If you've played any of the Diablo games, Path of Exile will be immediately familiar. In fact, some friends and I have joked that it's the sequel to Diablo 2. That's not to say Diablo 3 was wrong or bad, just that Blizzard took the game and evolved it toward accessibility and stylized art, while Grinding Gear Games refined and improved on the more complex issues But, simply put, it's still a game about smashing evil monsters, picking up loot, and using it to smash evil monsters even harder.
Let's talk a bit about the areas in which you can fight. Path of Exile consists of three Acts containing around 20 different zones apiece. The zones are randomly generated to varying degrees. A few are fairly consistent, but most will have you exploring to find the exit and the waypoint. The environments are quite varied, ranging from open fields to dimly lit crypts to magisterial towers to an honest to goodness hedge maze. I'll add briefly that this game recreates well the dark, claustrophobic feel of Diablo 2's dungeons, even more so because the lit area surrounding your character is tied to your health. As you take damage, the distance you can see shrinks, frequently giving the impression that you're being buried under a horde of monsters.
The monsters themselves are a nice mix of familiar tropes and strange new creations. You have your skeletal archers, goatmen, and giant spiders alongside, giant mutant porcupines, spastic multicolored frogs, and peacocks with machine guns. The most important thing about the monsters is that there are lots of them. This game is not hesitant about filling the screen with bad guys and their spell effects. The monsters also have a very broad mix of strengths and weaknesses. This means, crucially, that you have to build your character with defense in mind. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to surviving, so it makes you face real, meaningful choices when selecting skills and gear.
In fact, when it comes right down to it, games in this genre are about gear, so let's talk about how Path of Exile does items and stats. There are three base stats in the game: Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity. Your character will have a preference for one or two, but you'll need some amount of the others as well. The base stats provide bonuses -- for example, strength makes you hit harder -- but they're not overwhelmingly important, like they are in Diablo 3. The biggest thing they let you do is equip different types of gear and gems.
I mention gems specifically because they're one of the most important and interesting systems in Path of Exile. Many games have socketed gear, but the gems are usually just basic stat boots -- more strength, more chance to land a critical strike, etc. In this game, gems are your active, castable skills. You can literally loot a new skill of the ground, stick it into a socket on your gear, and immediately start using it. You also get many of the basic ones as quest rewards.
At this point, I should mention that there are seven classes in the game, but your class does not determine what skill gems you can use. You can create a ranger, but that doesn't mean you have to use bows alongside skills like Exploding Arrow and Rain of Arrows. If you want, you can pick up a giant mace and start smashing things, or put on robes and throw Fireballs. So, what's the point in picking a class, then? Well, let me introduce you to the passive skill tree.
Skill trees have been around for ages. They've evolved over the years as many game developers decided that spending a point to get +1% damage on your way down a very linear path just isn't that interesting. The skill tree has infiltrated many other genres, from first-person-shooters to real-time strategy, and they're all trending toward picking different actions your character can perform. But remember that in Path of Exile, your actions, the active skills you can use, come from gems in your gear. So they took the skill tree concept in a completely different, completely insane and interesting direction.
Here it is. There's just one skill tree for all the classes. Picking a class just determines where you begin on the tree. It's hilariously complex, intimidating, and flexible. Now, each minor stat boost is a road toward character development. At the edges and scattered throughout are one-off passives that have major effects on how your character plays. These make great goals to strives for, and finding out the best way from point A to point B is a theorycrafter's dream. Of course, the reverse is also true -- if you hate having to make decisions about your character, you'll probably hate the passive skill tree, too. It's also moderately unforgiving -- if you've decided you made a mistake, you can't just push a button and get all your points back.
You're given a limited number of individual refund points, and there's a moderately rare item that drops in the game that will grant you a refund point. But it's entirely possible to make a terrible, terrible build and end up struggling because of it. This adds to the entertainment of trying to pick correctly, but also adds to the frustration of being unsure and not wanting to pick incorrectly. I think they've struck a good balance between being able to tweak your build to account for mistakes with encouraging alts for completely different builds.
So, back to gems. There are a ton of different damage-dealing abilities, as you might expect. They all have their strengths (well, most of them, anyway), so it's best to just find an ability that looks or sounds cool, and just build your character around that. There are also a number of auras, which buff you in a variety of ways, and curses, which you can put on monsters. But the aspect of gems that really puts them over the top is the concept of linking and support gems.
As I mentioned earlier, your gear will have sockets. Individual piece of gear can have anywhere from one to six sockets. But Path of Exile adds to this by making it so the sockets can be linked together. You can have a piece of gear with 4 individual sockets, or a piece of gear with 4 sockets that are all linked together. What linking does is let you put an active ability into one socket, and then fill the rest of the linked sockets up with support gems, which alter how the ability performs. Some are straightforward, like a simple damage increase. But even those come with an increase in mana cost, so you have to weigh the positive and the negative.
Other support gems are more complex -- if you're launching a projectile, you can have a support gem split it into multiple projectiles, each of which deal less damage individually, but the total for all of them is higher. You can have a skill cost life instead of mana, or grant you a good status effect some of the time. There are even so-called "trigger" gems -- for example, Cast When Stunned. If you link a spell to this, you can't manually cast that spell, but it will be cast automatically if you get stunned.
It's a fantastically complex system. As I mentioned, you can get up to six sockets on certain items, so it's possible to dramatically alter how your skills perform. The number of permutations here is very large, and you can create some extremely powerful combinations at later levels. In fact, you can do some hilariously overpowered things. One of the great things about this game is that they don't worry about completely perfect balance between abilities. So you can take ideas for crazy builds and make them work, sometimes frighteningly well. There's more to it that I won't get into for this review -- gems can level up, increasing their effect, requirements, and cost, and the gems also have a quality level you can improve for a bonus effect. It's kind of ridiculous how much min-maxing you can do.
