I spent some time with the Path of Exile 2 demo and it's absolutely cooking

Path of Exile has been the best ARPG on the market for years now—Diablo 4 didn't even scratch the paint for me (largely because Blizzard built an MMO instead)—but when Grinding Gear Games announced Path of Exile 2 in 2019, I was a little nervous. Live service games with periodic updates have a spotty record with sequels, and often end up cannibalizing their predecessors—like Destiny and Overwatch.

At ExileCon a couple weeks ago, my fears were assuaged. Instead of replacing Path of Exile as originally planned, Path of Exile 2 will be a standalone sequel that will run concurrently with the original. And it's huge, with a new campaign, new character classes and ascendancies, and a new endgame, the works. If you're wondering what will happen to your impressive collection of portal skins and stash tabs, worry not—all microtransactions you purchase will be carried over to both games, with exceptions for things that don't exist in both games. Each game will receive content updates about every three months, so if you wanna play both games you'll definitely have your hands full.

The Path of Exile 2 beta is almost a year away (GGG says it'll be available next June), but I got to play the hands-on demo of Path of Exile 2 that was available for ExileCon attendees, and there's a lot to like already. 

The voice acting, music, and updated character models are all excellent, and there are some quality of life improvements like being able to portal in quest NPCs without having to go back to town to talk to them. The updated skills make combat a lot more interactive, and taking sockets off items and making them intrinsic makes it so you can use multiple skills more effectively while still being able to scale them without having to worry about crafting a six link. 

It's also tough. Very tough.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

Ruthless and dynamic

Released with the 3.20 Forbidden Sanctum league last December, Ruthless is essentially a hard mode for Path of Exile. It craters drop rates for loot, takes away most movement skills, and introduces a host of other modifications that substantially slow the game down and make it more difficult. The Path of Exile 2 demo reminded me a lot of playing on Ruthless.

Monsters in Path of Exile 2 hit hard, and they have all sorts of nefarious means to surround you. I had seen some streamers get absolutely ranched playing the demo, so at the beginning I took it very slowly, and I'm glad I did. Like in PoE's Ruthless mode, I didn't have juiced movement speed from gear, teleports, or spells that blew up the whole screen. What I did have was a dodge roll, and boy did I need it. A new feature in PoE2, all characters get an unlimited dodge roll that doesn't require a skill gem and can even animation cancel if you're stuck in a big attack and need to move immediately.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

All four playable characters in the demo had this dynamic: multiple skills to use, none of which were good all of the time, but all of which were great some of the time.

At first I crawled. I got stuck. I died. As I got acclimated, however, things started sliding into place. The regular staff attacks on the monk didn't do a ton of damage, but they did have a small AoE and a bit of stagger, so I could use them to stave things off. Falling Thunder did unreal damage, but I needed power charges to make it work. Killing Palm could get me those charges, but was sluggish to use and put me at risk. 

Before long I was cruising through Act 1 with the Monk, darting in and out of combat, slowing monsters with waves of frost before lunging back in to finish a couple off, building some power charges, and then dodge rolling out and blowing everything else up with a huge finisher. All four playable characters in the demo had this dynamic: multiple skills to use, none of which were good all of the time, but all of which were great some of the time. As much as I love PoE 1, sometimes you just flip on your Righteous Fire and go walking simulator mode while mobs die around you, no buttons pressed. Combat in PoE 2 is a lot more dynamic.

The more dynamic combat was never on better display than it was for the boss fights. "We're going more in the kind of like Elden Ring sort of direction," said game director Jonathan Rogers in an interview with IGN's Kat Bailey. "It's much more action-focused, but with a sort of hardcore bent." This philosophy was evidenced in bosses that were complicated, interesting, and a ton of fun to kill.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

There are apparently over 100 new bosses in Path of Exile 2. Some of my favorites from the demo were Lachlann, a poor schmuck who loses his family and turns into a giant rage zombie. Fighting him required me to kite him around the graveyard, building power charges on minions to whittle him down with Falling Thunder. Another highlight was the Forsaken Son in Act 2, who I beat with the Huntress (on my first try, I might add!) in a wild brawl with fire everywhere and so many slams I could've been at WrestleMania.

 The end is the beginning is the end 

Obviously, we're miles away from having the full release of Path of Exile 2 in our little lootgoblin hands. We have basically no idea what the endgame looks like—they've said there are maps, but basically nothing else. Lots is still up in the air. We've got dynamic combat, but will it continue to be so after we scale our characters to the moon and have enough damage to kill God? There are sweet bosses, but will there be compelling reasons to battle them more than once? We've been told we can shapeshift, but can we have bear sex like in Baldur's Gate 3? That's why they have me here, to ask the hard hitting questions.

All of these will be answered in time, and at least we've got lots to keep us occupied until then. Path of Exile 1 has a new league coming out August 18, with a bunch of new support gems, reworks to Guardian and Chieftain, and a tower defense style league mechanic. Last Epoch has been in Early Access since 2019, but we should be super close to a release announcement (they said 2023). And I guess the Diablo 4 devs finally realized that players want monsters to kill in their game, so that's something!