Path of Exile (Open Beta) Review
Posted on Friday, April 12 @ 14:34:13 Eastern by Nicholas Tan
Fans disappointed with Diablo III but who still wanted to play a Diablo game went primarily to one of two places: Torchlight II or Path of Exile. Of the two, I decided upon the latter option in part because it's a free-to-play title I was immensely impressed with three years ago when developer Grinding Gear Games stopped by our offices and in part because it feels the most like Diablo. It's as if there was a split in the timeline at Blizzard, a flip of the coin as you will, because Path of Exile is the Diablo III of an alternate and in many ways superior universe.
Now, maybe you're rolling at your eyes at me. What chance does a free-to-play Diablo clone made by an independent studio in New Zealand have against its polished, experienced, name-brand counterpart? Well, let me address this question one by one.
You might expect Path to Exile to explode with microtransactions and annoying pop-ups that ask you to purchase premium currency, but no, there's nothing of the sort. No "pay to win" schemes. No real-world auction house. The only things money can buy here are more pages for the player's stash, which is just for convenience since you can have multiple characters on one account for free, and purely aesthetic items like nifty glowing crowns and skins for various spell animations. Indeed, Path of Exile is the best example of free-to-play I've ever played. By the time you finish your first playthrough, even in its current open beta, you'll want to give them at least $10 (hopefully, a lot more).
As for being described as a "Diablo clone," the charge has relevance for sure, but only if you ignore the incredible amount of customization that Path of Exile offers. Better put, the game is both a love letter to Diablo II—to its distinct character classes, dark fantasy themes, eerie music and atmosphere, HUD interface, and loot-tastic grinding—as well as a statement on where it believes the Diablo franchise should have gone. No matter which character class you choose, the gameplay will feel intuitively familiar without the need of a tutorial, but within a few short hours, you'll be steeped in a refreshingly overwhelming sense of depth.
Path of Exile introduces two systems that Final Fantasy fans will recognize immediately: the skill gems based on the materia system from Final Fantasy VII and the skill tree based on the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X. Instead of each class having their own unique set of skills, each class shares the same passive skill tree with 1,350 nodes (yes, you read that right) but start at the different position on the tree. With players allowed to distribute up to 120 points for a character over the course of three difficulty settings, the variations of builds in the passive skill tree alone is impressive.
On top of that, weapons and armor have colored sockets, either linked or unlinked, for skill gems that power your character's special abilities. Just to be clear, these gems aren't stat boosts but full-on spells like Cleave, Lightning Strike, Rain of Arrows, Split Arrow, Firestorm, and Raise Zombie. Not only do these skill gems level up as your character does, but they can be combined with augments to create extraordinary combinations. My Level 49 Shadow primarily uses a Freezing Pulse spell, which already pierces through enemies, that forces enemies to drop rarer items, splits into two additional waves, and travels across the entire screen. Combined with totems, auras, and other support gems, skill gems are limited only by your imagination. It makes regular 4-slot and 5-slot items worth their weight in gold, especially if they are all linked and of the right color combination for your character. A 6-slot with those attributes is worthy of swooning like a lady.
That said, trading with other players is the key to grabbing the items you need, as the lack of any gold creates a bartering system. Even the NPC traders in town ask for Scrolls of Wisdom, Portal Scrolls, and the like if you wish to purchase their goods. In effect, the core economy is based around crafting items, mainly those that embue a normal item with rare magical enchantments, and players will explicitly ask for these when hawking their wares in shops in the official forums.
Of course, you'll surely need help getting through Cruel and Ruthless, hopefully with a team of friends (or users on our forums) and not strangers who go off on their own, don't communicate, and steal loot from under you. Luckily, there's a measure that locks loot drops to a certain player for a short amount of time. Still, I wish there could be at least one time-sensitive rare item that drops for every player in a party when a boss is killed.
If I was forced to hand out a grade for Path of Exile now while it's open beta, it would be a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars. The only reason I can't do it officially is because the developers are still working out the kinks—polishing art assets, balancing character builds, supporting tourneys, and getting rid of the occasional freezing glitches. In a meeting with Grinding Gear Games at GDC this year, they said that they wish to expand upon Act III, particularly with an ending to the game with an even more epic final boss battle (instead of merely advancing to the next difficulty setting). My advice for them is to create a mode that supports cooperative play that isn't about speed-runs, EXP strategies, or nabbing loot the quickest, though that's perfectly enjoyable and great for competitive players.
Grinding Gear Games plans on releasing the final build for Path of Exile later this year.
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