Path Of Exile's December expansion brings a bite-sized roguelike and a brutal new difficulty mode

Path of Exile The Forbidden Sanctum
(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

While it could be argued that the entire modern action-RPG genre is roguelike adjacent, Path Of Exile is doubling down for its next seasonal update, The Forbidden Sanctum. Launching on December 9, this free expansion will add a new roguelike side-adventure to spice up the familiar ascent from castaway to godhood, on top of the usual slew of new features, skills and refinements. It's also bringing some fresh pain to the table in the form of an optional Hard mode.

The new quarterly league is the titular Forbidden Sanctum, a roguelike diversion broken up into bite-sized branching chambers which you tackle one at a time. There's a portal to the Sanctum in every area of the campaign, each one letting you play through a single room; a short encounter, one minute or less, outside of boss fights. A complete run through the Sanctum means surviving 32 of these chambers split across several floors, but most are likely to see several failed attempts before they come away with any fabulous prizes, including some unique drops from Sanctum's final boss.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

What sets the Sanctum aside from most of Path Of Exile's many dungeons and challenge modes is how it's handling health. While it's still possible to die in the traditional 'losing all of your blood' sense, the greater long-term threat is your character's mood. Sanctum introduces a new player stat called Resolve, which does not regenerate, carries between rooms, and reduces every time you take damage in the Sanctum. Hit zero resolve (no matter how healthy you might otherwise be) and your character becomes too sad and decides that this run is over, resetting you back to the first room of the dungeon when you next enter.

Resolve damage also bypasses any defensive stats that you might have, making absolute evasion through movement skills and fancy footwork more important than soaking up hurt. This feels like a radically different way to play Path Of Exile, and I'm excited to see what movement-centric builds players put together so they can dance their way through the dungeon.

This being Path Of Exile's take on the roguelike genre, there's some extra wrinkles and long-term progression involved, too. Each run, you'll build up a variety of Boons and Afflictions, positive and negative modifiers that stay in effect until you win or wipe out. Some Boons can also be purchased with Aureus, a Sanctum-exclusive currency that evaporates upon failing a run.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

To reduce frustration, there are some long-term perks you can unlock that carry between runs. Templar Relics are special items that can modify the Sanctum itself, and are kept in a special storage screen between attempts. The idea—at least on paper—is that you'll be able to sand down some of the dungeon's rougher edges. But you'll have to cut yourself on them a few times first. And speaking of bleeding…

No tears, please. It's a waste of good suffering

For me, the most interesting part of this expansion is Ruthless mode, Grinding Gear's answer to players saying that power inflation had led to the game becoming too fast, too easy and too breakable. These complaints may sound silly to newcomers intimidated by the game, but I assure you, modern PoE has become far faster and easier. Rather than make the game harder through inflating enemy stats further, Path Of Exile is doing the unthinkable: taking your toys away.

Perhaps I'm a bit of a masochist, but I do miss those early days where every enemy felt like a threat, and mini-bosses were frequently terrifying encounters.

While still considered 'experimental' and subject to sweeping changes, Ruthless Mode vastly reduces the amount of loot dropped, with magical items becoming even rarer still. Crafting will be far more limited, and skill gems will become infrequent loot drops and quest rewards rather than something shopkeepers are overstocked on. The idea is that you'll play a more reactive game, building your character around whatever lucky finds you make, rather than beginning with a complete battle-plan that just needs a little grind to execute.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

There's a lot more to Ruthless than just reducing drops. A whole world of pain, even. Grinding Gear lays out the hurt to come in this extensive blog post. Movement skills are almost entirely removed, town portals no longer refill your healing flasks, skill gems level slower, experience slows to a trickle after a point—if it's a disempowerment fantasy you're after, this is it. Of course, the pain should ease up over time as players build up a new cross-character stash in Ruthless mode, but those initial few runs sound like a cruel and unusual return to form.

Perhaps I'm a bit of a masochist, but I do miss those early days where every enemy felt like a threat, and mini-bosses were frequently terrifying encounters. While I can't see Ruthless mode being my main mode of play, I'm sure it'll generate some interesting stories from players. Plus, whoever completes it first in Solo Self-Found (no trading, no stashes) and Hardcore (one life only) will have no shortage of bragging rights. Doubly so if they manage to make it through the Sanctum with these harsh restrictions, too.

Two steps forward, one step back

While Ruthless might be limiting skill gem drops, there's a couple new types to find across all modes. Volcanic Fissure is a new AoE attack for staves, maces and axes that splits open the earth, causing a burst of magma projectiles. Frozen Legion is an extremely cool looking (not sorry) spell for staves, maces and axes that summons a ring of icy statues around your target, each of which takes one swing at your victim before shattering. There's also a few new Vaal (blood-fueled 'smartbomb' style variants) versions of melee gems, including Flicker Strike and Cleave, giving melee-focused characters a little more freedom.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

There's also the usual handful of new Unique items, including a few designed by the winners of the previous league's boss-kill race, and dropping from the biggest, meanest optional bosses in the endgame. There's a new flask that (if used in time) can prevent you from one-shot deaths, a jewel that can Consecrate of Profane the ground you walk on depending on your stats, and a pair of gloves that gives all your spells the brutal-sounding 'Impale On Crit' bonus.

The law of averages being what it is, not every new addition to Path Of Exile can be a winner. This expansion brings one major regression. Previously, Grinding Gear had taken the new monster modifiers they created for the Archnemesis league and made them standard throughout the whole game. They (and their players) have determined that it didn't quite work, frequently creating unpredictable and deadly difficulty spikes, so they're axing that and replacing it with a whole new pool of simpler, more readable perks and modifiers for monsters to spawn with.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

They've also pruned the endgame-modifying Atlas skill grid a little to give players a little more freedom and ensure they don't have to invest in loot-boosting modifiers for major bosses. The endgame is also expanding a little with another two Atlas Memories—story-driven quest chains giving a bit more structure to the otherwise non-linear endgame, including one focused on the Bestiary, letting you capture rare monsters to sacrifice in several new crafting rituals to create powerful gear.

As for those holding out hope for more news on the years-delayed Path Of Exile 2 (and the even lesser-seen PoE Mobile), Grinding Gear are keeping those under wraps until the next Exilecon in New Zealand next July, where release dates will be announced and both games will be playable. As for this year, The Forbidden Sanctum update drops on December 9, and as always, you'll have to roll a new character in order to play the new content or Ruthless mode.

Dominic Tarason

The product of a wasted youth, wasted prime and getting into wasted middle age, Dominic Tarason is a freelance writer, occasional indie PR guy and professional techno-hermit seen in many strange corners of the internet and seldom in reality. Based deep in the Welsh hinterlands where no food delivery dares to go, videogames provide a gritty, realistic escape from the idyllic views and fresh country air. If you're looking for something new and potentially very weird to play, feel free to poke him on Twitter. He's almost sociable, most of the time.