Get ready to ascend to the next level.
I learned several things at my meeting with Grinding Gear Games to see Path of Exile: Ascendancy, their new expansion for the action-RPG, Path of Exile: Awakening. One is that New Zealand is the primary English-speaking test-market for cellphone games and applications, due to its small but technologically progressive population, making it a kind of eco-bubble perfect to try out new strategies on. Grinding Gear Games, I learned, is a bit of an oddity in that it's a studio that isn't built around mobile development.
Path of Exile: Ascendancy adds two new sections to the game, the Trials of Ascendancy and then the more comprehensive Lord's Labyrinth. In-game legends say that centuries ago, the Emperor Izaro built a labyrinth to decide his successor, and any who reached the heart of it would take his place; but he was betrayed and sealed within his own maze. He waits there still, after centuries, for you (cue eerie music). Or something. That's the general gist of the expansion.
Practically, the Trials of Ascendancy provide a tutorial for the tricks and traps of the labyrinth, a series of floor traps over molten rock, and buzzsaw blades and spinning pillars with spikes that can be momentarily disabled with switches. The labyrinth itself makes liberal use of these traps, as you move from one battle with Izaro to another.
Those boss fights build dynamically. In the first of them, he's given buffs by a series of statues on the field. Touching the statues turns them off temporarily, but after defeating him the ones that are still active will move down with him to the next arena. However, in the next battle, they will be behind a partition you can't get to during the fight, so having a companion who can help manage them during the fight is a real boon.
The Grinding Gear team said the expansion would take about 45 minutes to an hour to run through. It's procedurally generated once a day and is thereby designed for multiple playthroughs. It also adds a new element to the game's expansive skill tree with three special Ascendancy-class skills you can choose from as a reward for completion, which are determined by your original starting class. How much you progress through these skill trees per run-through depends on the difficulty level at which you play (with a higher number of upgrades at higher level). It also yields a special item drop with gem-slots, which at lower level is more generic, but at higher level is more specific and randomized, so you may need to play through multiple times to get an item that benefits your new Ascendancy class skills and playstyle.
In practice, this allowed the developer to add a gem to his new gear that gave enemies a bleed effect. It also had a one-in-ten chance to make the enemy explode in a shower of blood that did splash damage to others on death. This meant, with a lower-powered repetitive attack, like a spinning maneuver, virtually every enemy exploded with splash damage.
Path of Exile: Ascendancy is shaping up to be a solid expansion for the game, that while short, has a ton of replay value with its procedurally generated layout, different Ascendancy classes, new gems, and accessories. It's set to release in early 2016.