Editors Note (2/26/19): The new league is coming out on March 8th 2019 called Synthesis, and looks amazing. You can read more about the new league right here.
You might think that more than 300 hours in a single game would make me feel like an expert in that game. And if it was something as simple as, say, Fallout 4 (I am somewhere around 250 hours in that) you would be correct. But Path of Exile is something very very different, and even at 300+ hours I still have a lot to learn about the deeper mysteries of the game. I am far from an expert, hell I don’t even feel comfortable making my own builds yet really, but I have played the game enough to talk about it in more general terms, to explain the basics as it were and the practices behind it, so that you might know what is going on and if the game is for you. For those curious, Path of Exile is a Free to Play Online “MMO” Action RPG, developed by Grinding Gear Games. Think Diablo 2.5 and you have a good starting point, but the game is SO MUCH MORE than that.
I started playing Path of Exile during the “Harbinger League”, which is also when the game launched the Fall of Oriath expansion, adding acts 5 thru 10 and changing how progression worked. Previously you had to repeat the original four acts 3 times in order to get to the game’s Endgame, but now there is a straight forward 10 act progression before the end game systems. I have since played in pretty much every league, barring one or two I skipped (Bestiary was skipped entirely, and I didn’t really get far in Abyss). I have also never killed the end game bosses such as Shaper or Elder, but I have gotten to what players refer to as “Red Maps” a couple times. And I figured, with this newest shakeup of the Betrayal league, and me breaking the 300 hour mark, it was time for me to get my thoughts on this amazing game on paper as it were.
Now, bear in mind, I am calling this an Impressions rather than a Review, because this is a living game much like my previous discussion on Soul Workers. Being an online free to play game that has new leagues (for you Diablo 3 players, these are basically the game’s seasons) that add new mechanics or completely change how the game works, this game is constantly evolving. As such, these are my thoughts at the time of writing this which is during the Betrayal League (Dec 2018 to roughly Feb/Mar 2019) but a lot of what I am going to go over is pretty standard core stuff. So let’s jump right in starting as always with the visual presentation of the game.
First and foremost this is an isometric action RPG in the same vein as games like Grim Dawn, Diablo, and Torchlight. It uses a very dark and gritty style, which fits the themes of the game completely. Colors are for the most part muted, and each area and act has a distinct visual style. Act 1 for example is all coastal while act 3 is in the ruins of a massive city called Sarn, etc. There is a definite sense of progression visually as you move through the world which I appreciate greatly. You got jungles, cities both ruined and new, buildings, cave systems, forests, deserts, and more. Biomes are pretty diverse all things considered.
Enemies are pretty solid, design wise, and again fit the theme of each area. In the first act you will face a lot of zombies, skeletons, crabs, and crazed bandits. Later acts involve creepy mutant abominations and a whole lot of blood and weird shit. It all works well. The armor and weapon models, when you are not covering them up with your MTX (Cosmetic Microtransactions) are pretty decent as well, and each of the 7 available classes will look different depending on what they are wearing.
One standout for me however are the effects of your abilities and skills. Whether it’s the fiery fissures of the skill Tectonic Slam, or the lightning of Arc, or the Meteors falling from the sky in the skill Armageddon Brand, they all look amazing. The screen can quickly fill up with these effects as well, enemies firing off similar attacks and abilities to yours. If your GPU is not up to snuff you can have some issues. Also the water effects are really solid and recently got upgraded. Overall I adore the visual style of this game, and have really no issues with it at all, other than the obsession with the color red at times. Seriously, there is a LOT of red and blood in this game. Like holy shit so much.
I have the soundtrack on my phone and listen to it on my drive to and from work. That should tell you all you need to know about the music of this game. It’s phenomenal. The tracks are moody, atmospheric, and just perfect for each area and act as you play the game. Each new league or expansion that comes out adds even MORE excellent music to the game as well. Seriously, it’s that freaking good.
The sound effects are another treat. There is nothing quite as satisfying as hearing your enemies shatter into a million pieces after you freeze them, or hearing the massive thud of your attacks as you strike the ground causing it to crack and explode.
There is also voice acting, which is for the most part stellar as well. Each of the 7 characters have unique voice lines starting in Act 1 and up to Act 4. Most NPCs in town also have voice lines and voiced lore / dialog you can listen to. However, after Act 4 your character will basically cease speaking, and its a huge shame here. I love the little quips my characters would make upon entering new areas, or killing Act bosses, but all that stops once you get through Act 4. After that, you are basically playing a silent protagonist and this just really sucks. Beyond that however, there are zero issues, for me, in sound design.
