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Path of Exile - The Re-Review

10 Years Later, Is It Still The Modern ARPG King?

Mitch Gassner Posted:
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Path of Exile, Grinding Gear Games’ free-to-play MMOARPG, was originally released in October 2013. Nearly ten years later, PoE is still one of the premier ARPGs on the market, with tens of thousands of daily players on Steam. Like so many MMOs, we reviewed Path of Exile when it first launched, giving it an 8 out of 10. But is that review still relevant? After ten years filled with extended campaign updates, new mechanics, and more, is Path of Exile still the game it was at launch, or has it transformed into something completely different? Well, it's a little bit of both.

Just In Case

Just in case you’ve been out of the loop for the last ten years, Path of Exile has made its name by being one of the premiere free-to-play MMORPGs on the market. For many, although PoE has several features of an MMO, like global chat, guilds, and a player-influenced economy, its instanced maps, five-player groups, and periodic resets make it less of an MMO and more of a co-op online experience.

Grinding Gear Games doesn’t seem to care what moniker you give Path of Exile. They have created multiple Leagues to cater to however you want to play. The Standard League is PoE’s persistent online universe. It has been around since launch and has a standard, hardcore (character converted to the standard league upon death), and solo-self-found (no grouping or trading) option. 

With each update, a temporary league is started in which all players create a new character in a world with a fresh economy. Along with the hardcore and solo-self-found variants, the latest league, Sanctum, has added a new Ruthless Mode that takes a new approach where item scarcity and other changes provide players with the ultimate challenge.

One thing that hasn’t changed over Path of Exile’s ten-year existence is Grinding Gear Game’s approach to monetization. PoE is free-to-play, so there is a cash shop to generate revenue. The cash shop contains purely cosmetic items which can’t be obtained within the game. Additional bank tabs are also available, but these have a nominal impact during the campaign and are designed to help end-game players manage the myriad of currencies and crafting materials they collect. The absence of pay-to-win features makes the PoE cash shop one of the best in the business and is a major reason PoE has been welcomed by the MMORPG community.

Review In Progress

Reviewing an MMORPG is a drawn-out process that encompasses weeks of gameplay. During that time, one or more Review In Progress updates are given by the reviewer to cover their first impressions of the basic gameplay features they encounter along the way. The process culminates with a Final Review in which the reviewer imparts their final observations and discusses the overall strengths and opportunities of the title.

As a casual PoE player, I have started a dozen or so characters over the years. Before doing this review, I had only completed the campaign twice. My first completion was when the game first launched in 2013, and the second was a few years later. For this review, I started a fresh character and set out to see what Path of Exile had to offer in the current Sanctum League.

With ten years under its belt, going through the whole review in progress for Path of Exile probably isn’t necessary. The core features that made PoE stand out from the crowd when it launched - a single skill tree for all seven classes, granting access to skills and powers by socketing gems into the character’s gear, and so on - are still there. They have been tweaked and expanded upon, but the core experience is still the same.

Path of Exile Microtransactions

If you are truly new to Path of Exile, we have a Beginners Guide that covers all the basics of character creation, the skill tree, and gearing up a new character. The guide imparts the same information that would go into a Review In Progress and, as such, will serve in that capacity for this review.

The Beginner Experience - The Tutorial That Teaches You Nothing

For most ARPGs, the early game is usually where you unlock the majority of your skills and define your play style. This portion of the game culminates with your first major boss fight, upon which you are rewarded with some iconic skill or gear that sets your character’s progression path in stone. The mid-game encompasses the bulk of the storyline, during which you refine your character build and start collecting and crafting your best gear. The end game in an ARPG is where the grind really happens. It’s where you max out all of your skills and spend dozens or hundreds of hours fighting the RNG gods in the hopes of finding the best gear for your character. As a beginning player, you’ll find these terms have different meanings in Path of Exile.

In Path of Exile, the whole story - all ten acts of it - is the early game. Veterans can clear the campaign in a day or two - most vets consider the entire campaign merely a large tutorial that should be rushed through as quickly as possible. New players will take much longer as they soak in the story for the first time.

The story itself has expanded over the years as GGG added new areas and bosses. It packs in several RPG tropes during the fairly linear story that lasts 20-30 hours on your first playthrough. You awaken on the shores of Waeclast, a penal colony established on a cursed continent. From those humble beginnings, you will be recruited to help multiple NPCs to rid Wraeclast of evil. Each time a major foe is destroyed, something more vile and evil rises to take its place until you finally win the day.

You might be thinking a long campaign is a good thing, and for someone wanting to bathe in the lore behind Wraeclast, it is. But for players accustomed to the fight everything, loot everything style of ARPGs, the story can slow to a crawl. Players can rapidly out-level the zones they are playing through and are tricked into believing they are building a strong character. Then, after one particular boss fight, you come out the other side to the savage realization that your character is being steamrolled by everything you encounter. What did you do wrong?

The truth is you didn’t do anything wrong, GGG did. The first few acts in Path of Exile do very little to actually teach you about the game mechanics. You are given the what - attack skills, movement skills, basic gear, and defense types - but not the why or how. It isn’t stressed that movement is key in combat or that stacking a single type of defensive style will leave you wide open to attacks that circumvent that defense. For example, I found out that my evasion build might only get hit by one out of twenty attacks, but my health would hit zero every time I got hit. That doesn’t sound too bad until you get swarmed by a horde of creatures and you find twenty attacks incoming before you can even react. Worse still is that you aren’t actually sure what type of attack killed you. Was it the big guy swinging a hammer at you or the lightning bolts falling from the sky? And where did the lightning bolts even come from?

