At this point in time I’m completely unable to think a witty new way to start writing a piece about an action rpg. The 2012 action rpg-apocalypse has exhausted me. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped playing ARPG’s though. Oh no, the gaming gods are yet to release me of that particular addiction. Path of Exile is the second game (after Planetside 2) to prove wrong my thoughts on the quality of free to play games. The free to play model Grinding Gear Game’s has picked for Path of Exile seems to be; here’s an awesome game for free and if you want to kick us a couple of bucks for cool looking things for your character, go for it (but we’re not forcing you to). What’s surprised me most about Path of Exile isn’t its high quality but its generous free to play model that almost seems like an optional donation.
You see, the microtransaction shop in Path of Exile is completely devoid of anything that would give you an in-game advantage. The only things that comes close to that is the option to buy extra storage for characters and in-game items. Even then the game offers you space for around 20 characters for free (which seems like a lot but the game’s character system allows for some pretty diverse builds) and a generous 4 tabs of item stash space. In my opinion, hoarders who need the extra space so much they’re willing to pay for it probably deserve to be charged for their perverse ways regardless. There’s no XP boosting items, no mega health potions, no extra gold dropping enchants, nothing like that at all. I was frankly shocked by just how damn honest Grinding Gear has conducted themselves within the realm of Free to Play.
What you can purchase in the microtransaction shop is simple vanity items. Non-combat pets that follow you around, sparkly effects for your weapons, glowing horns for your helms or new animations for your abilities. None of these things effect the actual technical crunch of gameplay in the slightest. Maybe this is the only area that Grinding Gear’s may have been a little dodgy, as most of the armor that drops in the game is quite possibly the most boring gear, visually, I’ve seen in an ARPG ever. You may well need that little visual spark to stop you from falling asleep when playing a big session of staring at your character running around in a brown sack.
I joke, the plain character gear design fits into Path of Exile’s grisly aesthetic. Remember when those screen shots came out for Diablo 3 and the internet went crazy because they were too colorful? Path of Exile is basically the antithesis of that. Grim, grey, brown, realistic, and gruesome. This is a serious person’s action RPG. The dungeons are incredibly dark and oppressive and the outside areas are not much better. Path of Exile has gone for a much more realistic approach then other stylized ARPGs of late and once you get over the inherent ugliness of the subject matter you realize there is a solid art style on show. The game’s technical proficiency is impressive with the frame rate (for me) happily swirling along above 100fps the whole game through, regardless of the amount of other players or monsters on-screen.
The heart of Path of Exile is its awe inspiring Passive Skills Tree that bears more than a passing resemblance to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. This thing is massive, probably bigger than most of the game’s maps. Every classes’ passive skills are all on the same over arching tree meaning you can combine passive abilities from classes that aren’t native your character. It’s a confusing mess at first but after a while it becomes something to be explored and you will find yourself wandering down its tracks dreaming up crazy character builds. With 6 classes to choose from, the scope for different types of characters is impressive. Path of Exile goes back to the old days of locking you into your character choices, only allowing a sparse amount of refund points if you make a grievous character build mistake. Sure, it can be a pain if you don’t understand the game’s mechanics properly and make a few dud choices but when you spend the time planning a build you’re going to be that much more invested in it knowing you can’t change it with a simple click when the newest fad appears on the forums.
If the passive skill tree is Path of Exile’s heart, then the Gem system is its lungs. Your character’s abilities come from gems which level up as you have them equipped. Each gem has a color and to use and wear a gem you require a matching colored slot on the armor you are wearing. If your armor has links between its slots you can pop in support gems that bolster your ability gems. Staying with the versatility of the passive skill tree, the gem system means you can use the abilities of other classes if it so suits you.
Path of Exile is a quality ARPG that takes a different, more serious tact than recent big releases. In fact, I’m going to say it out right; It’s the Ying to Diablo 3’s Yang. It intentionally pushes the ARPG genre away from the direction Blizzard’s blockbuster tried to take it and I think many, myself included, will appreciate that. The choices you make in regards to your character’s development are permanent and there’s not even a hint of an auction, let alone a whole auction house, to be seen. Plus it’s got some damn clever additions like the potion belt which is the best approach I’ve ever seen to mitigate the problem of over potion quaffing.
The microtransactions are nothing more than a donation for decoration and will be an interesting experiment to see how gamers react to such an honest and easily avoidable payment system. I’m hoping most will feel obliged to send some money Grinding Gear’s way if they play for more than a few hours.
Also, I don’t intend this as low blow, but Path of Exile already has what took Blizzard months to implement into Diablo 3. PVP! Sure, PVP in an action RPG is essentially a retarded activity but none the less it’s in there and ready to rumble.