Path of Exile: The Fall of Oriath is a game that owes a massive debt to the seminal loot based action RPG, Diablo. Grinding Gear Games have brought all the fun of Diablo to the Xbox One but at a fraction of the cost. The game itself is one of the growing number of Free-to-Play titles that are appearing, but is it worth a look?
First up, the story. You play the role of an Exile, sent to the Penal Realm of Wraeclast for an unspecified crime against the Emperor. Before diving into the game, you are required to select the character class that you are going to play as, and the name your character will have. There a few to choose from, as is normal in games like this, and they can be roughly split into melee and ranged classes. The melee classes are the Marauder, who uses Maces to do immense damage and is a Strength based character; the Duelist, who wields swords and axes and is a Strength/Dexterity based character; the Templar, who is based around Strength/Intelligence and uses Staves and Sceptres to bring the pain; and lastly the Shadow, who is a Dexterity/Intelligence character and uses dagger and claws to get in, do some damage, and get out again.
The ranged characters include the Ranger, who uses all manner of bows and is a Dexterity based character, and the Witch, who is purely Intelligence focused and uses a wand or a sceptre to bring magic based pain. There is another class that can be chosen, the Scion, but this requires progress through the game to unlock. Then, after you’ve chosen who you’re going to be, comes the joy of trying to come up with a name. These can’t contain spaces, so a forename and surname is right out, and it has to be unique. Let’s just think about that for a moment. In a game with potentially millions of characters created and all stored online, you have to come up with a name that no one else has thought of. This is a weird design choice. How hard would it have been to have a behind the scenes character identifier for server interactions, and then your visible name could be whatever you want? Well, that’s not possible, and so I sallied forth as LeGash, the Ranger, on the basis that if all the fighting is happening at a distance from my squishy body, then the chances of me at least making it through the tutorial would be increased!
Waking on an abandoned shore, Path of Exile eases you into the mechanics by getting you to move, fight and speak to an NPC, which ultimately leads us to the village of Lioneyes Watch, which is the hub for the first Act of the game. In the town are various NPCs who can give you missions, reward you for their completion, and act as merchants. Obviously, as you go through the game, the goods the merchants have increase in quality and price, and it’s here that a weird deviation from the Diablo blueprint occurs. Instead of collecting and using gold to pay for things, or receiving gold when you sell things, the currency is based around scrolls, orbs and fragments of the above. So if you sell some armour that you’ve found, then the merchant may give you three fragments of a Scroll of Wisdom, which are used to identify the items that you find in the field. Five of these fragments makes a full Scroll, so its worth collecting the pieces. Other fragments can be collected to make Orbs of various flavours, such a Transmutation, Chromaturgy and so on, which can be used to alter the properties of the many bits of loot that you pick up as the adventure progresses. There are even items that can convert a regular, run of the mill, item into a rare or higher quality item, which is a good way of beefing your character up for minimal cost.
So, after chatting to the locals and getting some clues as to where we need to be going, it’s off out into the world. So far, so Diablo, particularly with the combat and exploring, as you walk around the world and the mini map gets filled in to show you the shape of the world. Objectives and exits to other levels are shown as red areas on the mini-map, the waypoints that act as checkpoints are shown in blue, with the points of interest and NPCs shown as little yellow crosses. Helpfully, with a quick press of down on the D-pad, a large map is overlaid on the screen, allowing you to see where the points of interest are, and also where you haven’t explored on the map, which might be the bit of the world you are looking for!
As you explore, meet strange new creatures and kill them, the loot they drop can be used to help your character prepare to meet the challenges ahead. The loot drops in different colours, which relates to the rarity of the items. The base is just white, with higher levels being blue, then yellowy/gold, with the unique armour pieces being orange. Unique armour cannot be changed in any way, not even the colour of the sockets on the item, so while they are undeniably powerful, they may not suit every character build, if they only have blue sockets on, for instance. Lower levels of rarity can be changed, so are generally a lot more flexible, if not so powerful. It is with this system that you first begin to catch a glimpse of the complexity of the loot system in Path of Exile. Not only are there perks and stat boosts to consider, but the gems that can be socketed, and whether they will bring an advantage over the old gems and gear. For instance, is gear with a bonus to maximum health better than one with slow life regeneration? The same quandary exists with Mana, the game’s magic resource. Do you want an increased rate at which the mana pool refills, or a bigger pool to begin with? Even the health and Mana potions that you carry can be upgraded and changed as the game progresses, and the best flasks that I have found have been the hybrid ones, that fill life and Mana at the same time. And believe me, it’s rare to need to fill Mana without needing the health topping up, particularly in the later stages of the game. Yes, Act 4 boss, I’m looking at you!
As you adventure, you’ll come across gems of various colours, and again, this serves to add another layer of complexity and flexibility to the game. When you inspect the gear you pick up, you’ll see that there are various sockets on each item, in either green, blue or red. It should come as no surprise that the colour of the socket corresponds to the gem that can be seated in it. However, as you look, you’ll also see that some of the sockets are linked together, allowing a gem to influence another. These influencing gems are called support gems, and can buff the regular green gems, which usually contain attacks. For instance, in LeGash’s bow, she currently has a gem that allows her to fire a lightning charged arrow that penetrates more than one enemy. In a linked socket, I have a support gem which allows for more enemies to shot with the same attack, so the amount of overpenetration is increased and now the arrow flies through rows of enemies like a hot knife through butter. Add to this a piece of armour that gives me two health back every time an enemy is hit by my attack, and yet another gem that allows me to summon an autonomous turret that fires powerful arrows, and LeGash is pretty much a killing machine.
