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Path of Exile

Boss fights can involve killing lots of minions if you're lacking good damage

Rating: A-

Playing Time: About 375 hours to date

Path of Exile is both hailed and criticized as one of the most complex games on the market. It's a common warning for streamers to advise new viewers not to freak out when they open the passive skill tree for the first time, when they start talking about "increase/decrease" vs. "more/less", or when they start describing various league mechanics (most infamously Betrayal). The warnings are justified, to an extent, but that complexity is also exaggerated.

What is Path of Exile? It's an action-RPG descendant of Diablo 2, with the added benefit of eight years (and counting) of ongoing development and regular expansions in the form of more-or-less 13 week-long challenge "leagues" that serve as open beta testing for new subsystems (typically called "league mechanics"). It's 100% free to download and play, though if you decide to get involved in endgame content beyond the ten-act campaign, you'll probably want to invest some $50-70 USD in getting specialized stash expansions (called "stash tabs"). Most of the league mechanics, from the baseline atlas introduced in the 0.9.11 patch to the contracts and blueprints of the current 3.12 Heist league, involve getting large piles of items that would overwhelm the free stash's space. It's not entirely impossible to play into the endgame without buying a few tabs (I got up to red tier maps before I decided I liked the game enough for it to be worth buying some), but it is a massive pain in the ass, especially if you want to play more than one character.

Fortunately, Grinding Gear Games (GGG) does do a stash tab sale about once a month or so (typically 20% off, not included in the following prices), so a bit of patience can keep the price down to the lower end of that range I mentioned. The tabs that I would consider key are the unique items, maps, currency, fragments, and divination cards tabs for $49 total, Delve and Essence for another $8 (I'd recommend them), and Blight, Metamorph, and Delirium for $10 (which I would not recommend). If you want to spend more, there are tons of cosmetic effects and modifications that you can buy, but all told, those key tabs end up giving Path of Exile a price tag in the same ballpark as most new modern games.

But with that digression to address the snide "is it really free-to-pay?" crowd out of the way, let me get back on track.

Path of Exile is a descendant of Diablo 2, and it definitely shows. While the game no longer has a 3-difficulty structure (aside from the normal/cruel/merciless labels still being used in the Labyrinth), there are plenty of other references. Many of the classes are thematically similar: marauder/barbarian, templar/paladin, ranger/amazon, witch/necromancer, shadow/assassin (duelist and scion are pretty distinct from druid and sorceress, admittedly). Item name text follows the same white/normal, blue/magic, yellow/rare, and orange/unique scheme. The first act's boss is an oversized and topless female character, the second act involves a scourge of darkness that you need to lift, the third act's boss is a sinister high priest, and the fourth act forces you to kill three mini-bosses to open access to the real act boss. Item base types come in three levels with shared graphics/built-in modifiers for most equipment slots. Skills max out at level 20 (normally). Two of the ultimate challenge bosses are labeled as "uber", both of which require some random drops to access (albeit Uber Atziri is far more annoying about that than Uber Elder). Until fairly recently, the highest item level required to spawn certain magic/rare modifiers was 83.

While the game does have a much different grounding for its lore, just like with Diablo, it's very much an Excuse Plot, and I won't be saying more about it than that.

Heist league tried to make plot happen, but it really doesn't

That all said, Path of Exile does have a number of innovative aspects worthy of praise.

Instead of using gold/credits/etc. as the basic unit of its economy, Path of Exile uses what it calls crafting currency, which are various types of consumable items that can be used to alter items (plus ID and TP scrolls). It's quite brilliant, frankly, because one of the core engagements of the game is getting good items, and so this allows both the online trade economy and solo item farming to run off of a common basis. Even though I played pretty much exclusively solo self-found (SSF) aside from literally my first time playing, I was still excited to find rare currencies like exalted orbs or orbs of annulment because I could use those to (try to) make better items for myself.

As mentioned before, new subsystems are introduced in each league, which means there's a steady expansion of (generally) endgame content. Dive into the infinite mines of Delve. Manipulate allies and enemies for profit in Betrayal. Build your own dungeon in Incursion. Hunt down dangerous beasts for more targeted crafting methods with Bestiary. Create your own bosses with Metamorph. Play a tower defense minigame with Blight. Push yourself into the madness beyond the mirrors of Delirium. While some leagues only continue on in fairly vestigial forms (Bloodlines/Nemesis are only around as a few unique items and special monster modifiers, for example), the bottom line is that it all allows for constant growth of the game.

