Over the past few weeks, I have slowly been getting acquainted with the semi-closed beta for Path of Exile, the debut action RPG from New Zealand based developer Grinding Gear Games. I say semi-closed, because Grinding Gear has taken a rather strange approach for what is a free to play game by selling beta keys to the general public. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that I purchased a key myself in order to preview the title. The minimum spend was $10US, granting me one beta key and 100 coins to spend in Path of Exile’s online store. The store allowed the purchase of extra character slots and in-game storage space. The developers have been insistent that the shop will stock many different items in the future, but have stressed that they will only ever be cosmetic in nature and will not affect gameplay in any way. There were a range of tiered payment options offering different incentives. This was a move reminiscent of that made by the developers of similar title Grim Dawn through crowd funding website Kickstarter.
After logging in to the servers, I was presented with a fairly standard character creation screen. However, the options available were seemingly rather limited. There were four classes to choose from: the Marauder (a male warrior/barbarian), the Ranger (a female archer), the Duelist (a male melee/ranged fighter) and the Witch (a female rogue/spell caster). The sex of the characters was unchangeable and there were no further customisation options other than a name. While this seemed restrictive at first, it soon became apparent that Path of Exile’s skill system would allow me complete control over my character’s development. Resembling Final Fantasy X’s grid sphere, Path of Exile’s skill tree was daunting when I levelled up for the first time only to become overwhelming when I zoomed out to find it three times the size I initially thought. Starting from one of three directions, I could move along a path to create any build I wanted. No doubt this aspect of the game will lead to many heated discussions and optimal skill tree paths posted online. Running parallel to the expansive skill tree is the gem system. By socketing gems in weapons and armour, my character was granted new abilities and bonuses. However, the real twist was that they themselves levelled up, meaning that I didn’t have to worry about gems I liked becoming quickly obsolete.
Grinding Gear has implemented an interesting economic system. There was no gold in Path of Exile. None. The only forms of currency were items, weapons and armour, all of which were tradeable with NPC’s or other players. The beauty of this system was that many of the items were useful to players of all skill levels, meaning that lower level characters could have items desired by higher level players, who could in return offer them higher level weapons and armour. One example of this was the Scroll of Wisdom, used to identify the properties of objects. In order to obtain one of these scrolls, I had to trade five pieces of equipment to an NPC vendor. Whether I had identified the armour or weapon made no difference to the amount I received in return, meaning the only time I would cast one of these scrolls was to identify an item I would actually equip. Combined with the need for judicious use was the low rate at which these scrolls dropped, meaning that unless I wished to grind an area repeatedly, I was forced to save the scrolls for when I really needed them. This idea worked well with the overall story, which had me washing up on the shores of Wraeclast, a continent plagued by evil and inhabited by a scarce few friendly characters, all of whom were struggling to survive.
In terms of aesthetics, it was clear that although the developers were heavily influenced by Diablo II, they also paid attention to Planescape: Torment and The Witcher. The environments in Path of Exile were grimy, dank and depressing with excellent ambient sound effects helping to enhance the overall atmosphere. One criticism which could be levelled at the title was the lack of voice acting. Adding such a feature to a future build would increase the level of storytelling dramatically. Combat was consistent with other entries in the genre such as Torchlight and Diablo III although there were a few minor issues which I hope are ironed out before release. Most obvious was the slight lag between attacking an enemy and them taking damage. This often meant that I was attacking already dead enemies for precious seconds better spent on the still living foes flanking me.
Path of Exile’s approach to health and mana restoration was a godsend. No longer was I expected to carry around large stacks of red and blue potions eating up precious loot space in my inventory. Instead, inside the inventory panel were four dedicated slots for equipping health and mana flasks, which recharged over time and as I attacked my enemies. The flasks themselves were another form of loot, as I found larger versions with bonuses attached to them to replace the initial set.
Path of Exile is shaping up to be a solid entry in a genre which will see a large number of high profile releases in the coming weeks and months. Set to transition into open beta in June, its Free to Play model means there is no excuse for fans of similar titles to not at least try it out. Despite a few issues, Path of Exile even had me trying out different classes and kept me moving forward through ‘just one more area’ in my quest to destroy monstrosities and claim their sweet, sweet loot. What more can I ask from a top down action RPG?