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link this post written on 14/03/2018
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All your active skills in Path of Exile are tied to gems and become usable when the gems are slotted into items. Gems also level up individually when slotted, and on items with multiple linked gem slots the associated skills can be further customized. Your Heavy Strike with a two-handed weapon can, with the proper support gem configuration, be modified to do boosted fire damage and require less mana for each strike. Gems can be swapped in and out of items at any time, so you’re free to adjust your active skill loadout whenever you want. There are still statistical restrictions on every gem that shift as they’re leveled, so you’re not free to use everything, but it’s a flexible system that lets you adjust you modify your play style without having to start a new character

Then there’s a whole secondary development system called the passive skill tree where your decisions stick and can mess up your character if you’re not careful. The tree is a colossal network of interlinked nodes similar to Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. You’ll earn points while questing and leveling and can use each to activate a node to boost your character’s health, primary statistics, elemental resistances, armor and effectiveness with various weapon types along with numerous other parameters. Each of the six classes start in different locations on the tree but aren’t prevented from activating nodes in other classes’ sections. I’m a Templar, for instance, and am currently activating nodes in the Marauder’s starting area because I wanted more health and resistances. Though respec points are occasionally made available to undo a few node choices, you’ll never have enough to fully undo everything, so you really need to look over the tree and decide how you want to build out your character early on. The degree of control available for character development is certainly welcome, but the amount of pre-planning required to figure out a level-capped build across the entire massive skill tree is daunting. You could bypass this step and simply allocate points as you go without an overall plan, which may work out, but may also create an irreparably ineffective character.

The combat itself tends to be fast and satisfying with some great spell effects and nice touches like landed arrows sticking out of corpses. It doesn’t convey the same kind of raw destructive joy evoked by the way Diablo III’s enemies blast backward after a Barbarian’s thundering slam, but Path of Exile still provides plenty of opportunities to charge into the midst of thrashing mobs of kill-crazy enemies and unleash the full power of hours and hours of careful item and statistical tweaking to violently proclaim your mastery of the game’s systems.

In terms of enemy variety, the opening Act is a derivative mix of slithering sea creatures and shambling undead but things improve with Act II’s frenzied monkeys and rolling rock monsters and get far more interesting with Act III’s walking statues and grisly abominations lurking in the deep shadows of some of the later dungeons. Across all Acts you’ll find familiar action-RPG enemy behavior patterns as some resurrect the fallen and others poison and others explode and in general Grinding Gear does a good job of ensuring you can’t simply auto-pilot your way across a map at difficulties higher than Normal.

Path of exile items is especially punishing on Cruel and Merciless difficulties because your elemental resistances drop and death results in experience loss. If you’re not quite powerful enough to fight solo in a particular area, mistakes in combat can wipe out significant chunks of the xp bar, which can be particularly frustrating if lag spikes interfere with play. While this system can make progress irritating, it also adds a welcome tension to the experience that makes your combat decision-making more important and forces you to truly pay attention when in the field and when making character development decisions. Despite the occasional flash of anger upon death, the added risk at higher difficulties boosts the sense of reward after successfully tackling challenges.

In my experience so far, any time I’ve run up against a wall in solo play I’ve joined with a group to repeatedly grind through zones and gain xp. This seems to be a far faster way to level, especially because the rate of leveling slows way, way down around level 50. The multiplayer experience unfortunately isn’t ideal. You can create a party and invite friends, but if you want to play with others you can only browse a clumsily presented server list and hope the group hasn’t already cleared whatever objective you’re chasing. In a full group there are often so many effects flying around onscreen that it’s extremely difficult to tell what’s going on, and the loot system can be easily exploited by greedy players. Unlike Diablo III and Torchlight II where dropped loot is unique to your screen, in Path of Exile everyone sees the same loot in multiplayer. Rarer items are momentarily lootable by specific players only for a limited time, but the timer often expires before you’re able to disengage and pick it up, which means by the time everyone has time to scrounge for loot everything is available to everyone. A well-mannered group shouldn’t have problems, but the looting system leaves too much room for bad behavior to thrive.

In its current open beta state, Path of Exile feels like a very nearly complete game. The end of Act III cuts off abruptly, the PvP systems are underdeveloped, but much of the rest of the game feels whole. It’s also free. At no point while playing through to Merciless Act I did I ever feel like I needed to spend real money. Grinding Gear offers extra inventory space and cosmetic effects like glowing armor and weapons and vanity pets, but never limits the gameplay in order to let you know that spending actual dollars can alleviate some major inconvenience. It’s one of the most consumer-friendly free-to-play systems I’ve seen, and hopefully it’s enough to keep Grinding Gear Games in business.

So, if you haven’t already, path of exile orbs. It’s one of the best loot-driven action-RPGs available.

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