The build diversity is pretty incredible. Rather than tying skill selection to class selection, any character can (theoretically) use any skill. Skills are instead gained by fitting your equipment with skill gems, either "active" (i.e. stuff your character can do, like fireball, double strike, or summon skeletons) or "support" (i.e. stuff that changes how those active skills behave, like increased area of effect, attacking multiple times per skill use, or dealing more physical damage in return for losing all elemental damage). Depending on the equipment piece, it can accommodate a different number of skill gems, so characters generally end up with one or two main skills (since body armor and two-handed weapons can fit up to six skill gems) and then some three to eight secondary/support/utility skills (like auras, teleports, temporary buffs/debuffs, etc.). Instead of pushing you towards a certain archetype, class selection determines where you start on the passive skill tree (e.g. marauder starts out near plenty of strength, life, and physical attack nodes, while shadow starts out near various specialized damage nodes) and your choices for ascendancy (a sort of subclass where you can take up to four nodes with unique sets of modifiers). Tied in with Path of Exile expanding on Diablo 2's general approach of using unique items to let you break the normal rules of the game in certain ways, and there is a seemingly-infinite variety of ways to make a character work.

Lastly, most of Path of Exile's notable bosses come with one or more attacks that are devastatingly powerful (these are often referred to as "boss mechanics" by the players, because clarity is apparently overrated), reminiscent of Andariel's poison nova, Diablo's red lightning blast, or Baal's ice wedge in Diablo 2's normal difficulty in that most characters won't be able to survive them easily. I actually like this, because it adds an extra element of player skill into the gameplay instead of just making it a spreadsheet battle to see if your numbers are high enough to overcome the AI's numbers.

If you notice the minimap, Alva the time-traveling explorer is about to meet herself

On the other hand, Path of Exile has plenty of flaws, too.

First and foremost, it's online only. Lag is always there; though a good and stable internet connection can generally keep it under 16 ms (i.e. 1 frame at 60 fps), desyncs and disconnects can happen (lag spikes can also happen, but to GGG's credit, every time I checked after having a couple in succession, the problem was on my end of the connection). You have to stop playing on occasion for server resets or updates. Text can bug out (especially annoying when it happens on a stash tab and thus makes it impossible to tell what quantities you actually have of stacking items). Graphics can bug out (dashing during a Delirium encounter often makes the fog flicker out, for instance). I could go on, but the bottom line is that it can never be as stable, reliable, or accessible as it would be if it were possible to have a stand-alone installation for people who just want to play SSF. I'm sure there are good anti-cheat/hack reasons for not having that as an option, but it doesn't mean that I have to like it.

Secondly, GGG has gotten away with offloading a lot of information management to third-party sources. Since items drop like candy from a piñata, the screen can become a garbled mess by default. The UI options allow for installing a loot filter, but GGG doesn't actually provide any themselves (while you can make one yourself, the one suggested most often to new players is Filterblade; I'm quite happy using their default semi-strict setting to hide the most absolute trash while still showing enough that I have a lot of choice). Trying to figure how to build a character for yourself pretty much requires several hours spent in Path of Building to check how different passive tree/skill gem/equipment choices will affect theoretical performance. Trying to understand what items can be found requires referencing a database of modifiers like PoEDB, and trying to then figure out the best ways of crafting the items you want requires a further statistical database like Craft of Exile. Understanding what the piles and piles of term-of-art jargon actually mean can necessitate a crawl through the fan-made wiki.

Also, while GGG is very specific about the terminology they use for technical descriptions in the game, it can be very unclear if you don't know how to read what they're saying instead of just taking the text at face value. For instance, despite being tagged as a "spell" skill, righteous fire doesn't benefit from "increased spell damage" modifiers because those only affect direct damage by default and righteous fire's description doesn't have the line "modifiers to spell damage apply to this skill's damage over time effect" like essence drain does. The skill frenzy is completely different from a frenzy charge. Modifiers that just say they add damage don't add their damage to spells if they're on a weapon but do add their damage to spells if they're on a ring. Continuing a Diablo tradition, increased damage on a weapon is more meaningful than increased damage from other sources. Everything always means the same specific thing when presented in the same syntax, but actually deciphering the ins and outs of that isn't always straightforward.

Really, it's kind of an indictment that so much third-party support is necessary. I don't mind games leaving mysteries for players to figure out for themselves as a general principle, but the degree to which Path of Exile does that is kind of absurd. At least fighting game developers have the grace to include a training mode even when they don't make good tutorials (Virtua Fighter 4 being a rare exception).

Footage of Elder eating the original Path of Exile endboss, Malachai

Third, all of those innovative ideas above have their dark sides, too.

The currency system is great, except that since the game is balanced around the online trade economy, SSF players end up getting screwed out of having much access to rare currencies. Worse, this extends to other rare item drops, too. Want to try fighting Uber Atziri in SSF? Unless you're a very efficient player, it'll probably be a struggle to try more than once or twice per 50 hours. Want to try farming the former endgame bosses the Shaper/Elder or the end bosses of past leagues like Bestiary or Synthesis? You're at the whims of RNG to even get a chance of getting access those fights once, let alone multiple times. You can expect to get there with enough effort, but it can be a serious time sink if you're unlucky (e.g. I had something like 5 Chimera fragments, 4 Hydra fragments, and 2 Phoenix fragments before I finally got a Maze of the Minotaur to drop so that I could fight the Shaper). Furthermore, non-SSF players aren't given a clean break, either, even if they have no interest in using currency for crafting themselves. Since the trade economy is at the whims of what's available on the market, players are left with the choice of either playing in the non-timed Standard league (where the market is so flooded after years of circulation that legacy items and transfers from the current challenge league are what really drive it) or in the current challenge league (where the market is largely driven by what builds best exploit the new league mechanics). While I don't have a problem with all of this in the main (it's perfectly possible to make a character in SSF that can play all of the game's content), it does undercut the benefits of the currency system when your ability to interact with it is subject to forces beyond your influence.

