Path of Exile's new expansion lets you build your own bite-sized hard mode

Path of Exile, more than any action-RPG I’ve played, wants you to set the terms of your own suffering. With a hugely customizable endgame and quarterly events like a double-or-nothing gamblers arena, there’s a major focus on choosing how you challenge yourself in exchange for loot. This May’s upcoming expansion, Sentinel, brings what looks like a more direct new way to challenge yourself: a satchel full of consumable drones that empower your enemies while injecting them full of bonus items.

For players rolling new characters in this league, you’ll quickly find Sentinels dropping as loot from monsters. Each of these little drones has a color denoting its behavior, a power level and (as always in PoE) a variety of modifiers and perks that change how it behaves. These drones are equipped in special slots with their own hotkeys and can be deployed at almost any time during combat to spice up your current encounter.

A short but rewarding burst of Hard Mode, ideally—or an embarrassingly self-inflicted death if you get cocky.

Red ‘Stalker’ Sentinels hover near you for a minute or so, buffing any enemy they spot, making for a relatively controllable rampage. Blue ‘Pandemonium’ Sentinels go off immediately, buffing every enemy on screen and sometimes beyond. Yellow ‘Apex’ Sentinels behave like red ones, but will only target rare, unique or boss baddies while leaving the fodder alone. Each type of Sentinel can only be deployed once per area, so it’s up to you to pick which fights to spice up.

Sentinels do eventually run out of battery power after multiple uses, and because Apple have apparently taken hold of Wraeclast too, there’s no easy way to recharge them. A new crafting item called a Power Core will let you scrap two drained Sentinels to create a new one with a full battery and hybrid perks from its two ‘parents’. There are several types of core, changing how the robo-splicing procedure will work. There are also rare ‘recombinator’ items that let you perform this splicing process on unwanted equipment of the same type.

The really juicy customization comes from the Sentinel Controller panel. It's a circuit grid of buffs and modifiers that will apply to all your Sentinels, assuming their color type is hooked up to the grid. You just need power, which is gained by killing Sentinel-buffed monsters. You can reconfigure your Sentinel grid at will, removing or placing wires as many times as you like, but you’ll never have enough power to completely max out everything. As with all things PoE, you get to pick your poison.

Atlas Buffed

While the Sentinel system is pretty complex, it’s not as flashy or ambitious as some prior leagues. It seems Grinding Gear has split its efforts between new content and continuing its overhaul of the Atlas Of Worlds endgame. Last season it got a major rework, allowing you to customize what kinds of events and encounters you play using a special endgame skill grid. This update is doubling down, adding 20 more ‘keystone’ nodes for Atlas customization, letting players completely remove their least-favorite elements or focus purely on a narrower spread of monster-mashing opportunities.

There are too many new options to list all here, but among the new Keystone nodes these are the highlights:

  • There are ones to make all enemies tankier but less damaging (or vice versa), letting you tune the difficulty to personal preference
  • There are also quality-of-life nodes like Stream of Consciousness, which disables modifying Maps with Fragments, and instead just gives the entire Atlas a 50% higher chance of giving you content from past Leagues on every expedition. Good for the player that doesn’t want to fiddle around too much.

And of course it wouldn’t be a Path of Exile update without even more rocks to dash yourself against. Several of those new grids enable ‘uber’ versions of six endgame bosses, with all new attack patterns and abilities. Judging by some of the footage I saw, they’re leaning into ‘bullet hell’ encounter design. Expect to spend most of your time in these new encounters dodging elaborate shot patterns.

Going after these bosses will provide some new unique rewards. Specifically some new Jewels, items that can be inserted into your passive skill grid to modify it further. The regular non-uber forms are still worth hunting too, as this league is giving several endgame bosses new unique drops designed by the winners of a boss-hunting contest Grinding Gear ran last season.

Getting Decked

It’s not all challenges and pain this update. There’s a handful of quality-of-life features coming (mostly in tuning up the Atlas Of Worlds UI), and the official introduction of gamepad support for the PC version. This also means that Path of Exile should now be natively playable on the Steam Deck, although I wonder whether Valve’s handheld will keep up during PoE’s notoriously CPU-straining endgame.

So that’s a good chunk of new content coming to Path of Exile, but the past couple expansions have seen Grinding Gear retire the oldest and wonkiest parts of the game to avoid bloat. This time 'round nothing significant is being canned. Instead, last season’s Archnemesis league mechanic (where you created custom mini-bosses) has instead been stripped for parts, and its pool of simpler, clearer monster modifiers will replace the current stack of verbs. It’s one of the few instances of simplification PoE has seen recently, but it should mean you have to read a lot less text around health bars, which is nice.

Another nice thing (especially for players happy with their current character build) is that there are no buffs or nerfs being introduced in this league, and no reshuffling of passive skill grids. No major new skills or class reworks to build your character around. Path of Exile is famous for completely upending the meta (a word I will not allow Facebook to sully) every major update, but the changes to monster modifiers and the chaos the Sentinels are introducing should be spicy enough. I expect the regular chaos of complete balance reworks to continue next league.

It would be remiss of me to ignore the buffed and uber-ified elephant in the room; the looming specter of Path of Exile 2, the ambitious looking sequel-spansion announced way back in 2019. Between the pandemic and the harsh realities of game development, Grinding Gear admits that we’re unlikely to see it until late 2023, possibly slipping further into 2024. Still, a key focus on these seasonal updates is paving the way to that big release. The plan is still to have both the PoE 1 & 2 campaigns as separate experiences, but both lead into the same shared Atlas Of Worlds endgame, hence the focus on that. I’d speculate that the overhaul to monster modifiers is something that will carry over to the sequel too.

The Path of Exile: Sentinel expansion does seem more incremental than last season's overhaul. It launches as a free update, as always, on May 13th. A new character will be needed to play with the renegade buff-bots, but the endgame content will be open for existing characters to skewer themselves against.

Dominic Tarason
Contributing Writer

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.