STORY AND WORLD
What may surprise you is that there is a ton of lore, story, and world building in this game. Most Action RPGs in fact don’t have anywhere near the amount of detail spent in this one setting up the history of the world, its peoples, and its timelines.
And it’s all hidden in plain sight. If you never read the extra NPC dialog, and the books hidden in the zones, you will never know what the hell is going on or how things got to where they are beyond a very cursory idea.
The game starts with your character being Exiled to the continent of Wraeclast (each character has a unique reason for their exile), washing up on the shores of a dark beach. From there you make your way to the small outpost of Lions Watch, and begin helping the other survivors and exiles try to live in this untamed and dark world. As you move forward in the world, you start to uncover things happening, and gradually everything gets, well worse and worse. Once you finish all 10 acts of the main story, the secondary end game story of the Atlas starts, and I am not even going to begin to get into that. Along the way you will meet a colorful cast of characters, interact with them, and learn their histories.
But only if you want to. You can just as easily ignore EVERYTHING and just rush through the acts as fast as possible, and honestly most of us players do after we did em once. I really only pay attention to the new lore added in the Leagues when it happens, such as what is going on in the Betrayal league right now.
It’s very passive storytelling, and its amazing stuff, but its stuff you can consume or not at your leisure. You can always go back for what you missed, but if all you wanna do is blast hordes of enemies into so many bloody chunks, well, the game is built for that. And let’s talk about HOW you do that.
Strap yourselves in because this is going to be a doozy. You may think this game would be as simple to understand as something like Diablo 2/3 or Torchlight. You would be dead wrong. Where this game excels is in its customization, options, and gameplay. While it is a standard Action RPG where Left and Right Click are your movement and action keys, you also have 6 hot keys you can assign for additional skills (Middle Mouse, then QWERT by default, although you can rebind these. I have the last two, R and T, as Mouse 4 and 5 on my setup). Most people bind Left Click to Move, and setup Right Click as their Primary attack or Skill. Controls are very simple in this game, which appeals to me personally. I can in essence play the game one handed mouse only if I wanted.
Now, when you start the game you will be presented with your choice of 6 Characters: The Witch, the Duelist, the Marauder, the Templar, the Ranger, and the Shadow. A 7th character, the Scion, can be unlocked by rescuing her in Act 3. All characters are Gender Locked. Templar, Shadow, Duelist, and Marauder are Males. Witch, Ranger, and Scion are Females. You cannot change this. You will also choose your “League”. You have Standard League, which is a permanent league and where any characters made in the Temp Leagues go after that temp league is done. Then you have Temp leagues, which usually run about 3 months and frequently have all sorts of mechanics and additions. Some of those additions will be moved to Standard, some wont. As I write this, the current Temp League is called Betrayal, which added a group of enemies called the Immortal Syndicate on TOP Of everything else already in the game. Oh and you can choose Hardcore if you want, which is your standard “One life” mode, but thankfully if you die in Hardcore your character gets sent to the Standard League. The character is still playable at least. You can also do Solo Self Found, which turns the game into a single player experience (you can normally group up with up to 7 other players, and trade, but SSF blocks all that).
Now, as far as your choice of character, it only effects your visual appearance, your voice lines, and where you start on the massive Passive Skill Tree. What is this Passive Skill Tree? Well, the best way to describe it is to show it. Here is a picture of it, although its way zoomed out so you cant really tell what each node is.
If you are looking at that and going “Haven’t I seen this before?” you might have seen the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. It’s very similar. The Scion starts in the center, and everyone else starts around her. That tree is ONLY Passive abilities. You can find simple stuff, like +10 to Strength, Intelligence, or Dexterity (your 3 core stats), to stuff like +10% more HP overall, or specific things like “You can summon +1 Totem but can’t do damage with your own attacks” or “You are immune to Chaos Damage, but your max HP is 1” and so on. Every time you level up, and as a reward from some quests, you will gain a single skill point to put somewhere on that tree. You can also earn respec points from quests and an item called “Orb of Regret” so don’t worry if you goof up a choice.
On top of that, starting in Act 3 you can do what’s called your Ascension, which gives you a choice of 3 “Class Upgrades” unique to your chosen class (although the Scion only has 1 choice, Ascendant). You can ascend 4 times total: Once after Act 3, then again after during Act 7, then again during Act 10, and finally one more time in the end game Atlas system. Each time you get 2 Ascendancy Points to place in your Ascendancy Tree. You must complete a trial called the Labyrinth each time you want to Ascend however, and it’s no walk in the park early on. These sheer level of customization and combinations here is staggering. Oh, and there are also Jewel Sockets on the tree where you can slot in a Jewel Item if you find one and have unlocked that node. 7 Classes, that massive tree, each class having 3 unique Upgrade paths (except the Scion)? You getting overwhelmed yet?
