I've never been a huge fan of dungeon-crawlers. I've enjoyed them in the past, but overall I don't get much of a thrill out of tweaking my character with weapons and armor just so I can do it all again when I hit the next dungeon. Sure, some of the games from this genre are a blast to play for a bit, but not for a long time. Even with the linear storylines and sometimes fantastic special effects, they just feel more like work for me. I don't like to feel as if I am working when I play an MMO.
Path of Exile comes from the olden days of hardcore gameplay. It's been in development for seven years (some of the designs, like the minimap, show its age), but it launched just last month. I was very eager to at least try it out since I haven't really given a game like it a go for a while. Next thing I know, I am eagerly clicking away at monster after monster, collecting more loot than I knew what to do with.
I started out by picking from one of several different classes represented by gender-locked "exiles." There is an interesting range of what seems like different takes on classic classes, but essentially you have magic users, ranger types, and muscle-bound barbarians. I picked the Witch because she seemed the most different from the rest and because I rarely play with magic users. Also, she floated in the character selection screen. That's just cool.
There is something else to consider when making a new character. You'll need to pick out which "league" the hero is a member of. Standard league is the bottom of the ladder and provides a pretty typical dungeon-crawly experience. Hardcore is the next step up, and many players like to start out with this rung because upon death the character and all of his goods are destroyed -- essentially, permadeath. The character is resurrected as a standard league character, though, so your time wasn't entirely wasted. Starting out as hardcore means that you've always got a safety net, but if that net isn't needed, you nab the bragging rights of having survived hardcore. It's interesting but a bit confusing and deserves more explanation at the beginning of the game. There are two other leagues, Domination and Nemesis, which allow players to play an even more specialized experience with more specific, tougher goals.
Because I started my character before I investigated the different leagues, I went with standard because, well, it was called standard. I didn't realize that any other character I made later would have to be from the same league in order to share bank slots. My hardcore character did not have access to all of the goodies that my standard character had amassed. It's a small issue, especially since loot flows like water in the game, but just be careful when you make your first character.
Excepting purchased shared bank storage, there isn't much else that has any real in-game use in the item shop. I was pleasantly surprised at just how tame the item shop is; in fact, I wonder how the developers expect to earn any money from a playerbase happy to play for zero down, zero a month. I've known from interviewing other developers that certain age groups need to almost be forced to purchase something from the game or they simply won't. I didn't conduct a scientific review, but I witnessed maybe one or two players in-game who had spent money on cosmetic items, which make up the bulk of the item shop. I didn't see a single pet, either, another common item shop item. It's possible that the players are spending money on shared bank space or extra character slots, but I just cannot see how this game can make money without asking players to spend.
I was given 500 points to spend in the item shop but found that after I bought a shared bank slot or two and a weapon enhancement that gave it a soft, icy glow, I had no real need to buy anything else. I could also plunk down $1000 and buy a custom weapon from the team. During beta, around 40 of those were sold, according to Chris Wilson, Managing Director from Grinding Gear Games, with whom I chatted during a recent livestream. He explained that the team works closely with the person buying the item to make sure all parties are happy and that the item fits within the style and feel of the game.
Wilson was pretty adamant about not wanting to sell power, to the point that the team decided that extra inventory slots were considered to be in-game "advantages." That statement sort of boggled my mind, being that the in-game inventory comes from that old school, slightly annoying type that forces constant trips back to town. Still, I found myself enjoying the physicality of the loot and how it all fit within my inventory. Sure, I dropped or left tons of gear and goodies, but the game made me decide what was valuable and what wasn't. I like that.
Potions do not take up any inventory space because they are placed in a belt slot and refill over time. While I would rather tweak monsters, make them harder and less common, and do away with the need for potions anyway, I liked not having to worry about buying health or mana potions from an NPC. Better potions that provided more health or mana dropped while playing.
Character development is the kind I like. Basically you create a character and can tweak her characteristics by equipping gems that slot into equipment. A piece of equipment might have a different number of differently colored gems slots, making equipment not only more valuable but less likely to be ditched at the next dungeon. I found gems that raised a small army of the dead and later found a gem that increased the life of those minions. I kept the same fireball gem for a long time and slotted it into a few different items. Instead of giving a set of skills to choose from I was able to outfit my character with whatever skills I wanted, as long as I had the gems and properly colored slots.
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One of my favorite titles in gaming, The Chronicles of Spellborn, used a similar system that resulted in a player like me being able to keep the same simple looking weapon for all time. Because I am switching out gems, I was able to try new things without fear of wrecking my character. The fantastic-looking skill tree is much less forgiving. As I put points into it I was warned that what I did was very difficult to undo, but I have never been a player who cares about achieving mathematical precision when it comes to abilities. I just want to look cool and have fun.
Path of Exile is a lot of fun. The community might be filled with what seem to be 12-year-old man-children, but joining a group is very, very easy, and bartering items instead of swapping gold is a lot of fun. I played solo most of the time, but I have no doubt that I would need more help on higher difficulty levels. The item shop is almost too light, potions are awesome, and there are plenty of ways to customize your character. The game looks amazing at times, but the graphics and monster do get repetitive. But that's sort of the point of the genre, isn't it?
Will I continue to play Path of Exile? As much as I can any other title. After all, it's absolutely free.
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!