There's nothing an ARPG loves more than a big fight, except perhaps rummaging through the corpses that are left over for a snazzier pair of shoes. So, with Lost Ark having recently entered the fray as a major contender to the ARPG throne, I thought it might be fun to toss it in a pit with the genre's other big-hitters of the last decade, namely Diablo 3 and Path of Exile, and let them duke it out in a series of arbitrary, but lethal, challenges. Which game has the loveliest loot, or the most satisfying skills? Which best conveys the feeling of turning a god into jam with the click of a mouse?
The plan is to compare how all three games handle different aspects of the core ARPG formula. It's a general comparison of broad-stroke systems, rather than an in-depth analysis of how each game handles, say, individual class-types. That said, to keep things balanced, I tried to play as similar classes while comparing the games (Warrior for Lost Ark, Barbarian for Diablo 3, and Marauder for Path of Exile), so that the results were not based on three wildly different playstyles.
At the heart of any ARPG is the click, how pressing the left mouse-button translates to smiting your foes on the screen with your basic attack. It’s the foundation upon which any ARPG is built—the base feedback loop that'll keep players hooked for tens of hours.
At least, that's the theory. But of our competitors, only Diablo 3 has much time for the click. Lost Ark's skills have such speedy cooldowns that you'll rarely use your basic attack, instead constantly flowing from one ridiculous ability to the next. Path of Exile's basic attack gets more use in the early game, but your character will soon evolve away from the left mouse button, whether that's through more powerful skills, or mechanics like totems that let you avoid engaging with enemies entirely.
Hence, Diablo 3 wins in this category by default. But it's worth noting that Blizzard's game has the best click anyway. Lost Ark's basic attack is weedy compared to your many combat skills. Path of Exile's left-click is more functional, landing with a thunk and dealing respectable damage to enemies. But it lacks pizzazz.
Diablo 3, by comparison, puts a vast amount of design effort into making that left-click feel incredible. In fact, part of its success is how it treats basic attacks like combat skills, offering multiple variants that unlock across the course of the campaign, each more powerful than the last. But they feel good from the outset, flinging foes across the map in piles of physics powered limbs, or bursting them in showers of gore.
Winner: Diablo 3
Skills and Abilities
An ARPG's combat system is usually fleshed-out by a wide range of active skills and abilities. These affect enemies in different ways and define your character's fighting style. Much of the game is about finding the most effective combination of these abilities, and since they form the crux of an ARPG's action, they need to look spectacular and feel powerful.
All three games are strong in this area, offering a broad range of colourful, satisfying abilities that are fun to discover and experiment with. But Lost Ark slightly edges out the other two. This is partly down to being the newer game. Both Path of Exile and Diablo 3 are approaching 10 years old, while Lost Ark released in Korea at the end of 2019, so has the benefit of greater graphical whizzbang.
But it's also because Lost Ark has zero restraint. Diablo 3 and Path of Exile both start out relatively low-key—the latter in particular is very understated in its opening hours, which fits with its grungy, grimdark style. In Lost Ark, every single power is dialled up to max from the first five minutes, with stellar audio/visual design baked into each skill. You move through the game's zones and dungeons like a traveling fireworks display, whacking hordes of enemies with apocalyptic spells and powers that punch like God's nightcap.
Winner: Lost Ark
One of the main appeals of ARPGs is taking your character from being a naked, angry li'l guy and gradually building them into a walking fission reaction that obliterates anything in their path. At a basic level, this means unlocking bigger powers and acquiring better equipment. But a good ARPG will also let you tinker with your class, modifying active and passive abilities to maximise your character's murder metric.
All three games approach this in different ways. In Diablo 3, every power you unlock can be modified with a rune, while your character also acquires passive abilities that can be plugged into a set number of slots for further alteration. Lost Ark, meanwhile, has you spend ability points to level up individual combat skills through multiple tiers, each of which unlocks three potential modifiers that you can switch between at any time.
Both are perfectly good systems, but neither has the raw potential of Path of Exile's approach to progression. Here, skills are unbound from character classes, instead based around gems that you plug into items, letting you mix and match to create whatever ability loadout you fancy. Meanwhile, stat upgrades are based around the game's enormous passive ability tree, which is shared across starting classes. This means you can carve out an entirely unique destiny for your character, moving away from their intended pathways and creating Marauders that rely on summoning or Duellists who can avoid direct conflict entirely.
Winner: Path of Exile
No ARPG is complete without loot. While your character may be on a quest to save the world or kick God into a bin, the player's goal in most ARPGs is to net the sweetest swag in the realm. The promise of a better sword or a snazzier pair of pants is what pulls you through the game, whether that's for the stats or to dress your hero up in flash new kit. Either way, the design of an ARPG's loot system can have a significant impact on the core experience.
There's greater spread between the games in this category. At the bottom of the golden pile is Lost Ark, where loot is scarce and predictable. You'll very rarely pick up items outside of quest rewards, and these rewards rarely provide anything other than incremental stat upgrades. The best loot is locked away behind the more multiplayer-centric elements of the game, such as raids and zone bosses. Which is fine for the most part —it is an MMO, after all. But the game would certainly benefit from sprinkling some more eye-catching gear across its central questline, if only to make you actually look at your equipment stats once in a while.
Diablo 3 has the best presentation of loot. The way you rummage through bookshelves, turn over corpses, and open chests that vomit coins at you like broken slot machines is all very satisfying. As for the actual quality of loot, it's decent enough during levelling, although it revolves largely around incremental stat upgrades. But it comes into its own in the endgame, which puts much greater emphasis on finding kickass gear.
Overall, Path of Exile does the best job of providing a constant flow of interesting loot. This is partly down to the gem system. Since each piece of loot has a different number and combination of slots for inserting gems, it means that every loot item, no matter how basic otherwise, is potentially interesting in terms of how it can help you build your character. Add to that all the more typical ARPG stat boosts from individual items, and you've got a loot system that constantly has you thinking about how best to outfit your character.
Winner: Path of Exile
Broadly, all three games provide a quality ARPG experience. But they all emphasise slightly different aspects of the genre. If you want to smite your foes in the biggest and most spectacular way, then Lost Ark is the game to opt for. But the base feel of Diablo 3's combat is still hard to beat, while its loot system is broadly superior to Lost Ark. Path of Exile isn't as flashy as either Lost Ark or Diablo 3, but it's unmatched when it comes to character progression, and also has the most engaging loot system of the three.
Ultimately, the decision comes down to how familiar you are with ARPGs, and what kind of experience you want to get out of them. If you've never played an ARPG before, then Diablo 3 is probably the game to shoot for. It has the best balance of spectacle, modular characters and decent loot. For a more challenging and rewarding journey, choose Path of Exile for its creative potential. And if you just want to play with the biggest toys in a world that's as weird as it is massive, pick Lost Ark.