Path of Exile's next update is basically Pokémon and I love it

Image credit: Jorsch

It's no secret that Path of Exile has become one of my favorite games. Part of that is due to the intimidating depth of its item system and economy that makes Diablo 3 look like Baby's First ARPG, but the other component is how aggressively Grinding Gear Games ships out new expansions and updates. Last fall saw the introduction of five new acts followed up by a winter update that revitalized the entire endgame. Now, on March 2, Path of Exile is getting another update so big that lead designer Chris Wilson confessed he can't decide whether or not to call it a full-blown expansion. At first I thought he was being a bit cocky, but last week he walked me through all of the new features and, yeah, it's pretty big. Also it's Pokémon. 

I choose you 

Called Bestiary, this new temporary challenge league is probably one of the most robust leagues I've ever seen. Unlike the current Abyss league, which largely involves randomly stumbling upon demonic fissures and then killing everything that pops out, Bestiary is about capturing monsters and making them fight to create powerful crafting recipes.

For those new to Path of Exile, these leagues are temporary and require starting a new character. After their usual three-month life cycle, the league is either retired or incorporated into the main game and your character is transferred over to the permanent standard league, which is basically just the main game. Each new challenge league, however, offers entirely new systems that make leveling up a different experience each time.

The idea behind Bestiary is simple: While roaming around maps, you can throw a net on any monster that qualifies as a beast and, if its weakened enough, capture it. Each captured monster is stored in your personal menagerie—a zoo that acts like a hideout where you can invite your friends to hang out. A new bestiary menu categorizes each of the hundreds of monsters you can capture and helps track your progress if you're the type of person thats—wait for it—gotta catch 'em all.

We've tried to kitchen-sink the crafting system where possible so that there's interesting stuff to do that touches every facet of it.

Chris Wilson

Your menagerie isn't just a place to gawk over your captured monsters, however. The Blood Altar is an arena where you can perform the Sacrifice of Combat, which lets you to fight up to four of your captured monsters in exchange for a crafted item. Each of the 250 regular monsters and 40 new legendary beasts has their own modifications that can change the outcome of your crafted recipe, so monsters are essentially a crafting material that you use in different combinations to produce different results.

Wilson explains that while it might be tempting to try and capture every monster you see, experienced players will want to hunt down more unique types with special modifications. For example, a rare creature with powerful ability modifiers will have those same modifiers when you fight them in the arena, so fights will be more challenging but the rewards could be more useful. 

Forty new legendary creatures will provide an even greater challenge, both when capturing or sacrificing them. Unlike their normal counterparts, these beasts have entirely new abilities that hit a lot harder than players might expect, and they won't submit to capture nearly as easily.

Taking the time to hunt down monsters with powerful mods will pay off, however. In one example, Wilson explains how if you capture two monsters with the Corrupted Blood modifier (which causes bleeding upon killing or hitting the monster), you can fight them in the arena and their Corrupted Blood modifier will essentially act like a Vaal Orb that players would normally use while crafting. Unlike the Vaal Orb, which corrupts items but has a chance to affect them negatively, corrupting an item with Corrupted Blood monsters doesn't have the same negative side effects. For veteran players, that difference is huge. There's a drawback, however, in that if you fail to kill your four creatures in the arena, they'll be set free and you'll lose your opportunity to get the crafted item.

Wilson says that there's dozens of new recipes players can discover, and Bestiary will be immediately accessible to brand new players. Unique monsters found in the first few minutes will have valuable recipes associated with them that can help players craft incredibly useful early-game items, like boots with a movement speed modifier.

Later on, much more powerful recipes open up. Wilson says that Imprints are making a comeback, which allows you to make a copy of a magical item. For crafters, this is extremely useful since you can essentially make a backup of a perfect magic item base before attempting high risk, high reward crafts to make the item better. Of course, part of the fun of challenge leagues like Bestiary is working through the list of achievements in exchange for cool cosmetic items, so players who don't love crafting will still be encouraged to spend some time capturing monsters. "We've tried to kitchen-sink the crafting system where possible so that there's interesting stuff to do that touches every facet of it. You can just make remedial items as you're playing through, you can craft specific types of rare weapons," Wilson says.