Well it gets crazier. You see, you don’t learn new attacks or abilities, but instead slot them into your gear via Gems. There are 2 kinds of Gems: Actives, and Support Gems. Active gems are your active powers. They could be things like a Ground Slam, a Fireball, summoning a totem that distracts enemies, create an aura that buffs your attacks or debuffs your enemies, and so on. These are how you interact with the world and your enemies. Each Gem has a color (Red, Blue, or Green) and must be slotted into a Gem Slot on a piece of your gear that matches its color. There are white slots on gear that can accept any color gem as well, but these are very VERY rare. The slots on your gear can also be linked, visually shown by a gold icon between the slots. Each item can have a different number of slots on it, and links. For example, chest armor can have 6 slots, and can be linked fully. Additionally, links can be chained, so if you have 3 slots on your gear for example like this: Red Red Red, and between the first and middle Red, and then the Middle Red and Last Red you have a link, then all 3 slots are linked together.
Why are these links important? Well, Support Gems are why. Support Gems are a type of gem that modify active gems. You could, say, turn a Curse that you have to cast on an enemy, like Warlords Mark (this is a curse that will debuff enemies to let you leech life and mana from them) into an Aura that is always on and doesn’t have to be cast by using the Support Gem “Blasphemy” for example. Or you could take a skill like Ground Slam, and use a support gem called “Added Cold Damage” to give Ground Slam additional cold damage. A good example of this in action is my own current characters chest armor setup. I am using an Item called “Tabula Rasa” which has no stats, but has 6 white sockets, and those sockets are all linked. I have 1 active gem in that setup, Armageddon Brand, and then 5 support gems in the remaining spots that all modify how Armageddon Brand acts.
Each piece of gear other than your belt, rings, and necklace, will have sockets / slots and links. You can have 1 2 handed weapon or 2 one handed items equipped. A helmet, gloves, and boots item, then 2 rings, 1 necklace, and a belt. There are unique slots called “Abyssal Sockets” that CAN show up on belts but that’s advanced stuff and Abyssal Sockets don’t take Skill Gems but rather Abyssal Jewels.
Believe me when I say that if all this is confusing you or overwhelming you, then you are in fine company. I was completely confused by a lot of this early on too, and thankfully there are plenty of people out there who specialize in this game and provide Build Guides. Mathil, ZiggyD, and Engineering Eternity are 3 Streamer/Youtubers I suggest you watch if you want to get started with this game as they frequently have “Starter Build” guides that give you Skill Gem setups, passive tree / Ascendancy setups, and even gear setups so you can get into the game without having to get caught up in this giant web of customization. As you get more experienced, you can start to tweak their builds, and hopefully (eventually) do your own. I still use them even after 300 hours of play, but I do tweak things now and again, especially gem stuff to fit my preferred playstyle.
Actual mechanical gameplay is pretty straight forward. You move around procedurally generated zones, completing quests and finding massive piles of loot and currency items, trying to find the exit to the next zone and sometimes trying to locate a waypoint so you can easily travel back. You will fight bosses on your way to finish the 10 act storyline, and then you reach the Endgame system, called the Atlas system, which honestly is something so wild that I will not get into it here. Just watch this video by Engineering Eternity which explains the Atlas system. Let’s just say that the 10 acts of the game is only the START of the game really, and the Atlas is where it really gets amazing. Also the Atlas is where the hardest fights in the game (Shaper, Elder, and Uber Elder) exist. This is my current Atlas, which is no where near filled out. All that empty space? More nodes, which are maps to explore.
Nevermind that there is also the Masters system (revamped in the Betrayal League) where you can do side missions for 3 masters (Niko, Alva, and Einhar) which are another layer of gameplay further still. Niko has the Delve system (A near infinite mineshaft to explore that unique to each character), Alva has the Incursion system (build a temple by going back in time, and then looting the temple in the present), and Einhar has the Bestiary system (capture beasts to sacrifice to create unique items). Each of these masters can be installed in your Hideout, which is account wide player housing that you can decorate to your hearts content. You unlock new hideouts by finding them in the wild. Oh, and you can also craft items in your hideout using a crafting bench to add new effects to your gear like resistance to elemental damage and the like. And let’s talk about the gear and loot!
As far as loot goes, you have your weapons and armor as well as Flasks (which are your health potions and other potions) and other items which people call “Currency Items”. Weapons and armor can be White (Normal), Blue (Magical), Yellow (Rare), and Orange (Unique). Flasks can be White, Blue, or Orange. Also there are jewels which can be the same as weapons rarity wise. Now as far as Currency Items you have to understand that Path of Exile doesn’t have a gold system. Trading is done very much in a barter system with NPCs and other players (player trading usually uses outside websites). You either trade one item for another (a sword for a sword) or more often than not, you trade currency items with other players and NPCs to get new items.
