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Last Epoch puts a brilliant new twist on the Diablo and Path of Exile skill systems

When I unlocked the Bone Prison specialization for my Mark for Death spell, I forgot to read the fine print. Though a wall of bones now encircled my enemies, my once insta-cast spell now had a nasty side effect: a 20-second cooldown. But I was delighted to find that I could now cast another spell on each individual bone piece, turning my new bone prison into a cascading wall of death. Any trade-off that ends with a cascading wall of death is a good one.

Last Epoch's skill system is a brilliant evolution of Path of Exile’s labyrinthine web of upgrades and Diablo 3’s rune modifications.

Last Epoch hit Steam Early Access on April 30 after six months in closed alpha, adding a proper prologue and extending the campaign to four chapters. Although it’s a traditional hack and slash action-RPG, the world and story structure are clearly inspired by Chrono Trigger. I zip around to different eras that eventually lead to an apocalyptic future I need to prevent. It’s a neat idea but the writing isn’t really what's keeping me playing. Take your stupid ledger and give me my skill point, Elder Erza.

The early game is primarily played in the future Ruined Era, which features a bunch of brown and black caves and ruins with the same endless parade of blobby purple enemies. Limited and boring enemy variety frustrated me in the early game. It didn’t help that Last Epoch, like most ARPGs, is mind-numbingly easy for the first few hours, and there seems to be no penalty for dying. It wasn't until I dug further into its skill system that I found what separates Last Epoch from Diablo and Path of Exile.

In the alpha I played a primalist, a combination barbarian and druid ripped straight out of the 1982 film The Beastmaster. The primalist can summon wolves, saber-tooth cats, a bear, and even a giant scorpion once I unlock the Beastmaster mastery tree (sadly no ferret friends). 

Each of the five classes (four are currently playable in the beta) has three mastery trees that operate much like Diablo 2’s skill trees, pumping earned skill points to increase my stats, grant new bonuses, and occasionally unlock a new mastery-specific skill. I could've taken my primalist in the direction of a lightning-flinging shaman or a shape-changing druid instead. Having a giant scorpion alongside my wolf pack was neat at first, but the pet-heavy melee build grew boring to control quickly.

Me and my bone buds

In the new Early Access release I traded in my fur babies for bone bros with an acolyte, which is basically a Diablo 2 necromancer. While the primalist can gain an impressive number of animal allies he has nothing on the legion of dead the acolyte can employ, including skeleton guards, mags, archers, and a gigantic bone golem. Once I unlocked the Sacrifice skill my playstyle evolved into summoning and exploding my disposable buddies into a hilariously gory mess, which paired excellently with a passive skill that had a chance to give me a shield with every minion death.

With the acolyte's skills I began to really appreciate Last Epoch’s skill customization. It’s a brilliant evolution of Path of Exile’s labyrinthine web of upgrades and Diablo 3’s rune modifications. 

Instead of juggling a bunch of active abilities or sifting through mountains of useless and infinitesimal passive upgrades, I can focus on the few specific skills I enjoy using, such as modifying my Summon Skeleton skill to only summon mages because they come with adorable hats and capes. Once I realized I was gleefully sacrificing them every few seconds, though, I started to rethink my skeleton specialization. Experimenting with different skills and discovering fun combos is the heart of what keeps me playing. 

The crafting system is also doing some clever things for an action-RPG. These games are all about RNG loot drops, but Last Epoch’s crafting helps alleviate the pain of searching for just the right traits and modifiers on specific items.

Skill specializations make for deep, interesting customization options

Crafting can be done directly from the inventory, and once added to the crafting menu, materials don’t take up any inventory space—though I’m not sure why don’t they simply get added to the crafting menu in the first place. Crafting can add new effects to items like increasing mana or minion damage, and specific crafting shards can also enhance existing stats on an item. There is a tiny risk involved with crafting: The more I enchant an item, the bigger the risk of fracturing it. A fractured item isn’t destroyed, but can’t be enchanted any further (there are also special glyphs that can protect against fracturing).

Crafting materials were plentiful enough that I found myself constantly tweaking and enhancing every decent item I found. Finding great items was still enjoyable (and you can’t enhance unique items), but crafting gave me a satisfying level of control over my gear that few action-RPGs allow.

While I enjoyed the underlying skill and crafting systems, Last Epoch is noticeably rough around the edges. The graphics look like they belong in a game made somewhere between Titan Quest (2006) and Path of Exile (2013), and not in a way that's charmingly retro. There's little detail and a muted color palette, particularly in the Ruined Era. The UI needs some major improvements as well—there’s no way to tell how a skill is going to improve until you commit a skill point to it, and selling, examining, and comparing items requires a needless amount of holding Shift, Ctrl, and Alt. I suffered from a number of stuttering moments and framerate drops, and the game frequently locked up when I tried to exit.

Last Epoch can look pretty muddy

There is at least one shining beacon of light in Last Epoch’s presentation: The music is outstanding. ARPGs are usually perfect for listening to podcasts or videos in the background, but I never wanted to silence Last Epoch’s stirring orchestral score. I'd welcome Last Epoch’s soundtrack into my Game Jams Spotify playlist right alongside Diablo 2.

I remember a time not too long ago when I was desperate for any new game in my beloved loot pinata genre, but the playing field has changed over the last several years. Diablo 3, Path of Exile, and Grim Dawn have had long lives and keep on going. Even Titan Quest has made a comeback with its Anniversary Edition. In its current state Last Epoch doesn't do enough to really distinguish itself from its more established brethren—its clever skill system can't make up for its other shortcomings, particularly as the Early Access version is currently singleplayer only. Hopefully a long stint in Early Access will make it a stronger contentendor when it launches fully in Spring 2020.