Everyone loves a good hack-n-slash adventure.  Games like Diablo and Baldur’s Gate took bold new steps in shaping the genre.  And now, years later, a new face enters the fray with ideals of further shaping the genre.  Released on October 23, 2013 by independent developer Grinding Gear Studios, Path of Exile is a brutal take on a gaming classic.  By turning many gaming conventions on their ear, this title is set to sort the weak from the strong.

For reasons unique to each character, they’ve found themselves exiled on the cursed continent of Wraeclast.  Serving as a prison colony for criminals and the unwanted, Wraeclast is plagued by terrifying monsters and magical forces.  The exiles are dropped into the stormy seas just offshore and forced to sink or swim.  Those that survive the long swim inland are greeted by the undead feasting on other, less fortunate souls.  From there, players will meet up with a band of survivors whom have taken refuge in the skeletal remains of a lighthouse.  Everything that comes after that is just…survival.

Six classes are initially available with a seventh unlocked after completing the game once.  There are three attributes that form the core of everything within Path of Exile.  Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence lie at the center of skills, items, and monsters.  Each class is aligned with at least one of these attributes, four are aligned with two, and the seventh class is aligned with all three attributes.

Making up the single attribute classes are the Marauder, the Ranger, and the Witch.  The Marauder is a primal force of brutal power and is aligned with the Strength attribute.  The Ranger is gifted with great agility and is aligned with the Dexterity attribute.  The Witch channels her arcane knowledge with the Intelligence attribute.

Three classes are gifted with two attributes.  They are the Duelist, Templar, and the Shadow.  Wielding dual weapons primarily, the Duelist is gifted with both Strength and Dexterity attributes.  Serving his god, the Templar is blessed with the attributes of Strength and Intelligence. The Shadow combines the attributes of Dexterity and Intelligence.

And the final paragon of classes is the Scion.  The Scion is aligned with all three attributes.

What these attributes determine is basically how the character will play, what items they can use, and how effective they’ll be against certain enemies.  Weapons have their own alignments with requirements that must be met for use.  For example, you’ll never see a Duelist using a wand because he isn’t aligned with the Intelligence attribute.  But classes with that alignment (Templar, Shadow, and Witch) will be able to make use of the item.  That isn’t to say it’s impossible, just highly unlikely.

Each character is interconnected with the passive skill tree.  With 120 points to spend over the course of leveling up, the character can be customized into nearly anything they like.  Those familiar with the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X will have an easier time grasping the concept.  The passive skill tree can be overwhelming at first and it’s easy to misplace skills when not considering the larger picture.  Fortunately, there is an interactive guide on the Path of Exile site that allows players to plot their course.  Along the way, players will have access to Notable and Keystone passives.  Notables have larger icons with specific names and more powerful effects.  They are there to help guide players in building the characters on a larger level.  Each Notable passive helps define the other passive skills in the cluster.  Keystone passives will change how a character plays at the fundamental level.  These Keystone passives typically have a positive and negative effect.  An example would be taking away the character’s ability to make critical strikes, but also ensuring that enemies can’t dodge any of the player’s attacks.

Since the passive skill tree affects only passive abilities, player skills are managed by skill gems.  These gems are equipped in weapons and armor, giving the character their abilities.  So depending on what drops from an enemy or what a player purchases, no two characters of the same class may have the same abilities.  Each piece of gear will have its own sockets available.  Again, they will be based on one of three attributes, Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence.  More advanced gear will have sockets connected to one another.  These allow for the use of support gems.  Support gems boost or give an additional effect to the skill gem it is linked to.  For example, a gem may give the skill Double Strike which allows the player to attack twice in rapid succession.  A support gem that adds life steal can be socketed in conjunction giving Double Strike life stealing capabilities.  But because the support gem is tied to Double Strike, no other ability would have the life steal capability.  Taking a step further, there are advanced support capabilities.  Essentially it breaks down to adding multiple support abilities to the skill gem.