Before getting back to the items, I want to mention the currency system. In most games monsters drop gold coins, or some equivalent thereof. In Path of Exile, there's no default currency. Instead, there are over twenty different items that drop in the game whose only purpose is to modify other items. These are the closest thing there is to currency. The value of one of these items is determined by how powerful its effect is, and how rarely it drops. For example, Orb of Alteration drops frequently, and its effect is to reroll the properties on a magical item. Magical items only have a couple properties to begin with -- by the time you've leveled up a bit, you will mainly be using rare items, so Orbs of Alteration will be of limited use. A Chaos Orb, on the other hand, drops much more rarely and rerolls the properties on a rare item. Rare items have up to six properties, so you could get a very strong piece of gear from this. Because it's rarer and far more useful, Chaos Orbs are worth about 20 Orbs of Alteration.
In addition to being currency, these items are also the crafting system. You can modify every aspect of a regular piece of gear with them; add sockets, re-color sockets, re-link sockets, upgrade bonus quality, etc. You can even make a backup or wipe the item clean and start over. As with most of the other systems in Path of Exile, it's quite complex, giving players control over every aspect of their gear. The downside is that many of these items rely in one way or another on the random number generator. You can avoid the gambling aspect to some extent by trading with other players, but if you hate the idea of seeing a bunch of crafting attempts fail, this system will probably annoy you. If you play the game with a few friends and pass around the good gear you can't use, you can get to endgame just fine without actually farming.
What do I mean by that? Well, this game can be unapologetically difficult, sometimes. On the harder difficulties, you will need to gear and spec for defense. You'll need to hang on to gear with resistances on it. It's all quite do-able, and the tools are very much at your disposal, but don't expect a free ride to level 60.
Not that 60 is the level cap. No, you can actually go all the way up to 100. Beating the game on the hardest difficulty should put you somewhere between level 60 and 70. After 70, the experience curve gets a bit ridiculous; it's mainly for people who want to play a lot and participate in the ladder system. But starting around the late 60s, you can play in Path of Exile's endgame system.
Monsters will start dropping items called Maps. When you get one of these, you go to a particular place and put the map in a box, at which point the game spawns a high-level dungeon for you to explore. It'll have hard monsters and a ton of great loot. And remember all those currency items? You can use many of them to modify your maps. For example: you can enchant a map with magical properties, making it, say, a Burning Map of Suffering. The Burning modifier means that all monsters inside the map will deal extra fire damage, and the Suffering modifier will mean that players constantly take Chaos damage while inside. Why would you do that? Well, they also add to the quantity of items dropped. There are a ton of modifiers, including ones that spawn giant hordes of monsters or make the maps bigger. Inside, you'll fairly often get higher-level Map drops, so you gradually ascend to more difficult places. There are over 60 different end-game maps. Once again, it's a complex and well-designed system.
There are a few other things I want to mention briefly. In the past, ARPGs commonly made heavy use of potions for players to manage health and mana in combat. Diablo 3 did away with these in favor of health orbs on the ground. Path of Exile does it somewhat differently. You have 5 potion slots, and each potion has a number of charges. Using the potion consumes charges, and killing enemies recharges it. Thus, you don't have to constantly stop and pick them up off the ground. You can also use many of the item modifications on potions to alter how they work. Also, I mentioned ladders earlier -- there are 4-month-long leagues that let players compete to get to the top. But for people who aren't willing to devote ridiculous amounts of time to the game, there are also "Race" events. These can be as short as an hour or two, and whoever gets the furthest wins. You also get bonus points for clearing areas first or being the first to achieve certain goals. Some races give you a choice of interesting unique items that heavily modify your gameplay. It's a really cool concept, and they fire off fairly often.
Now, a few notes about the game's external considerations. First and foremost: this is an online, multiplayer game. If this bothers you, as it did for so many with Diablo III, skip it. The only real downside I experienced is that the client will occasionally desync from the server, so your character will seem to be in another place than it really is. It doesn't happen too often, but it's an annoyance when it does. There's an in-game command to re-sync yourself, but it will catch itself up before too long. Next: As I mentioned earlier, the game is free to play and supported by microtransactions. Those tend to have negative connotations amongst gamers, who don't want to be forced to spend real money to be competitive. Fortunately, Grinding Gear Games has done this in a really ethical way. The majority of things you can buy are customization and vanity-related. Non-combat pets, sparkly item effects, dance animations, etc. The only quality of life purchases you can make are for extra stash tabs and extra guild slots. But you already start out with four huge stash tabs. Nothing you can buy affects gameplay. I don't typically care about the vanity stuff, so after I'd played for a while and wanted to send some money their way, just to support them, I couldn't find a single thing I wanted to buy. It was kind of a strange feeling, and the developers deserve recognition for doing microtransactions right. Finally: there's no auction house (a feature Blizzard decided was a mistake). You can talk with other players in trade chat and arrange swaps there, if you so desire.
On its face, Path of Exile is a game about smashing monsters. But it hides a collection of incredibly complex systems that will strongly appeal to players who enjoy being able to really dig into the building of a character. The combat is fast, hectic, and a lot of fun, but what will sustain the game is the depth afforded by the gear, skill, and crafting systems. If you'd prefer not to see all the moving parts, this game will entertain you for a while, but you'll hit a brick wall eventually. If you enjoy having control over the tiniest aspects of your character and finding all the myriad ways to make those brick walls crumble, Path of Exile is definitely worth a try.