Walking down the Path Of Exile – A Lengthy Monologue

I wake to the sound of waves breaking along a shore. Where am I? Have I wound up in a lovely beachside resort, soaking in the warm sun like a plant bathing in sunlight? “Get up.” Inexplicably, I find myself getting up against my will. A huge arrow in the sky impatiently draws circles above my head, coaxing me to be on my way.

Ignoring this perplexing development, I take stock of my surroundings. Washed up on a beach, bodies everywhere – either this was some beach party that didn’t know about alcohol tolerance, or I was party to some disastrous shipwreck and am now a documentary just waiting to happen.

A man propped up against a rock takes notice and begins talking to me. I pay no attention to what he says, more concerned about my embarrassingly ragged appearance and this awful, pounding headache. And the voices! Good lord there were so many voices in my head. I mentally filtered them out via ancient techniques, taught to me by my grandfather at the Mute Global Chat club he frequents every other weekend.

Just as I exert a heavy sigh of relief, the presumably sleeping/dead fellow next to the chatty man gets up and calmly proceeds to eat his companion’s face, before deciding I looked far tastier (if I do say so myself). Armed with hours of movie-watching experience, I flail my fists in his general direction until, eventually, he lay face-down in the sand. Kindly enough, he drops a shiny gem, which conveniently tells me is imbued with elemental fire and needs to be socketed.

Picking up a piece of driftwood – just the right size to make a wand, I would imagine – I shove the fire gem into it and begin casting fireballs in violent glee at passing crustaceans and other intoxicated beach-goers. Seems like I’m well on my way down the Path of Exile.

Grinding Gear Games’ free-to-play action-RPG, Path of Exile, enters its third, public stress-test weekend and I decided to jump in on the opportunity. I’m really glad they’re taking the time to conduct these in conjunction with a closed beta, and the effort shows: I only experienced one crippling latency issue in my three-to-four hour session. This being the first title for the independent developer, no less! But I’m sure having a Singapore gateway helped a lot in that regard too. Mighty pleased at our growing gaming presence.

The program runs in a windowed mode on first launch. A quick trip to the video settings screen quickly fixes the issues but I’m surprised at the lack of quality options for textures, lighting and the rest of the package. The game runs fine but not at a smooth 60fps for my AMD HD7690M-sporting laptop, with barely any huge frame-rate drops. My friends weren’t so lucky, however, so your results may vary.

A brief look through the rest of the options and boy, what do we have here? Hide global chat? Yes, please, thank you very much. Now I’m not that averse to chatting with other players. It’s just that there’s a natural tendency for all sorts of gaming-related discussion to crop up. Things like bosses and strategies, which I don’t particularly like reading or hearing about before I’ve even met them. Thus I only really participate in chat when I’m waiting around, bored or already have clocked quite some time into a game.

The character select screen is where you’re presented with your “League” choice. Basically it’s the difficulty level but it’s also where to go if you’d like to participate in events

Read more on the official page: http://www.pathofexile.com/leagues/

After spending a few miserable minutes trying to decide on a character class, I decided to settle on the Witch because I’m a Chaos-worshipping, fear-mongering heretic. Already you can see the darker tone to the story, considering how these people have all been exiled (hence the title). Even the Templar character had been abandoned by his brothers.

Yes, you do wake up on a shore. I’m gripped by a momentary flash of grief and anger, thanks largely due to my DayZ shenanigans (I know, that long overdue write-up…).

At first glance, the game looks awful. This seems to be limited to just the starting area, with that drab colour palette and all. Once the game opens up and you get to explore others environments, try new abilities – more colour, basically – then the visuals wouldn’t bug you as much. Besides, it’s the gameplay that makes or breaks an ARPG.

The trademark health and mana orbs are present, complete with different figureheads and placed at either ends of your screen, as is my personal preference. It’s a sleek and minimal UI, my only concern being the amount of ability hotkeys available – I’m sure you’d have more than seven active abilities to choose as you progress.

You’ll also notice that little micro-transaction button on the right dock. Not sure how I feel about it being a dollar sign, there. Clicking it opens up the MT stash, with a link to the online shop opened via your browser.

As of now these are all the available shop “items” you can purchase. Now the studio has mentioned that they’re doing “ethical micro-transactions”, so we won’t see any pay-to-win items for sale. To be clear, p2w items are generally things such as damage boosts, better equipment etc. Experience boosts, cosmetics and any feature that would not provide you an unfair advantage over somebody else is not considered to be “pay-to-win”.

Since the free-to-play, micro-transaction-based game system is still relatively young in the market, we’ve yet to see whether these are profitable, sustainable models for online games. Time will tell indeed, with more companies looking at it as an option.

Killing the first few mobs, I knew I’d be enjoying the combat quite a bit. That’s the strength it shares with Torchlight II, in that combat is very visceral. You can ‘feel’ the critical hits and deaths you dish out to the countless, helpless enemies. If your player is going to spend hours clicking on things, better make it a rewarding experience.

This is also where I’m introduced to the gem and ability system. You don’t learn any spells or abilities via linear paths. Your skill menu is called labelled Passives for a reason. Instead, finding skill gems and slotting them into socketed gear and weapons is how you use and customise your abilities. I say customise because the game features support gems, which alter the effect of the skill gem.

These gems level up over the course of the game too, which is far better than being forced to find higher-level skill gems, in my opinion.

