I love action RPGs. They are big, stupid, and pointlessly fun. You spend the majority of your time bashing your fist against a mouse, whacking at your keyboard for special moves, and grinning from ear to ear. Like virtual bubble wrap, enemies come, and one-by-one with a deft left-click, they are dispatched to the digital abyss with a satisfying pop.
The latest hack-and-slash contender to bow its head and enter the arena Blizzard built is Path of Exile. Choosing from one of a number of castaway heroes, you head out into the world to conquer and vanquish. Think Conan with less loin cloth and more megalomania, and you're somewhere near the mark.
With Diablo 3 and Torchlight 2, we generally see ARPGs that looked plucked from the imagination of Barney the Dinosaur. The world is bright, vivid, and full of child friendly beasts. There's a lack of tension and art style beyond the certification of a particularly cowardly 12 year old: Path of Exile changes this.
Taking its visual cues from the original Diablo, this sword and sorcery epic revels in a more adult theme. From the shuffling zombies of the first stages, to the dark, damp caves further on, Grind Gear Games want to create an adventure with shades of horror.
The engine itself illuminates the world sharply, with gorgeous lighting and spell effects. The contrast between open areas and more linear interiors also comes into sharp focus. Maps such as an abandoned prison complex transports you back to those early dungeon crawls, while the towns help conjure a layer of hospitality in what is a grim and brutal world.
For the most part, PoE is an impressive looking game, if a little bland. The animations are solid, the character models fine, and the art direction individual with hints of homage. It can feel a little blocky at times, and the combat can feel too static with a lack of movement going on, but overall this is a fine looking piece of software.
It's hard to talk about PoE without first invoking those games before it, namely the first two in the Diablo series. This indie ARPG sits firmly within the mould of the aforementioned by virtue of its more adult orientated setting, and by the sheer volume of its talent tree.
Where modern games err towards the idea of refinement and being streamlined, PoE has been created for that hardcore few that wish for a wider scope. For those unsatisfied by Blizzard's latest hack-and-slash, this indie is definitely for you. The passive skill tree is unbelievable huge, while the amount of mix-and-match hot bar skills seem endless.
So while PoE builds on everything that Diablo did, it also differs from its genre stable mates in two very distinct ways. Firstly, the aforementioned passive skill tree is entirely open ended. This means that while you might start as a Duelist, this role only remains static in name only. Your beginner class dictates where you start on the labyrinthine spider web of skills, but doesn't bar access to any particular ability set. A witch can become a tank, whilst a two-handed barbarian can become a spell casting cleric.
Another major difference is that of hot bar abilities themselves. While Diablo 3 relatively limited players, PoE allows for 7 active skills, all of which are learnt from equipping certain gems. Unlike most ARPGs, abilities aren't intrinsic to the skills you choose, rather they are found on the floor as multicoloured stones which are socketable into weapons.
What this means is that while you have a pointy stick with the corresponding colour socket, you can use the skill that comes along with it. These new talents can also be upgraded - but the rub comes when you make moves to upgrade your weapon, and find that it doesn't have the particular coloured socket you wish. It makes abilities less passive, and definitely more of an active strategy. Do you sacrifice raw DPS for a certain talent? It makes PoE stand out just that little bit more.
As for the rest of the gameplay, Grind Gear Games' title adheres closely to the formula in most respects. You traverse various randomised maps, culling the wildlife, and collecting loot. A slight devotion here is the lack of gold drops - instead items are battered for orbs, and other such items.
While it's a nice change to differ the pursuit of coin, it also makes loot collecting seem a little more pointless. There comes a point when adventuring into some deep, dark abyss becomes more routine, and less adventurous as your haul never particularly glitters or shines in the way treasure might.
Overall, PoE is a solid, if at times reverential experience. The skill and ability changes make the formula less stale, but there's the same old ARPG malaise to be found. A good adventure in its own right, but still not perfect.
While technically in open-beta, PoE plays extraordinary well. Glitches and bugs are few and far between, and sever downtime occurs sporadically. The only issue some players may have is the need for online connection at all times - but with an emphasis on multiplayer and cooperative play, it's a necessary evil. Still, getting thrown out of a dungeon due to a faulty connection and having to replay your progress can be testing.
Possibly the ARPGs biggest point of contention, and PoE most glaring fault remains with innovation. While Grind Gear Games have added their own unique flavours to the genre, the core experience is still very much the same. Hacking and slashing is still fun, but can feel bland hours in. And while there are the aforementioned touches of personality, you can't help but be reminded of a game that set the benchmark a decade ago.
With 100 levels, randomized maps, skill trees, ability gems, loot, co-op, PvP, and trade, there is always something to do in PoE. Whether you want to log on to grind out a particular level, or instead progress the plot, it's up to you. Like any ARPG worth its salt, there is plenty here to do, and you won't breeze through it quickly.
At the time of writing, PoE is host to a friendly and sociable bunch. Global chat channels keep you entertained through solo-slogs, while the co-op play is entertaining to blast through. Towns are also populated with similar players, so while most hack-and-slash games might make you feel alone, the almost Guild Wars private versus public instances makes PoE feel like a very communal experience.
For an independent, fan-driven project, I fail to see how and why PoE is entirely free. While part of me is nudging my own ribs and whispering "shuuuut uuuup" I can't help but feel mildly apologetic towards Grinding Gear Games. I have played their outstanding ARPG for a number of hours, and have given nothing back. This is an excellent game, and it seems a shame that to find a market it has to go down the route of F2P.
So while it'll cost you nothing, spare a thought for those that toiled on this game. The value is excellent, but this one comes with pangs of guilt: there should be a box price at the very least to make me feel less of a bandit. I guess I'll have to buy solace with a vanity outfit.
Wrapping it up...
Path of Exile is an excellent addition to the ARPG roster. Easily competing with the likes of Diablo and Torchlight. This independent hack-and-slasher manages to surpass its idols, while carving out its own particular niche; and with an asking price of nothing, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn't check it out: Path of Exile is the hidden gem of the year.