Speaking of leagues, setting aside that the first week or two of any new league can be a bit rough until GGG smooths out bugs and tuning based on widespread play, they also result in constant power creep. I don't mind that new leagues add new unique items (many of these from past leagues are keyed to only drop in areas linked with that league, which at least means they take some concerted effort to get in SSF play); what I do mind is when it changes how you can build a character. In this regard, Delirium is the worst offender (with cluster jewels that let you expand the passive tree), but even smaller things like Blight letting you add a passive node's effects to your amulet and run blighted maps that spew out currency/items or Metamorph letting you get catalysts to enhance the modifiers on amulets/belts/rings or Legion letting you find unique jewels to alter certain nodes on the passive tree all add up over time and practically obviate other aspects of the game. During 3.11 Harvest league, for instance, the league mechanic was so powerful for crafting any other forms of crafting (aside from Betrayal's special veiled crafts) were made obsolete. Harvest didn't get integrated with the core game for 3.12, thankfully, though GGG has said that some form of it will be added into the core game for patch 3.13, so I can only hope that it'll be toned down enough to not completely overshadow using fossils or essences. In contrast, 3.7 Legion league introduced the altered node Divine Flesh, which has become a gold standard that all defense-focused builds have to either integrate or justify omitting.

Though build diversity is near-infinite in theory, in practice, there are limits on what is practical (even moreso in SSF, of course, but that was a factor already back in Diablo 2). Certain parts of the passive tree are just too good to pass up unless you're trying to hamstring yourself, and certain parts are pretty much worthless in any but the most niche circumstances. If you look at the metadata resource, there are some clear trends, in terms of both which classes/ascendancies are played and which skills are used. What is infinite in theory is cut down to what's actually enjoyable and viable in play.

Finally, while the emphasis on active player skill is nice, even when lag is not being a problem, there are issues. For starters, assuming non-hardcore (i.e. death is final) play, endgame bosses can only be tried either once or six times per instance of their spawning. On the one hand, this does add a nice layer of challenge, but on the other, it also makes it much harder to learn the fights without pressure to just try to kill them before they kill you. Making this even harder is the frequent lack of intuitive graphical indications of how things work, whether this is the various ways that Doedre applies not-quite-curses in her boss arenas, the tiny homing volatile blobs that certain metamorphs can make, Aztiri's innate damage reflection, the degeneration spots left behind by phase 4 Sirus's everlasting fire attack, or any number of other dangers that are perfectly reasonable to overlook (especially if you're playing with obnoxious cosmetic effects, but Sirus and Malachai are both especially bad about having red-on-red color schemes with the game's base graphics, and the Elder has similar grey-on-grey problems). Lastly, a number of endgame boss fights involve creating persistent hazards in the boss arena (the Shaper, the Elder, and the Synthesis bosses are the worst for this). If you can't either stack up enough defenses (above and beyond the standard "max out your resistances and pile on as much life as possible") to ignore the hazards or do enough damage to kill them before the hazards get out of control, the fight becomes unwinnable no matter how skilled you are. This is pretty bullshit, frankly. If the player is good enough to dodge everything the boss is trying to hit them with, they should be able to inflict a death of a million tiny cuts. Putting the fight on a hidden timer is lazy.

Oh, and it is still possible to make it into a spreadsheet battle. While absolute top notch gear is incredibly rare, getting enough of it together can let you basically watch the game play itself until you win. Even with just pretty good gear put together in SSF, a well-built character can breeze around blowing up whole screens with each click aside from occasional moments of having to pay attention.

Those gripes are not dealbreakers to me. Path of Exile is a fantastic game that I anticipate spending many more dozens if not hundreds of hours playing. It brings a truckload of quality-of-life features that I miss not having when I play Diablo 2 now. While its complexity is larger a fault of insufficient official documentation/resources, there is an incredible amount of mechanical depth, and despite the frustrations of being online-only, the game is straight up fun enough to be worth the hassle to me.

If you want something that's built up as a modern update of Diablo 2 with an ever-growing depth of features, give Path of Exile a try. As I said near the start, it's entirely reasonable to play through the main campaign without spending any money on the game, so you can always treat that as a demo before deciding whether or not to buy it "for real". However, if you want something where you can turn your brain off and just have fun, look elsewhere (or play a zombie summoner).

Rating: A-

Playing Time: About 375 hours to date

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