Path of Exile review
Compulsion is a dubious sort of pleasure, but it’s what action-RPGs excel at. With their slow levelling curves, gradually unlocking skills and swelling hordes of foes, Diablo, Titan Quest, Torchlight and now Path of Exile all aim to ensnare rather than instantly delight.
The 15-year-old formula has barely evolved, but is still effective. You must always start in rags, punching zombies with your bare fists in some gloomy town, because any grander beginning would curtail your slow ascent to godhood. A start anywhere more glamorous than a dark field or Path of Exile’s grey beach would lessen the triumphant moment 12 hours later when you annihilate a 20-strong giant spider brood and think back to those first moments. Sometimes you’ll find folk waiting beneath yellow exclamation marks to give you quests and deliver lore points in tiny boxes of text, but mostly you punch, loot, level up, equip your stolen gains, grow strong and slowly mould your bedraggled vagrant into a killing machine.
It’s a character arc of sorts, albeit one plotted to the sound of a thousand repetitive mouse-clicks, but that comes with a quiet satisfaction of its own, a feeling of incremental achievement earned over many hours. If you value that feeling, Path of Exile is the 200-hour time sink you’re looking for.
Your adventures take place on the cursed continent of Wraeclast. Each of the immediately playable character classes have been thrown out of their cushy homelands for various unimportant reasons, and must now carve out a new life for themselves, slicing up thousands of monsters in dark dungeons.
The game is free-to-play, and wonderfully generous with it. The microtransaction store is almost entirely stocked with cosmetic effects that make your weapons glow, or give your character new emotes. There are also a few convenience upgrades such as expanded item storage, which you won’t need until you’re very seriously invested in maxing out a few characters.
I mention this now because the game’s granular skill system, which is based on a huge number of individual skill nodes, could so easily have been monetised to death. Grinding Gear Games should be commended for keeping their store separate from Path of Exile’s integral game mechanics.
The Final Fantasy series serves as an unusual source of inspiration for this skill system. Levelling up gives you a point to spend on the levelling board: a vast and daunting maze of connected nodes, each representing a stat increase. You plot a course across this board by spending levelling points to ignite adjacent nodes. Powerful gold-encrusted variants are scattered here and there, offering major stat buffs that can help you specialise your character.
I spent most of my time levelling a Duellist, a dexterous but powerful rogue type. He’s one of Path of Exile’s seven classes, which also includes the magic-wielding Witch, the powerful Marauder, long-range specialist the Ranger, a Templar who’s good at both whacking and zapping, a lithe assassin called The Shadow, and the Scion, an expert class that you have to play the game to unlock. Your class denotes your starting position on the levelling board, which positions you close to class-relevant buffs. Dexterity classes like the Duellist will have a short trip to dualwielding and bow nodes, while magical classes like The Witch start closer to magic-power bonuses.
The Scion is challenging because she starts in the dead centre of the board, between all other classes, but that also means she can become a powerful hybrid of your own design once you know your way around.
The best thing about the board is that it links every class to every other class, which means I can eventually guide my Duellist into mage territory with enough levels. Plotting a path through all of your advances also provides a satisfying visualisation of your character’s progress, though I’d like to feel the impact of that progress on the battlefield. Most nodes offer an incremental stat bonus that only slightly improves the efficiency of your slaughter. Every +10 dexterity buff I light up makes my hero hit ever-so-slightly faster, but I have to wait until I reach one of those golden nodes, with their plump 20% buffs, to enjoy noticeable knock-on.
It’s a theorycrafter’s paradise, however. The Path of Exile forums are overflowing with players peddling their latest character ideas. If you get bored of tailoring your own builds and want to fast track, you can sample the Duellist’s ‘Facebreaker build using Infernal and Dominating Blow’, or go for an ‘Explosive Arrow Marauder’, or hundreds of others, each carefully turned over by other community members. Good knowledge of these builds is well rewarded by Path of Exile’s extremely popular community races, which challenge participants to rush as far as possible through the game in a two-hour sprint. It’s a clever way to generate a sense of cohesion among disparate adventurers, and encourages players to come up with inventive highspeed characters.