Live Die and learn, right? If only it were that easy in PoE. We’ve all seen the massive spider web that is PoE’s passive skill tree. Each of the seven classes can be molded into just about any type of build, assuming you are able to plot a path through all of the options in front of you. But new players don’t have that knowledge. There is a method to the madness, but the sheer openness and flexibility granted by a shared skill tree is overwhelming, and odds are mistakes will be made.

And so we reach the obstacle that pushes new players away from Path of Exile. I’m not talking about the massive skill tree or your ability to mess up a character right from the start. Trying to figure it all out is actually quite fun. I’m talking about the limited chance - at least early in the game - you have to make things right. Most games lead you by the hand for the first couple of hours, slowly introducing the different aspects of character-building. Once that is done, many give you an easy way to reset your character so you can start building your skills in earnest.

Path of Exile

Not Path of Exile. You are able to refund passive skill points and reassign them one at a time, but there isn’t an overall reset button. And since the beginning areas are so easy, most players won’t even know that they’ve created an unviable character until they are hours deep into the campaign. Assuming they can figure out what their deficiency is and how to change it, this will only be a minor setback. At worst, there’s no hope of fixing your errors, and restarting with a new character is your only option. But for many, the whole process just reinforces the perceived complexity of character building in the early stages of the game. And with that, a decision to move on to another game is relatively easy, considering the quitter probably hasn’t paid a dime to get to this point.

You’re Doing It All Wrong

You’re doing it all wrong. There’s no need to pick up all that junk. You’re doing it all wrong. There’s no reason to clear out all the mobs from each area. You’re doing it wrong, You shouldn’t be using up your currency (aka crafting mats) on early-game gear. You’re doing it wrong. You need to follow a guide, or you’ll ruin your character.

It’s true. If you can resist your urge to clear out every inch of an area, kill every mob, and loot every item that drops, you are well on your way to an enjoyable campaign. You’re still behind the eight ball when it comes to fixing your character, though. There is a Help Menu that records information on each game mechanic you come across; it just doesn’t go deep enough to be of any real use. Fortunately, there’s a large community standing behind PoE that’s willing to help. They will tell you what you are doing wrong. More importantly, they will tell you how to fix it. Grinding Gear Games should bear more of the burden of helping new characters. While they have spent most of their energy expanding and polishing the end-game content, they have done little to improve the new player experience.

For those that can navigate the campaign and kill the final boss, that sharp focus on the end game is what makes Path of Exile so special. With each expansion, a new gameplay mechanic gets its chance to stand in the spotlight. At the same time, previous mechanics get tweaked and filtered into the core gameplay. Whether it’s a creature modification, a tweak to the passive skill tree, or a new way to farm resources and craft new items, a decade’s worth of enhancements has created a robust end-game grind.

At first glance, the Atlas of Worlds looks just like any other ARPG grind. Starting at the bottom of an empty Atlas, you begin clearing tier one maps to gain access to tier two, followed by tier three, and so on, up to tier 16. The Syndicate, Abysses, and many of the other previous league mechanics have found their way into the end game Atlas of Worlds.

Accompanying the Atlas is a second skill tree for the player to fill out. Points for this skill tree are gained by completing bonus objectives on each of the maps. Unlike your passive skill tree that modifies your character, this secondary skill tree is used to modify the Atlas maps themselves. This allows players to tweak maps to include or exclude specific league mechanics so they can focus on acquiring items or resources they need.

Other league mechanics, like the Delve and Heists, are also available alongside the Atlas of Worlds. When combined with mapping the Atlas, players have a wealth of activities to choose from. Yes, they all have the same end goal of progressing your character, but they do allow you to mix things up if one style of play gets tedious.

Final Thoughts

Every new player to Path of Exile will eventually meet one of three fates. First, and the most unfortunate, is the player that will just give up. With zero investment and more questions than they are willing to find answers to, the player will just walk away and never look back. It’s sad because if GGG would spend some time creating an actual tutorial and a more robust help section, many of these premature exits could be converted to long-term players.

Then there are the “casuals.” These players enjoy going through the campaign every now and then. They may refuse to use a guide and make the same mistakes over and over, slowly finding their way as they learn from trial and error. It can be a rough path filled with long breaks due to burnout, but something always pulls them back in, though. And one day, maybe this league, maybe two or three down the road, it will all click, and they will transcend to the realm of the end game maps.

Finally, there are the “hardcore” players. These are the players that have given up all hope of figuring out the many systems of PoE and work through each league using a guide. Or, they are the rare few, the players that have figured it all out. They are the people behind the guides the rest of us use. Regardless of how they got there, these are the thousands of players that play day after day in the hopes of finishing their build and gathering all the necessary equipment needed to succeed at the hardest content, just to do it all over again when the next league starts.

So, after ten years, is Path of Exile still worth playing? No matter which of the three groups you ultimately fall into, Path of Exile is still one of the best ARPGs around. Even though GGG hasn’t done anything to improve the new player experience, they have done an excellent job of adding new features and tweaking old ones to continually improve Path of Exile. They have found a way to add new and varied game mechanics without forcing veterans to abandon their favorite grinding methods.

The funny thing, though, is no matter how much Path of Exile changes, it always feels the same. You are always striving to push deeper into the game, always working to figure out the perfect build. And that, my friend, is the difference between a good ARPG and a great one.

8.5 Great
  • Excellent end-game content
  • New league mechanics keep things fresh
  • Strong player community
  • Must use outside resources to understand the game mechanics
  • No easy way to reset a character early in the game
  • The campaign is a throwaway component after your first completion


Mitch Gassner

Part-time game reviewer, full-time gaming geek. Introduced to Pac-Man and Asteroids at a Shakey's Pizza in the '70s and hooked on games ever since.