Currency items are things like your Scrolls of Wisdom (Identify Scrolls), various Orbs, and other things. Each Currency item also has a purpose in that they can be used. Chaos Orbs, for example (the standard player traded currency item) allow you to “reroll” a Rare items mods, basically making the item something new (a sword will still be a sword, but if that sword has +5 fire damage and you use a chaos orb on it, it might suddenly have +10 HP and +3 Cold damage for example, but not the fire damage). There are also Portal scrolls which give you a quick way back to town. Can’t be an ARPG without a portal system after all!
One final unique system is the Flask system. You have 5 Flask slots. You place your potions here, but unlike most games where your potions are finite items, Flasks are rechargeable. If you have a health flask in one of the slots, and use it, it will refill as you kill enemies. Further, there are unique flasks that have special effects, and there are flasks that do things OTHER than restore Health or Mana, like Stibnite flasks which give you boosted evasion temporarily, and also blast out a smoke cloud that blinds nearby enemies, or the Quicksilver flask which gives you boosted movement speed for a bit. These flasks can also be upgraded into magical items with Currency Orbs.
As a warning, there is an experience point penalty for death. Once you beat the boss of Act 5, you will suffer -30% to all your resistances forever, and if you die after that, you lose 5% of your XP. You cannot lose a level though. Once you beat the boss of Act 10, that resistance penalty goes up to -60% and the XP Penalty goes up to 10%. I just wanted to make sure everyone who is interested in this game is aware of this, as this may turn some of you off.
Finally, here is some gameplay footage of my Witch character, who ascended to Elementalist, playing around in the Atlas system and doing a Delve. I am using a skill called Armageddon Brand as my main attack, which is what is causing those Boulders to drop from the sky on top of groups of enemies. There is a lot going on here, so it’s mostly just to show you how Links look, how Gems look, and how the Passive Tree looks setup, and how the game looks in action. The Flasks are on the Lower Left, and my Skills are on the lower right.
I know I went over a whole lot of info in this, but thankfully the game eases you into it for the most part. And mind you, this is not every system nor every bit of mechanical depth to the game. My goal with this was a broad strokes overview on how the game in general works, and some of the systems involved in it.
Man this has been a long post, but there is so much going on in this seemingly simple title that I had to just break down as much as I could. And mind you, there are a lot of systems I did not even get into in the gameplay section because they only come up randomly.
For me, this is the best Action RPG on the market right now. Every 3 months you get a fresh league, with a fresh start, that you can dive into to try all sorts of varied character builds and setups. This is a game that rewards both time spent playing in the now (with your loot and character progression) and in the long term with knowledge of its varied systems. It is not for everyone, by far, and if you got overwhelmed or confused by my explanation of how the game plays and how the primary systems work, you may not want to try this. But if you are willing to do some research and experiment, the game is a fun filled and fascinating adventure full of lore, world building, and tons of spectacular action & challenge.
And best of all? It’s completely free and available on both PC and Xbox One with PS4 on the way! The only thing your money will get you are specialized stash tabs for your stash (your account wide bank) and Cosmetic items. You cannot ever buy power in this game at all. Although if you want to get into Player Trading you will want a Premium Stash Tab, which will let you list things on the official Path of Exile Trade site.
If you want to play you can either grab the game On Steam or from their official Website. If nothing else I urge you to at least try it and see if it appeals to you. The only thing you have to lose is some free time (and space on your systems hard drive for a bit).
And again, if you need help my advice is to check out the Streamers & Youtubers in the Path of Exile world. My personal suggestions (but there are plenty more) are again as follows:
These are the people whose videos, builds, and streams have helped me understand and form a deep love of this game. And honestly, I cannot wait to see what is coming next for Path of Exile and its eventual 4.0 upgrade (which, if its anything like 3.0 which is when Acts 5-10 got added, is going to be insane). Hell, watch Mathil live and you might even run into me sometime. I am a twitch subscriber of his after all. Oh and consider grabbing Path of Building, an external piece of software that lets you plan builds and import builds. It’s extremely handy to help understand how things work and how changes can affect your DPS / Health / Ect.
As always thanks for reading everyone and Stay Nerdy! Make sure to follow me on Twitch, Youtube, Twitter, and join my Steam Group and Steam Curator pages! Pledge to my Patreon! Spread the word on social media & help me get out there so I can bring even more content to the masses. You do want more content yes?