If you're stuck indoors for the foreseeable future, Path of Exile developer Grinding Gear Games has a treat for you. Unveiled earlier today on Twitch, the Echoes of the Atlas expansion is poised to be one of the bigger updates Path of Exile has ever seen. It significantly expands its already complex endgame by adding a roster of super-buffed bosses, including one that takes the crown as Path of Exile's hardest boss ever. This all comes alongside a new Challenge League, a bunch of balance changes, new skills, and more.
Path of Exile is, in many ways, a game of two halves. There's your regular, story-driven adventure through the cursed continent of Wraeclast (which escalates into murdering an entire pantheon of gods). But for loot-hoarding veterans, the real game begins once you've beaten the story and unlocked the Atlas Of Worlds. It's basically a greed-fueled conquest through a nigh-endless chain of randomly generated parallel universes that also incorporates the progression systems and activities exclusive to previous Challenge Leagues.
Duel of the demigods
Echoes of the Atlas is a major revision to that endgame, adding 11 new environment types (with new monsters and bosses) to the melting pot, along with a bunch of new customization systems tied into a new story arc. Turns out that stomping all over the space-time continuum has piqued the interest of some powerful cosmic deities. One of them, The Maven, wants to see what you can do. Turning up during major boss fights to do her best Rita Repulsa impression, she buffs bosses for her own amusement as she sits on the sidelines with a bag of popcorn.
Kill enough of these even-bigger-bads and she'll be impressed enough to invite you to her interdimensional fight club. As you work your way through the Atlas, The Maven will invite you to special boss fights in her arena. Each victory in these cosmic cage matches gives you special skill points which you invest in customizing the Atlas itself, letting players pick and choose what Challenge League activities and game mechanics they'll encounter in each part of the Atlas. This is on top of the existing pile of customization features, like using the crafting system to customize individual encounters, and slotting upgrade gems into the Atlas map itself to upgrade the difficulty of a given region.
If players are willing to fight for it, they can tweak, tune, and modify the endgame to create something personalized according to their playstyle and skill level. It won't be easy, though, as each victory in The Maven's arena increases the stakes. For each successive fight, she'll summon more bosses simultaneously—culminating in a ridiculously fatal ten-boss royal rumble. Survive that and The Maven will challenge you to a duel, becoming the Path of Exile's hardest battle for glory, bragging rights and some ultra-high-end new gear. Just don't expect to just go waltzing into this fight, as it's tuned to challenge the most min-maxed and optimized character builds in the game.
This is just a Tribute
If Path of Exile's dense endgame is too hardcore, there's also seasonal Challenge League to help boost players through the story. Like other previous updates, the Ritual League is a temporary event that requires you to start a new character but introduces some new systems and rewards for the effort. During this quarterly event, players will encounter ritual circles scattered around the world, each with an altar at the center. Activating the altar locks the player into the ring along with a huge swarm of monsters. Survive and you'll earn a special event currency called Tribute to spend on rewards from a randomized list.
Each successive Ritual performed within a region increases the difficulty, adding new dangers to the fight but increasing the Tribute payout in turn. It's a simple, and entirely optional, system that's light on story compared to the endgame overhaul, but it'll give new characters a bit more experience and gear on their path to the Atlas. One cool feature I like is that if you see an item you want but can't afford with your current Tribute, you'll be able to put Tribute down to reserve it for later, reducing the chance of missing out on something you really need.
Grinding Gear are leaving very little on the cutting room floor with Echoes of the Atlas. The previous league, Heist, introduced high-stakes robberies and a cast of recruitable NPC rogues to help you on these missions. As it was so well received by players, Heist is now a permanent part of the game, unlocking during Act 6 of the story, around halfway into the main game. While players will be going on fewer smash-and-grab expeditions, the rewards are set to be scaled up to compensate.
The earlier and less popular Harvest league (wherein players grew gardens of luminous plant monsters and harvested them for crafting resources) is also returning in more limited capacity. During the endgame, players will occasionally discover portals to Sacred Groves, pre-planted Harvest gardens just waiting to be plucked.
Talking with studio head Chris Wilson, he explained that when Grinding Gear Games was a fresh-faced newcomer to the scene (little more than a handful of hobbyists tackling a genre dominated by Blizzard) they designed the game to be modular and expandable in a way that no other action RPG was. Echoes of the Atlas in many ways feels like the crowning achievement of this philosophy. Of the thirty one Leagues that have played out since the game launched, the vast majority of them are playable and now customizable through this update.
Echoes is also likely to be the largest update the game sees in 2021, as Path of Exile 2 (which isn't so much a sequel but a free expansion) probably won't be happening this year. Wilson admits that the pandemic had a significant impact on the development of Path of Exile 2. While they hope to announce a release date later this year, players shouldn't expect it to launch until 2022. We'll at least get a small taste of the future with Echoes, as the eleven new endgame environments and their new bosses are designed to evoke the look and feel of Path of Exile 2, without spoiling anything to come.
The Path of Exile: Echoes of the Atlas expansion and the Ritual League launch on January 15th.