Over the past year, Path of Exile received three major expansions that each added a significant new feature. Bestiary, for example, took some inspiration from Pokemon by letting players capture and fight monsters, whereas Delve added an infinite dungeon to explore. Normally, these leagues—as they’re called—are temporary events that only last for a few months before the next big update comes along and retires those features. But not this time.
As part of a greater plan to overhaul one of Path of Exile’s most outdated systems, its latest expansion is bringing these three leagues back (along with a new one) and weaving them into the core game. It’s one of the biggest changes to Path of Exile since The Fall of Oriath added six new story chapters.
Out with the old
Path of Exile is in a constant state of change. Though the main 10-act story stays the same, its challenge leagues add significant wrinkles to how you experience that story. But one thing that hasn’t changed in years—much to the chagrin of veteran players—is Path of Exile’s Master system.
The world of Wraeclast is short on allies, but Path of Exile’s Masters are friendly faces you can count on seeing every so often. Each one, like Haku the Armormaster, has special missions you can quickly complete in exchange for reputation points that levels that master up. Each time they reach a new level, you’ll unlock new features like customizable hideouts or crafting recipes that inch your character closer to perfection.
The only problem is that, after years of seeing the same masters and running their missions again and again, they’re painfully boring. “At the beginning of the year we had a plan, and what we didn’t want to do was give it a small coat of paint,” game director Chris Wilson explains. “We wanted to do a big overhaul, but that took most of the year to sort out.”
That’s why each new expansion over the past year introduced a brand new NPC for players to meet. Grinding Gear Games was subtly acquainting players with what would become the new team of Masters and their eventual missions. With Betrayal, you won’t be running into Haku the Armormaster anymore, having to rush to the end of a randomized spirit cave or protect Elreon from waves of undead. Instead, Path of Exile’s new masters will ask you to jump back into 2018’s challenge leagues, like Bestiary and Delve, with adjustments made to make them more accessible. “It’s replacing this old content with something that’s actually worthy of how much time players spend with it in the game,” Wilson says.
In addition to the three previous leagues, Betrayal will also add a fourth league that, considering a previous expansion had you manipulating time paradoxes for loot, looks to be its most complicated. This time, players are tasked with manipulating the Immortal Syndicate, a shady cartel that found a way to resurrect people without turning them into zombies. Obviously that kind of power shouldn’t be in the wrong hands.
Like all of Path of Exile’s challenge leagues, players will have to start a new character to experience the new features in Betrayal. It's worth it too, because how you interact with the Immortal Syndicate plays out kind of like a dark fantasy police procedural—complete with a corkboard and lines of yarn charting the identities of members and their relationships.
Pulling their strings
The idea is that players must investigate four different branches within the Immortal Syndicate, learn the identities of key members and the locations of their hideouts, and then loot them dry. But the real joy comes from how you can manipulate and exploit Syndicate members to do your bidding.
“It’s a very character-heavy expansion,” Wilson says. “In addition to the main NPC, there’s another 18 voice-acted characters and I think the writing team is up to 40,000 words of dialogue with more being written. There’s a lot of interaction between these characters. They form friendships, they remember stuff, if you make them betray each other or kill them, they’ll get brought back to life and remember all that stuff. It’s a little bit like the Nemesis system from the Shadow of Mordor games.”
All of this plays out adjacent to the normal campaign. As players complete the story quests and explore new areas, each zone will have some Syndicate activity that they can influence. In one video, Wilson showed me a player stumbling on a small fort guarded by a junior Syndicate member. After defeating him in combat, the player chooses to execute or interrogate the Syndicate member, with the latter option temporarily imprisoning him while also gradually revealing information about other higher-ranking members.
Of course, being Path of Exile, things get much more complex than that. Sometimes, Syndicate members will offer randomized bargains that can shake up the layout of the Syndicate hierarchy. Grunts can move into high-ranking positions, reveal the identity of their leaders, or you can just choose to execute them. Being immortal, though, this actually causes the Syndicate to promote that character to a higher rank when they’re revived for being loyal enough to die for the cause.
The Syndicate can take action against you, too, like showing up during boss fights to sabotage you when you’re most vulnerable. It’s here that the interpersonal relationships of the Syndicate also play a factor, as sometimes two members who are friends might show up to double-team you. But, again, things can get even more complicated. Wilson explains that it’s quite possible to have one Syndicate member try to ambush you only to, in turn, become a victim of an ambush from another rival Syndicate member. All of this is represented on the Syndicate corkboard, where players can keep track of individual relationships, rankings, and other modifiers that govern each of the dozen or so Syndicate members.
Like Path of Exile’s other leagues, the ultimate goal here is to manipulate these systems to score the best possible loot. As players manipulate and exploit, they’ll earn intel that eventually reveals the location of safehouses associated with each of the four branches of the Syndicate. These special zones are full of regular monsters and treasures, but also contain living quarters for each member of the Immortal Syndicate who belongs to that specific branch.
Here’s where all that manipulation can pay off: Each member of the Syndicate has a specific type of item you’ll find in their living quarters, but the branch they currently belong to will influence how that item is randomly generated. So, for example, one Syndicate member might specialize in amulets. If I manipulate them into a position of power in the Research division of the Syndicate, where item modifiers can be highly experimental—sometimes amazing and sometimes awful—I can guarantee I’ll get amulets with some zany abilities that might end up being obscenely powerful.
“Each of the different branches has their own specialty in terms of the types of items you can get, and each individual person in the syndicate has their own specialty in terms of the base item type,” Wilson says. “There’s a guy who will always drop bows, for example.” The idea, then, is to manipulate the members who have items that you need into branches of the Syndicate that will modify those items in beneficial ways.
If that sounds complicated, well, it is. And that’s just the beginning too. Betrayal will also introduce Veiled Mods, which are a fun twist on identifying items. Now, even some individual modifiers will need to be identified, and when you do, you'll get to choose between three different mods to roll with. Along with four new masters replacing the old ones, the entire crafting system has been overhauled as well—which I won’t go into here because it could take another three articles to fully explain all the implications and complexities. Betrayal will also add new skills, an overhaul to player’s personal hideouts, and more. Like I said, it’s a big expansion.
Path of Exile: Betrayal will launch on December 7 and will be free. You can read more here.