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For endgame players, Bestiary has four new spirit animal bosses that can be captured and used for crafting. These especially tough encounters offer up more than just more crafting options, however, but also Path of Exile's first-ever gear sets. Unlike Diablo 3, Path of Exile never had gear that unlocked special bonuses when wearing more than one piece of a particular set. These new spirit animal sets change that, but with a special Path of Exile twist.

"Path of Exile doesn't really do set items historically," Wilson says. "They're cool because you get to focus your character around one theme, but they're a problem because you focused your character around one theme and now you're the exact same as every other player who did that. We've tried very hard to make them all optional. We don't want it that you put on the body piece and that mandates you need the helmet. We want it that every item you put on is a significant soul-searching challenge over whether you'd be better off using a rare with elemental resistances."

Looking at the Craiceann armor set, the body armor grants you Aspect of the Crab, a skill that provides a stackable 'crab barrier' that prevents around two percent damage for each barrier you've accumulated over time. The drawback is that those charges immediately dissipate the moment you take damage, so the crab barrier allows you to periodically negate a single attack. Instead of providing bonuses for each piece of Craiceann armor you're wearing, each piece beyond the body armor modifies the skill in a cool, but optional new way. If you grab the boots, you cannot be stunned if you have more than 10 crab barriers and you only lose six of them when you get hit, for example.

Veterans rejoice 

While the Bestiary League is exciting all by itself, this new update also adds some crazy new challenges for Path of Exile's most hardcore players. The last update completely shook up the endgame by introducing The Elder, a boss that is corrupting the Atlas of Worlds and its creator, The Shaper. The randomized maps that players would run could now have special modifiers if they were corrupted by either The Shaper or The Elder, but the system is being expanded with Bestiary. 

An example of the new Ascendancy class tree for the Berserker.

Wilson explains that The Elder is getting even more powerful now, and is capable of corrupting the four Shaper Guardians who act as the semi-final endgame boss. If you manage to defeat each of these especially tough corrupted guardians, you now have a chance that The Elder will corrupt The Shaper himself, forcing you to fight both endgame bosses at the same time.

It's designed for the top, top, top players who don't have jobs and just grind all day and everyone else gets to enjoy it via Twitch.

Chris Wilson

Wilson showed me a video of the fight and explained that no one on the development staff had managed to beat it yet with regular characters (though it is possible). On their own, either The Elder or The Shaper is a boss that only the most dedicated Path of Exile players can best. Fighting both at the same time? Good luck. "It's designed for the top, top, top players who don't have jobs and just grind all day and everyone else gets to enjoy it via Twitch," Wilson laughs.

Of course, those who do manage to beat the fight will be rewarded with some incredibly powerful items. For the rest of us, however, we can enjoy dozens of new Fated Unique items that can be found through the Prophecy system, which can turn those trash Uniques you have into much more interesting endgame variants.

The final big addition in Bestiary is an overhauled Ascendancy system. These special skill trees were originally designed to add a bit of unique class identity to characters but, overtime, have lost a lot of their impact due to new skills and systems being added with each update. "So what we've done is fixed them by giving a big balance sweep to buff them all and also to bring back class identity by coming up with new ideas for them that fit the original theme but done in a way that is exclusive to that ascendancy class," Wilson says.

To demonstrate, Wilson showed me the new Ascendancy tree for the Berserker, a Marauder Ascendancy Class. Berserkers rely on taking damage to deal more damage in turn, but the abilities offered by their old tree could easily be achieved using other skills and systems. The new tree, however, uses a special buff called Rage that is developed solely with the Berserker in mind. Now, when Berserkers kill enemies, they'll gain stacks of Rage that increases their damage, attack speed, and movement speed but also applies a constant damage-over-time effect that they'll need to counter with health potions or a leech effect. "We're not reusing Rage anywhere else in the game, so it's for the Berserker and the Berserker alone. And, where possible, the 19 other ascendancy classes have other similar systems that make them feel unique that isn't possible elsewhere in POE," Wilson says.

Along with three new skill gems and the usual tweaks and fixes, Bestiary is shaping up to be another massive—and exciting—update. As a dedicated player, it's wonderful and surprising to see how adeptly Grinding Gear Games has managed to pump out sizeable update after sizeable update four times a year. While Bestiary doesn't add a ton of new story content or a completely redesigned endgame like the past two updates, the league itself easily looks to be one of the most original and exciting. I mean, who doesn't love the idea of adding a little Pokémon to their action RPGs?