The point & click action RPG genre has been feast or famine these past few years. We got back into the mouse abusing mood thanks to titles like Titan Quest and Torchlight, and then Blizzard announced that Diablo 3 was coming but we knew the wait would be long and lonely. While we had some fantasy action RPGs to whet our appetite such as Dungeon Siege 3, nothing quite scratched that top-down isometric itch. Last year we saw the return of the big daddy Diablo himself, alongside Torchlight 2 later in the year. While both of these titles are still being widely played, the excitement surrounding them has died down considerably leaving many players questioning if they lived up to the hype.

Meanwhile, for the past six years, a small team in New Zealand have been silently working on what may be the first true spiritual successor to Diablo 2. With the Diablo community having some of the most passionate gamers you can find, appeasing this crowd is no small feat and is something most of the aforementioned games have striven to do – including Runic Games, who employs developers from the original Diablo games, and Blizzard themselves.

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Grinding Gear Games announced Path of Exile in 2010 and have been quietly raising awareness ever since. In April of 2012 they started their funding campaign by offering supporter packages and have since raised over a million dollars in support and anticipation of their game. With some players opting in for the “Diamond supporter” level at $1,000 even though it will be a free to play game, this stands as an example of the community’s dedication to this genre.

With a dreary atmosphere that plunges players into total darkness at times, Path of Exile has the classic look and feel that players have been asking for. There was a lot of controversy surrounding Diablo 3’s playful visuals, leading players to make claims such as Blizzard being unable to make anything other than stylized games now.  Runic’s plan with Torchlight was for it to be cartoonish from the start, so fans of the gloomy art style would find no comfort there. Grinding Gear however has embraced the darkness and created a setting that is very reminiscent of the 2D Diablo games.

In addition to the atmosphere, Path of Exile has a lot of other features that have been strangely missing from the modern installations of this genre. Ladders were one thing that kept Diablo players coming back year after year, and people will still load Diablo 2 up when the occasional ladder reset hits. This ladder system is in full force here with both regular and hardcore leagues (if you die in hardcore, your character is moved to the regular league). There are also special events to participate in, such as races where players start from scratch and have a certain amount of time to advance as far as they can. There’s also some new leagues being tested – one that interests me in particular is called “cut-throat” where players can invade others’ games, kill them, and claim their items as your own. It’s a set of simple rule tweaks, but it transforms the experience entirely from the default league. In addition to this, there’s also arena style player vs. player combat for more structured competition. PVP is another core feature missing from recent games, so it’s great to see it in for Path of Exile‘s launch.

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Path of Exile features visuals reminiscent of the pioneers of the genre

Although it’s bringing back atmosphere, ladders and PVP combat from the past, this is not to say that Path of Exile is a carbon copy of it’s predecessors – far from it. The developers have posed some very interesting solutions to problems that have plagued online RPGs since their inception.

The most startling change is that all classes have access to every skill, spell and piece of equipment in the game. The skill tree is shared, and your class selection only determines where you start on the tree – a subtle but important distinction. At first, I thought this was shallow and caused all of the classes to feel the same, but the more I learned about the system the more depth I discovered. Between a massive skill grid containing over 1,300 choices to make, and being able to use any of the games spell and support gems, the amount of builds you can create seems endless. This grid contains some major character altering choices as well, such as “you never miss, but you can never critical hit”. Or “your armor is reduced to zero, but you dodge much more often”.

Skill gems are equally important to discuss: again, instead of your class determining what skills you get, you can use any skill or spell in the game by slotting these gems in slots found in your armor and weapons. This starts from the very first monster you kill in the game and only gets more customizable as you advance. One example of the complexity lies in “support gems”. You slot these next to your skill gems, altering how they work drastically. Bored with slinging a single fireball at a time? Slot “Multiple Projectiles” next to it and now you’re throwing five fireballs at a time. Throw an “Elemental Proliferation” gem in there as well and now the fireballs cause an inferno of spreading fire. Too much work to manually cast a curse that lowers a monsters defense? Slot the support gem “Skill Totem” adjacent to the curse and now instead of casting the spell directly, your skill summons totems that cast the curse for you.

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Just a portion of Path of Exile’s 1,350 available skill tree choices

Another surprising departure is that the game does not have a standard currency. Gold doesn’t exist. Instead, there are “currency items” that provide an assortment of services. Some are familiar staples such as scrolls of identify and portal, while others perform other functions such as convert a normal item into a rare item, or reset a skill tree choice. These currency items drop from monsters and are given out from vendors for selling items. This is neat because not only does it solve the gold issue, but it means that no matter what you do when you play Path of Exile, you’re making good use of your time because these currency items never stop being relevant from level 1 to level 100.

As stated, Path of Exile will be free-to-play. This has become a taboo term recently as more and more free-to-play games turn out to actually be “pay-to-win” due to having powerful game-altering buffs available for purchase. However, Grinding Gear has stated that they will have “ethical” micro-transactions that consist of only cosmetic items and convenience. For example, they currently sell extra character slots and extra bank storage, both common micro-transactions, but the game already provides ample character and bank slots in-game. I was impressed with how much they offered without buying into anything, as holding player convenience ransom is another common “gotcha” on the unethical side of free-to-play.

Path of Exile is currently in closed beta, but is scheduled to transition to open beta on January 23rd. This date will also be the last time they ever wipe the servers (erasing player character and item data), marking the open beta as more or less the game’s unofficial launch. This title has really come a long way since the last I played it earlier last year. It’s made all the more impressive that an independent studio is behind this and that it’s their first game. I can’t wait for open beta, and am looking forward to spending a lot of time with this title and following Grinding Gear Games in their future endeavours.