The skill gem system is revolutionary.  It is the most granular way of customizing a character that I’ve encountered.  Each skill gem gains levels as well, increasing its abilities with use.  And since gems aren’t tied to a character, they can be traded or sold.  So rather than power leveling a character, their gems can be used by a higher level character and then traded back.  While the first character will be a lower level and not able to fully benefit from them, the gems grow with them.  So the maximum effect of that gem will be in place for that level until the character levels up.

Turning away from another gaming convention, Path of Exile has done away with a gold based currency.  There are currency items that can be acquired, but they serve another purpose.  These items can be used to boost and modify equipment.  So while they can be used to trade with other players and NPCs, they may serve a better purpose in upgrading current gear.  This reduces the economy of Path of Exile to a bartering system.  It’s an interesting twist in a game full of other non-conventions.

Played from the top-down perspective, players move characters by clicking anywhere on the world or holding the mouse button and guiding the character with it.  Click to attack, click to loot, it’s a tried and true way of controlling a character in this genre.  Skills can be assigned to the left, right, and middle mouse buttons in addition to the QWERTY row.  Health and mana potions continuously refill and can be upgraded.  Five bottles are bound to the 1-5 keys and can be customized as players see fit.  For example, a witch who frequently plays in groups may only have one health bottle and four mana bottles because they’re infrequently damaged and more frequently burn through mana.

Grinding Gear Studios touts the dark, gritty design of Path of Exile, and for good reason.  This is a more mature title with a visceral and brutal art design backing it.  Rain continually pours down on the broken skeletons of shipwrecks while the undead make macabre meals of the sailors washed ashore.  Horrific monsters haunt the marshes and caverns dotting the landscape.  And the tortured cries of prisoners ring out through the iron and stone walls of the prison.  It’s a dark game, and the visuals fit the theme perfectly.  There’s an impressive amount of detail in the characters and levels themselves.  Combined with the randomly generated open world areas and each twist and turn proves to be unique for each player.

But navigating these areas can prove troublesome.  The only map available is a wireframe map that plants itself squarely in the center of the screen, obstructing the view of nearly everything when a fight starts.  And because each area is randomly generated, there’s no way to memorize the paths needed to be taken.  The overall confusing layout can lead to players running in circles unless that map is open.  An option to add a mini-map would be greatly appreciated.

And exploration is all well and fine, but each area is littered with swarms of enemies.  Hundreds and hundreds of them lay in wait for any individual warrior or a well-seasoned party.  It can get tiring constantly fighting the same mobs as you traverse multiple areas to progress in the narrative.  And while individual mobs don’t drop a lot of loot, there’s enough that the limited inventory quickly fills, prompting players to either ignore the bulk of it or to constantly teleport back to the village to sell.  But if there’s a problem to be had, overabundance of loot isn’t a bad one.

Finally, catering to the hardcore crowd are the ladders and special events.  As if the nightmarish difficulty of standard mode wasn’t enough, there are different leagues available that only increase the challenge.

There is a hardcore mode where slain characters are removed from hardcode mode and demoted to standard mode.  Traditionally, characters lost to hardcore mode in other games are lost forever.  However, Path of Exile takes a unique twist where players keep the character and the hardcore economy stays intact.

Ironman mode disables trading with vendors and they can no longer refill their flasks while in town.  Mana regeneration is disabled and players are forced to band together in order to manage precious resources and survive.

Cut-throat leagues turn every open world area into public areas and full PvP is turned on at all times.  Adding insult to injury, players drop all of their items upon death.  This mode can also be combined with hardcore mode and will demote slain characters to the standard mode completely naked.  Ouch.

Attrition is a race where the lowest level character is eliminated after a set period of time.  These leagues are short and timed.  It’s a race to see who can survive the longest in the unforgiving world of Wraeclast.

Path of Exile is such a unique and innovative take on an age-old genre of gaming.  While it caters to a more hardcore audience, it does so in spades.  Despite its difficulty and unforgiving nature, Path of Exile is highly addictive.  For those willing to rise to the challenge, this free to play title is definitely worth a try.

Christian D, Author of ZeroAnd09 Blog


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