Path of Exile – My Beta Impressions

Path of Exile is a free-to-play action RPG by Grinding Gear Games that is still in the developmental stages, and I recently took the opportunity to participate in an open Beta weekend. I’ve seen it described as a Diablo 3 clone, and there are a number of similarities between them, but I don’t think I can call it a clone. It is a co-op dungeon crawler, and while the loot system is familiar so far as the color coding of item quality goes, it also differentiates itself by having your gear help determine your available abilities. The art style is also a big departure from Diablo 3, trading the colorful polish and crispness of D3 for a more gritty and primal aesthetic. The currency system is also different as there isn’t any gold, silver or other coins to speak of. Instead you operate on a basic barter system with the vendors and trade in your loot for a large assortment of other items (or fragments of items) that help you identify magical items or give them new abilities or even turn non-magical items into magical ones.

The largest and perhaps most daunting difference between Diablo 3 and Path of Exile is the class and skill system. In PoE, your starting class is just your jumping off point. It will determine your look and your initial play style, but there is nothing stopping you from playing a big, burly Marauder who specializes in bows or spells provided your willing to spend the time and points in the massive skill tree to get there.

And the skill tree is MASSIVE.

Sweet Baby Jesus!
Image courtesy of RPG Codex

Your initial class choice just determines your starting point on the grid. Each bubble is a skill point, and many of them are simple things like +10 to an attribute that build in a line towards special unlockable special abilities. Others may be things like increased gold find or magic find. Still others may change how attributes affect your character. For example, my friend and I both picked Marauders to play. He went the traditional route, bashing in heads with melee weapons. I decided to make a build around using a bow (since my first big magical drop was a bow) just to see if I could pull it off. While he was much more effective in the early levels than I was, I eventually put out a lot more damage once I unlocked an ability that allowed me to use my Strength towards my bow damage. I have no doubt that by the mid levels of the game, I would be just as effective with a bow as the Ranger is. Early on, however, it was an uphill battle.

Part of the reason that it was tough going is that quest rewards often seem to take the form of new abilities that are contained in color coded gems and lean heavily towards your starting class. The color coding corresponds to the underlying attribute that powers it. For example, if I chose the Cleave ability as my reward, I would get a red gem (for Strength) containing the ability. Only after placing it into one of my armor slots that had an open red socket would I unlock the ability and be able to assign it to one of my available keybinds.  As the Cleave ability allows you to strike multiple opponents with your melee weapon, it wasn’t much use to me. None of the rewards for the initial 3 or 4 quests we completed were actually. I realize that this was my own fault since I was trying to see just how flexible the game was with this sort of thing early on, but it is still worth mentioning. While you can certainly build that bow-wielding Marauder or that axe-wielding Ranger, you’re probably better off using the default weapons of your class and slowly building your skills towards your desired spec.

Another innovation that PoE offers is a departure from traditional health and mana potions. Instead of being “one and done” consumables, your health and mana flasks actually contain a set number of charges that replenish as you kill enemies. A single flask may heal you four or five times before it is empty. Doubling and tripling up on flasks was something I took advantage of, and since there seemed to be no cooldown between uses, I was able to chug them to live through desperate situations. Another surprising feature is that many of these flasks will drop off of enemies and are imbued with random magical properties similar to other item drops. It was a nice touch and added another unexpected level of depth to the gameplay.

The combat felt responsive and visceral, and I enjoyed the art style and the overall feel of the game. One particular touch I liked was that exploring caves or dungeons was actually dark, greatly limiting your field of vision. It really helped sell the mood. There didn’t seem to be a severe amount of lag, despite being an open beta event.

Unfortunately, not everything was as enjoyable. The item-based currency system, while original and keeping with the idea that gold would be of no use on a prison island, proved to be very cumbersome in practice. It seemed that the only way to identify a magical item and unlock its abilities was to obtain a Scroll of Wisdom. These scrolls had a small chance to drop off enemies, but nowhere near as frequently as needed in order to keep up with the number of items that needed to be identified. The only other way to get one was to vendor non-magical “white” drops and get scroll fragments in return. After you had five fragments, you could complete a Scroll of Wisdom and then use it to identify your magical item. With the greatly limited bag space your character has, this quickly turned into a frustrating exercise for my friend and I. After going on a murder spree and playing the actual game, we’d have to stop and play a mini-game of our own making in order to sell off our loot. One of us would open a portal to town and begin piling up loot outside of it, while the other started making multiple trips to the vendor. Once we had sold off all of our non-magical loot and consolidated our Scrolls, we’d prioritize which magical items we wanted to identify by guessing which ones we were most likely to benefit from. If we were lucky, we could identify everything. If not, we’d carry the remaining unidentified items along with us to be identified later, or sell them off as is along with the other misfit toys that neither of us wanted. The whole experience felt very cumbersome, and it regularly forced us to waste time that otherwise could have been spent riddling people with arrows and clubbing them like seals.

I can see where there is a lot to like about Path of Exile, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

As for my friend and I, we both agreed at the end of the weekend that it was just missing… something, and that we couldn’t see playing this instead of Diablo 3. Maybe if it had released in 2011 as originally planned, it would have had time to grow on me and get its hooks in. As it stands, I’m doubtful that I’ll pick it up. There are only so many gaming hours in the day, and there is a lot of competition out there for my time.

RPG Codex has an additional in-depth impression of the open beta weekend, complete with several screenshots, if you’re interested in learning more about the game.

You can also find a wealth of information on the official Path of Exile website.