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Walking the Path of Exile

Posted on January 25th, 2013

I do however find the character skin’s quite peculiar. Thus far I’ve been playing a Templar, which is a battle mage of sorts, a melee focused magic wielder, but regardless of the amount of armour I seem to be wearing, I somehow still look like a half-naked old man. I think it may have something to do with the lack of leg armour, but the point stands that I dislike the aesthetic of my character. The annoyance is that it’s nowhere near as noticeable on other classes, which is strange as there’s also a Marauder which only wears a loincloth, yet it doesn’t look creepy in practice. Perhaps I just have some social preconception about the archetype of a half-naked old man…

Classes, Gems, and the Passive Skill Tree

Path of Exile’s class system is – regardless of my class choice persistently appearing half-naked – surprisingly flexible. In a lot of ways, the class system is merely a formality to decide on both your appearance and where you start on the Passive Skill Tree. In practicality, it seems than any character can equip any item and abilities, and can be played however the player wants to play them, the trouble is then reaching the appropriate part of the Skill Tree.

The result is a selection of classes that – while having rough archetypes – are remarkably flexible and allow players to advance with the game any way they want, instead of the more black and white approach of other games such as the Diablo, Torchlight, where levelling is based around choosing from smaller skills trees. This vast grid that screams “play how you like” is a far cry from the dumbing-down seen in many large budget games – cough – Blizzard – cough – where the present approach to levelling is “pick your role/job and we’ll do the rest.” If you’re interested, Kotaku have compiled a brief comparison if popular skill trees.

Carrying on with this “play how you want” trend is a clever skill system that focuses on putting gems into sockets on weapons and armour, instead of learning skills from trainers. The challenge here is that a player must find a balance between their desired abilities, and the stats they gain from their gear, as different items have different quantities and colours of sockets. To further add to the experience and add some convenient replay value is the lack of soulbound items mixed with the league-specific cross-character storage system (called the Stash). By placing your unwanted gems in the stash, you can take them out and use them on other characters.

This refreshing take on character development really makes Path of Exile to stand out from the crowd. While the game manages to keep your attention away from levelling and experience, getting a new skill point is always an exciting experience that often happens when you’re not expecting it. In comparison, many MMO’s have talent points that feel like bi-products of levelling, but with your eyes constantly watching that experience bar, the levelling up alone ends up feeling more like a reward that it actually is.

Gameplay

This definitely counts as an isometric RPG or a 2.5D game, whichever choice of wording you prefer. Unfortunately, aside from the skill system detailed above, Path of Exile handles much like a typical isometric RPG. Most of the dialogue is voiced, but as it’s till in beta there are still bits where voice acting seems to be absent, this is certainly a minority of conversations.

What did take a bit of getting used to is the questing system. The quests are nowhere near as clearly defined as they could be, and for reasons beyond my understanding, a quest remains in your journal, but greyed out, after completion. The tooltip even states the quest is complete, so I don’t really see the benefit of keeping the details there. On top of that, zones you must visit appear on the map with a bronze cog-like edge, this took some figuring out. For quite a while I was genuinely under the impression that the areas with a question mark were quest zones. Well it appears these are actually zones I’ve not visited yet, but are connected to areas I have visited.

On the up side, Path of Exile has a rather unusual substitute for a monetary system that I quite like. Instead of giving gold, or some sort of coin or token based currency, a bartering system is used. Scrolls and Orbs of Transfiguration seem to be the dominant forms of currency, items that hold practical value. Having to trade items you actually have a use for to get different items from merchants causes you to become rather frugal with buying.

It’s also worth my pointing out that for a flick-fest of a game, players won’t want to be looting everything that drops, but rather only things that you want to keep, and perhaps the occasional valuable. The amount of inventory space is limited, and different items take up a different number of blocks and are different shapes. Inventory management is a fun task in itself, but it quickly becomes apparent that you won’t have room to carry everything with you. Not even close. Unfortunately, old habits die hard.

Comparisons to Diablo

I find it quite amusing. I can’t get into Diablo II anymore and I’m by no means interested in Diablo III, yet when I think of what a Diablo II-like game should be like, Path of Exile fits my perception to a T. For comparison, I think the Torchlight games are good if you want to play an isometric RPG, but by no means fit the sinister gloom and doom of a “Diablo game”.

Difficulty

Yet another thing Path of Exile does well that many games seem to fail at – I’m looking at you again Blizzard – is provide a challenging, skill based, experience. Unless you’re prepared, mosses in this game will completely trample you, and make a show of it in the process. There’s nothing pleasant about being stunned, frozen or trapped and helplessly dying due to lack of foresight.

Much to my surprise and satisfaction, dying while playing in the hardcore league doesn’t result in you losing your progress. Instead, your character is moved over to the default league and, as the development staff put it, is removed from the hardcore economy. While it’s certainly nice to not lose all the effort put into levelling up, I have to question the purpose of a hardcore game where you can continue using the character after death. At present there appears to be no way of keeping track of Hardcore progress, which for the current system to hold value would need to change to allow for better competition between players.

Business Model

Path of Exile is free to play. It doesn’t take an expert to figure this means the game supports itself, or will support itself, from microtransactions. Since the development team have boldly stated they won’t use a pay-to-win model, and expect to maintain the game via selling vanity pets, item effects, spell effects and other cosmetic changes, there are also plans to rent out private servers/shards to those willing to pay for them. These private servers would be invite only, and would work in the same way a league does, meaning clans or owners can modify various features to suit their community and the experience they want.

For a minor side note, if you’re willing to pay $1000, you can have a piece of equipment created in the game to add a bit of yourself to the world. Of course this would be available to everyone, probably as a boss drop or purchasable somewhere, but it’s certainly something that would make your mark on the game.

Final Thoughts

In the end, levelling feels to me like less of a skinner box and more of a random occurrence, even though it isn’t. You don’t follow your progress as much because the information not visible on the UI. Defeating a genuinely challenging boss or group of mobs feels much more rewarding than levelling up. Perhaps you ignore the former because the latter is what keeps your attention. Either way, this flexible and challenging game will definitely have me obsessing over it for quite a while longer.