duplicate of myself that would also shoot at enemies. So, you’ve got waves of arrows shooting off in all directions, this totem raining death from the skies, and a duplicate of me distracting enemies as they explode into flaming heaps. This is one way to play Path of Exile.
With the amount of character customization available, there’s plenty of reason to play through the campaign multiple times as different characters. However, one of the things that has continued to impress me is that Grinding Gear continue to improve the game and add more content. As you might expect, once you complete the first difficulty, you unlock the next, and after that there is yet one more difficulty. Since the game launched, they’ve added an entire fourth act to the story, new bosses, new types of zones, items, challenge leagues (which are essentially seasons), Master NPC’s that you can craft items with, your own private hideout, unlockable Ascendancy sub-classes, an insane labyrinth, and much more. Recently they added a beta version of a DirectX 11 client and soon they will be starting a new challenge league with new bosses and challenges.
A lot of the end game revolves around maps. Maps are a type of item that create a randomized instanced zone where you can fight monsters. Just like equipment, maps come in different levels of rarity, and can have increasing degrees of difficulty that can yield greater rewards. If you enjoy action-RPG’s you will easily, easily, get dozens of hours out of Path of Exile, with many people reaching hundreds of hours. That being said, I don’t subscribe to the idea of randomly generated content being equal to “unlimited content”. If you’re like me, you will eventually burn out on what can ultimately end up being repetitive in the end.
It’s quite easy to play the game with friends. Hop in the game, add a friend to your friends list and send a party invite. Up and running in no time. Playing co-op is a great way to see how someone else has built a character that is entirely different from yours. It’s also just fun to play alongside someone else, exploring caves and forests together and finding ways to synergize. That being said, it can get a little hectic (or difficult to tell exactly what is going on) when you have people in addition to yourself that are trying to blow everything up too. Also, the momentum can stall a bit when your comrades are checking out new loot, figuring out how they want to reconfigure skills, or deciding where they want to go in the passive tree after they level up.
Overall Experience 9/10
While there are times when the game feels a bit easy, the difficulty is satisfying and ramps up from time to time. Those crescendos of difficulty aren’t just boss fights either, sometimes it can be an entire area. Or it can be something unrelated to the monsters that you’re fighting, and more to do with the environment (I’m being intentionally vague here, so that you can discover this for yourself). Path of Exile presents a dark and gritty world, sometimes reminiscent of the unforgiving nature of Diablo II. It’s paced nicely, and slaps you with a few scares earlier on to toughen you up. Load times are incredibly fast, the choices available in the options menus are great, and the voice acting is mostly quite good. Path of Exile is a very solid game through and through, but I do want to address the elephant in the room.
This game is free to play. Before you start thinking “Oh here we go, bring on the pay to win, bring on the annoying limitations, or the constant nickel and diming,” let me just stop you there. I want you to forget everything you know about microtransactions and free to play games. I’m pretty sure that is what Grinding Gear did when they came up with the free to play model they use in Path of Exile. I have never played a free to play game that had a less intrusive free to play model. There is no need to purchase anything, and in fact I haven’t purchased a single thing during all of my hours playing. Further, they don’t constantly remind you that you could purchase things. There’s a tiny shop button near the corner of the screen and that’s it. A friend of mine tried Path of Exile and didn’t even notice that microtransactions were available.
There’s no need to be fearful of the typical frustrations that often accompany a free to play game. Instead, consider the rest of this review – the constant improvement and content additions, the depth and complexity of character building, the awesome combat, and then let it sink in: this game is free.
The biggest criticism I have for Path of Exile is that it doesn’t always explain things to you. I’m all for games not holding your hand and letting you figure things out as I mentioned earlier, but I felt like there were somewhat significant things that were never even alluded to. This meant that I had to do a little bit of research on Google to find answers to things, and that I would sometimes discover something entirely new in that research. This can be a bit frustrating at times, finding out that you’ve been missing parts of the game that were available to you. For example, as far as I am aware, it is never really explained that there are “recipes” for when you’re selling items to NPC merchants. In other words, if you sell them specific types of items in specific quantities, there are combinations that will cause them to give you specific things back. Path of Exile seems to assume that you’re a seasoned gamer that just “gets it” in some regards. I feel like some additional tool tips or tutorials could benefit the game here.
While definitely problematic, this harsh approach doesn’t go overboard, and in some instances sort of enhances what I believe to be one of the most important qualities in any good game: a sense of wonder. The games that truly stick with us and provide a memorable and special experience often captivate our sense of imagination. Never knowing exactly what skills you’re going to find, exploring the huge passive skill tree, not always having your hand held, random unique items dropping, all of these things contribute to this feeling of intrigue, of curiosity, of wonder.
I don’t want this portion of the review, or any of the other portions for that matter, to be tainted with the idea that this game is good for a free to play game. Path of Exile is a polished experience not just for a free to play game, but compared to any purchased title. The controls are tight and responsive, the UI is clean, load times are extremely quick, and I didn’t experience any sort of bugginess or crashes. I was disconnected on one occasion, which ended up being no big deal. As long as you log back in within a few minutes, the progress you’ve made in a zone is still remembered so you don’t have to start over. I was pleasantly surprised by this, as I assumed that I would need to re-do the area I had just cleared. And, considering that I logged about 40 hours while writing this review, a single disconnect is pretty good, I think.
Picking up Path of Exile is an easy decision for fans of the action-RPG genre, especially those that are tactically minded and enjoy character building and tweaking. If you want it to be a straight up hack and slash that you can casually run while watching Netflix, it can certainly be that, but it’s nice to know that there’s a lot more there if you feel like engaging with it more. As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, if you haven’t ever played Path of Exile, or if you just haven’t played it in a while, I highly recommend giving this game a look.