It's hard to say the phrase "action RPG" without immediately thinking of Diablo. Look, you're doing it right now; as soon as you gather your brain box around the fateful "P" you are lost somewhere between a cathedral and hell murdering thousands of minions all in the name of mid-90's entertainment: and I can't blame you, because I'm with you using the Battle.net of the mind.
And that is because Blizzard's landmark creation was so good that it bears a special place in the collective conscious of all gamers. In later years, many have tried to recreate that same special experience that is a unique blend of stat-building and dungeon crawl to mostly mixed results. Even the original game's second sequel launched to diverse response.
So it comes with a small snort of indifference when another developer announces that they are releasing their own take on the genre. We think back the long list of likewise games: Revenant, Sacred, Titan Quest, and Torchlight- some good, some bad, and some indifferent - but largely most can be cast into that category ignominiously labeled "clone".
Which is where Path of Exile takes center stage like a confident contestant on a talent show. Its developers, Grinding Gear Games, describe themselves as "hardcore gamers" and their influences are very apparent, but it's the changes, the additions, and the punts that make their product very different to everything else on the ARPG circuit.
Path of Exile looks, feels, and tastes like an obvious labor of love. The visuals cry for a time of more sinister art style, foregoing that cartoony preoccupation of most developers - and the skill system looks almost demented in its possibilities. To put it bluntly, if you thought Diablo 3 too simple, and Torchlight 2 too reverential, this ARPG hailing from New Zealand is tailored just for you.
Six playable classes make up the core of the experience, with the Duelist, Witch, Ranger, Templar, Marauder, and Shadow. Each have their own distinct flavor, but all share a common passive skill tree, meaning that the Shadow might delve into skills that favor spell-casting abilities, and so on. The choices are so endless and varied, that dominating the web of abilities will consume just about any ARPG fanatic for months, even years.
It is obvious from the outset that this is a game made by fans, for fans. Every decision that gathered criticism in previous ARPGs is thought about, corrected, and added to. The class system is just one facet, expanded beyond the perimeters of Diablo 2 and given just a little bit more "oomph" to push it over the edge. This is old school design: bigger, better, and more.
The gameplay of Path of Exile follows much in that theme, in that its scope is massive. The centerpiece of hacking and slashing remains, with left and right-clicks dictating the action, but the customization here is all. Skills gained aren't omnipresent hot bar abilities, but instead physical gems. Those items can be socketed within a weapon, affecting its abilities, and with further support gems, modified with devastating effects. The fireball skill for instance can be augmented with support slots to chain between enemies, or split into multiple projectiles. Add into all of this extensive item-drops, randomized maps, and a carefully crafted lore found in its world of Wraeclast, and you have an ARPG worthy of attention.
While not strictly an MMORPG, Path of Exile will feature co-operative multiplayer, as well as numerous leagues, each with their own particular rule-sets. A barter-system will also form the in-game economy, with players trading items, and gold substituted for a currency of orbs that will reroll the stats of an item that they are applied to.
While boasting a large, time-consuming adventure with a level cap of 100, Grinding Gear Games have poured attention into the competitive PvP element of Path of Exile, with a number of leagues and ladders to scale.
The most intriguing of the tournaments is the Cut-Throat league. Within this mode, each area within the world is opened publically, allowing players to enter into your instance, battling with you, either slaying or failing to your sword - the spoils going to the victor.
Undoubtedly Path of Exile is tailored to those hardcore players of Diablo, who demand a dark fantasy setting complete with item hoarding, addictive gameplay, and hot lashings of PvP. Grinding Gear Games have delivered here in spades.
I'd always assumed that New Zealand was populated by only two things: sheep and the creatures of Middle Earth. In my mind it was a topsy-turvy world where humans couldn't wander without bumping into white wizards, orcs, and treants - and of course, all would be dining on delicious lamb cutlets. Now I know they also make kick-ass ARPGs.
Currently in open-beta, Path of Exile is free-to-play, and players can now sign-up to experience the action. While development is still very much ongoing, the developers are periodically announcing new stages of the game, with crowdsourcing generating a large majority of the production budget.
Now if you would please excuse me, I have skeletons to crush.