Path of Exile wastes little time in throwing the player into its never-ending abyss of mechanics and complexity. In the first few minutes of the game, the player will go from exhausting a monologue of voiced dialogue, to applying skills into your items, playing inventory Tetris, and fighting a large boss. It seems unimpressive at first, but then you level up. You go to apply your skill point and notice the rather large amount of options available. Then you realize you can zoom out further. And further. And further. And further. Pretty soon, your entire screen is filled with hundreds of options that culminate into billions of possibilities.
Indeed, this opening to the game is the best representation of what Path of Exile provides: unending, unrelenting depth with little regard for accessibility and casual players. The beginning of the game can seem unintuitive to the uninitiated, crawling through menus of passives, stats, and gear that provide a vast array of information that will make most people’s heads spin. But that pain point is part of what makes Path of Exile so appealing. This game is a massive sandbox where near any build is possible. Browsing Path of Exile’s forums for build ideas will return millions of ways to synergize the games skill forest, vast array of uniques, and how to utilize the game’s skill gem system.
Path of Exile does have classes, but none of those classes impart restrictions on what you can use. Your starting class of Marauder, Witch, Templar, Shadow, Ranger, Duelist, or Scion determine your starting position in the massive skill tree (I call it a skill forest) and also determine the available ascendancy options, the game’s prestige classes. Despite that, every class can use every skill, every item, and reach any part of the passive tree – though some will have an easier time than others. On paper, this significantly hurts class identity and should make every character feel close to the same, but in practice each character brings a unique style of play thanks to the games item progression, impactful Ascendancy system, and intelligent design of the game’s skill forest.
I began my journey as a Ranger, scavenging a bow near the shore I awoke from. Within mere moments, the only living friendly NPC near me gets eaten by a cannibal. I struggled to kill the various crabs and cannibals that dotted the shore. By the time I killed the area’s boss, I was invited into a fort protected by wooden walls surely built from the ruins of nearby ships. NPC’s looked down on their luck, residing inside of the remains of what was once a fort. This is Path of Exile’s first Hub town, and it nails the feeling of dread and hopelessness the characters – and to some degree the player – is currently feeling. Pretty soon, you acquire a new skill from one of the vendors, which you need to socket into one of your items to use.
Skills work differently in this game than most. Players find or purchase skill gems as they progress through the game that they must socket into their gear, provided it has the matching color socket. Other sockets on the item, if linked together, can also house support gems, modifying the behavior of the skill it is linked to both numerically and mechanically. Support gems can allow skills to poison on hit, provide buffs to the player, shoot multiple of the same projectile, auto activate on critical hit, or even allow a totem to cast it – freeing up the player to use another ability while their totem acts as a turret or minion. This system is further amplified by the game’s Ascendancy system, granting game changing passives.
My Ranger had been struggling through the game up until the end of Act 3. Rapid flurries of arrows were slaying monsters, but they weren’t doing as much against boss enemies. I soon unlocked the Lord’s Labyrinth, a maze-like dungeon that automatically kicks the player out if they die, allowing me to ascend if completed. By dodging through traps, killing hordes of monsters, and fighting the boss, I left that dungeon as a Deadeye, an ascendancy focused on projectile based builds. I obtained a passive that made all of my attacks have a high chance to bleed, increased critical stats against bleeding targets, and gaining an absurdly high amount of life on hitting a bleeding target. While that may not be as glamourous as having infernal zombies that detonate when they encroach death (yes that is a real build you can do), it provided such a massive power spike in my character’s power that I couldn’t help but smile when larger targets had their life rapidly deteriorate by my unrelenting barrage of arrows. Combined with a support gem that creates a phantom above my head when I kill an enemy, it resulted in a hilarious number of projectiles that mowed everything down.
By the end of the game’s 10 Act campaign your character will become a well-oiled killing machine that moves at the speed of light, provided you utilized all of the game’s systems to your advantage. I haven’t talked about the loot much in this game, but it is what you would expect from an ARPG. It never reaches the heights of Torchlight’s bat cannons, but the loot on offer is an excellent complement to the skills you will be using. A lack of set items might concern veteran ARPG players, but rest assured that player power is plentiful here. The difference is that this game makes you earn your lightning fast clear speed and impressive survivability through utilizing all of its systems with a cohesive vision of what you want. If you wander aimlessly with no clear goal of what your build will be, you will hit a pain point and fail.
Pain points are common in this game, but they never feel too intrusive excluding trading. Trading in Path of Exile is unorthodox, as there is no gold in this game. Instead, the currency you acquire throughout your adventure are crafting components that allow you to make some truly powerful items. Players trade these for items they want, with Chaos orbs acting as the common trading currency. Unfortunately, while I understand this game is built around being punishing, the trading here boils down to searching through a 3rd party website in hopes of finding a non-AFK player who is willing to sell their item to you. In game trading is such a nightmare trade chat is rarely used except for Toucan-praisers and RMT (real money trading) users. Good luck selling items if you do not have a premium stash tab. The game has a fantastic, incredibly fair monetization model if you can get past needing a premium stash tab to trade in a reasonable amount of time.
Once you complete the 10 Acts on offer, the game includes a highly in-depth endgame system called Mapping. Players find Maps, randomized dungeons, that contain a breadth of monsters, loot, and a suite of random modifiers players can alter. You have 6 portals, so you have to make the most of your character and try not to die. While clearing these maps, you make progress in the Atlas of Worlds. You gain higher tier maps as you progress, culminating into fighting some of the hardest bosses in the game with incredibly powerful, build enabling items. Other systems – such as delving in an infinite dungeon or hunting down a crime syndicate – provide nice side progression if you tire of clearing random dungeons on repeat.
Ultimately, Path of Exile provides an incredibly deep sandbox for hardcore ARPG fans to explore, if you can stomach its relentless depth and trading system. Three-month long events called leagues provide additional content and challenge to veteran players, so there is always something to do. You may start the game being clueless, hating its small inventory and unique currency system, but if you can overcome those pain points, Path of Exile allows true build variety that has been unrivaled by any other video game. With the mountain of content to chew through, Path of Exile is easily a game you can sink your twenties into.