Sadly, we’ve yet to come across any support gems in our adventure thus far, but the official page provides, once again. Read all about skills here.

Remember when I mentioned the Passives? I refrained from using the term “skill-tree” because clearly that’s no tree. Oh I’m sorry; let me zoom out a little for you.

Yeah, it’s far larger than that, and I love it! The first thing it reminds me of is Final Fantasy X and I had joyous fun playing around with the radial skill layout in that game. Having things done this way presents far more flexibility in offering you a play style you want, the caveat being you might jolly well come up with a terribly inefficient combination. Each level only rewards you with one skill point, however, so it feels incredibly slow and daunting once you start off.

ARPG fans will undoubtedly be familiar with the industrially-recognised Diablo II inventory format. Playing Tetris with your loot, two sets of weapons, equipment slots… it’s all there. Not to say I wouldn’t have enjoyed something new. I’ve yet to see weight considerations when it comes to armour. It’d also be nice to have pouches or bags like in World of Warcraft, for smaller items. There isn’t any weapon durability.

This would be a good time to talk about potion flasks. You’d notice I only have five slots and that I’m not carrying any extras. It’s not because I haven’t found any, but because this game features refillable flasks.

In Regular league, every time you kill an enemy refills a bit of your flask. Each has a set number of charges and using it takes up a certain amount, eight out of twenty-four, for example. It’s a nice mix between potions and health pick-ups and this is by far my favourite way of handling it. By the way, these flasks are not limited to simply “small, medium etc.” sizes. They’re loot items, so you might come across magically-imbued ones that recover more health/mana, store more charges or provide you with an assortment of buffs upon use.

If you’re still being observant, you’ll see that the Stash has quite a few pages worth of grids to it. It’s a shared stash! You have a limited number of character slots, and if you remember from the online shop earlier, you can buy more slots or more stash tabs. For the record, I’m perfectly fine with this. If you’re playing a lot, to the point that you have more characters and more loot, then it’s only fair you pay a small amount.

Path of Exile is a game heavily inspired by Diablo. It’s the grandfather of ARPGs, after all. In PoE, though, you’ll notice lots of references and homages to that franchise. The level design, especially, brings it to mind. I won’t spoil that for you.

In this game, there is no gold. Currency takes on the form of a barter system. You get scrolls, fragments and sometimes whole orbs and items depending on the items you trade. In that regard, buying items hold a similar approach, with you trading certain items for goods, the most common of which being the Scroll of Wisdom, used to identify uncommon items.

Bartering then becomes a question of needs and wants and introduces a whole new depth to the vendors, more so in the case of better gear requiring better orbs. Those very orbs can either upgrade or alter your gear, sometimes changing their set of magical properties entirely.

The social system is as you can expect, similar to most MMOs. You can set a status for your friends to view and create private or public parties. Chatting is divided into Local, Global, Party and Whisper; all standard. There doesn’t seem to be an option for party VOIP chat (I may have missed the option) so those of you wishing to do so should turn to third-party services for your yelling, singing and idle banter fix.

Path of Exile has a solid chance of standing on its own in the ARPG market, riding on the wave of Diablo 3’s publicity, good or (usually) otherwise. It’s not simply a click-loot clone, introducing genuinely interesting or good features into a very formulaic genre. Again, I have to reiterate that combat feels brutal and that radial skill-tree is just fun to ponder over.

The game is not without its flaws, of course. My biggest gripe has to do with the fact that all the areas you go to are basically an instance for you and your party, if any. These instances have a randomly-generated layout, and for some reason or other, do not stay the same after you’ve visited town. Hell, even the mini-map resets so you have to go by memory, provided the layout stays the same.

This may or may not have to do with the waypoints, which work like they do in Diablo II. At random points on the map there’ll be waypoint locations and you have to activate them before they can be used. Unlike in Diablo II, however, there is no clear visual indicator of whether a waypoint has already been activated or not. Even travelling to one seems a bit confusing, but that’s probably just me being stupid.

The town itself is small. It’s called an encampment but really, it’s just a wooden fortress that fits within one screen with three NPCs in it that are easily lost amongst the crowd of players unless you’re already familiar with their locations.

As for the story and lore, I stopped caring after an hour. It starts off interesting, from the character select screen. It introduces you being exiled to a land of nasties and then in a very anti-climactic turn, you’re stuck doing favours. They should have put more emphasis on the characters themselves. Besides, you’re not exactly making it a better place since the mobs have incredibly high birth rates and respawn each time you revisit an area. Couple that with missing mini-maps and you can see a point where you just don’t bother fighting the mobs and just run around looking for the next area to go to.

I haven’t played enough to talk more about how the game progresses beyond Act 1 but this is getting exhaustingly long anyway. Best bet would be for you to try the game for yourself.

Path of Exile is in closed beta, but there’s still over a day left for you to get your hands in on the public stress test. Just create an account, download the installer and you’ll be good to go in no time. http://www.pathofexile.com/

Personally, I’ll be keeping tabs on this one. It has promising features and I’m considering being a supporter (grants you credits for the online shop, a closed beta key and any other goodies depending on your support tier). They should spend as much time as needed to polish the game, since with Torchlight II’s mysterious release date probably being very soon, they’d risk ARPG players suffering from burnout and not being interested in their title at all, which would be a great shame.


One thought on “Walking down the Path Of Exile – A Lengthy Monologue

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