The gems also gain experience and levels as you do, as long as they are socketed, so pretty soon the effects of the gems are multiplied and your character turns into a whirling dervish of death and destruction. There are so many different gems that it’s impossible to do more here than just scratch the surface, but with the right combination of gems into the right combination of gear, the DPS that you can achieve is nothing short of extraordinary. For help with builds, the Path of Exile website is a goldmine of information, with people sharing their best builds for end game activities especially, and so I recommend that as you progress, you have a look and see what other people are doing.
So, how does the game play, I hear you say? Well, I’m glad you asked, and the answer is, by and large, very well. The enemies swarm you, you kill them, rank up and carry on, bringing the pain or the noise, whichever you prefer. The controls are very good, giving tight control over your chosen character and allowing you to manoeuvre and shoot/slash whichever enemy takes your fancy. If you’ve ever played Diablo, you’ll know what to expect here, and the correlations between this game and Blizzard’s finest are many and striking, even down to the colours of the enemies and the fact that as the enemies increase in rank, from white to blue to named, golden enemies, they have increased stats and abilities, making then harder to take down. Of course, better enemies means better loot, which then makes you stronger, and as long as RNGeesus is on your side, then the cycle of kill, level up, new gear, kill some more is a joy to play.
However, not everything in the garden is rosy here, and not just because we are stuck on a penal colony on an island where the world seems to ending. The auto aim is dim witted at best, making your shots miss the enemies more times than they hit unless you are on point, adjusting your aim minutely. Now, the annoying thing about this is that your character will target an enemy, which is indicated by the bad guy in question being outlined in red, but will then continue to fire in the opposite direction while they wander up and skewer your kidney with a sword. This is annoying at best, and frustrating at worst – especially when you are surrounded and the Ranger keeps firing her bow into the wall, rather than into the mass of evil that is pressing forward. Quite a few times I’ve had to stop shooting in order to shift aim, which is a recipe for disaster when there are as many things on the screen lusting for blood as there are in the later levels.
Compared to Diablo’s Demon Hunter (my favourite class), the Ranger at least seems to have a deathwish that it is very hard to talk her out of. This is not just a problem that affects the ranged classes, as the melee characters also do the same, it’s just more noticeable when you are shooting at an enemy and the arrows keep whistling past their ear and doing no damage. As you progress, you can find items that increase the accuracy of your character, but even so, you’ll still find yourself firing at 180 degrees to where the threat is coming from. And the fact that there is no dodge move makes this game a lot harder than it needs to be. It is very easy to get surrounded, and if you do, it’s generally a death sentence, as it is very hard to kill enemies fast enough to make a path to escape down.
There are no checkpoints in the sprawling levels either, and if you die, having to start all the way back at the entrance to the level you are on gets very old, very quickly. Fortunately, the enemies you have killed remain dead, and it’s not too much of a bind to navigate by their heaped corpses, but the size of the levels does make it a bit of a chore. Would a checkpoint halfway through the level have completely invalidated the hardcore game experience that Grinding Gear Games seem to be going for? This does play into your hands in a way, however, in the boss fights. If they kill you, and they will, again and again, the boss’ health stays the same when you respawn and so they become almost battles of attrition, where you spawn, do some damage, die, spawn, do a bit more damage and so on and so forth. Eventually the boss will die, and it does feel cheap to win in this manner, but at least progress is never locked off behind an unkillable enemy. Of course, with some time spent optimising the build you are using the enemies can be mowed down…
Another issue is with the basic UI of the game. It’s like they looked at Diablo, and then threw out all the parts that made it easy to use, and gave us what was left. Why, in the name of all that’s holy, can I not scrap or discard items from my stash? Why, if I want to use an orb to enhance a piece of armour, do I have to unequip it first? This of course depends on your inventory having enough room to allow you to unequip the item. Why is there no multi select in the stash screen, so I instead have to move everything individually to my character? There is nothing more frustrating in this game than to find a good piece of kit for another of your characters, and as you take it back to the stash, you discover that it’s full. You then have to take something out of the stash to put the new item in, but your inventory is also full. You can’t drop things in the hubs of the levels for some reason, so if you need to make a bit of room in your inventory you have to choose between selling it, or destroying it. And obviously, if you go down either of those routes, the items aren’t there any more and so you’ve robbed a character to pay another. Not being able to sell or scrap from the stash is a major missed opportunity I feel.
Another annoyance is that the game will require you to pick items every now and again to allow the plot to progress. These items need to be in your inventory, which is generally too full to allow you pick it up. So now I have to sacrifice gear in order to pick up a required item for progression in the game? This seems crazy to me. Surely there could be a key items pocket or some such that would allow mission critical gear to be stored separately from the run of the mill inventory? If I’m being picky as well, the loot system could do with an overhaul, as it seems far too stingy at the moment. The reward for killing a unique boss is usually a blue item if you are lucky, and makes the time spent in taking down what are essentially optional mini bosses seem wasted as the rewards are, more often than not, not worth the effort.
When we move on the multiplayer aspect of the game, there’s good and bad news here as well. I have a regular bunch of guys that I play games with, as I’m sure you all do, and between us we’ve been playing Path of Exile in four player multiplayer. Now, this works well, by and large, and the enemies and loot scale to allow us to farm better stuff and co-operate in killing things. But the matter of loot is an issue in this game, as unlike Diablo, that which drops is common and needs to be shared out. This has caused more arguments than any other aspect of the game. If you have two witches on your team, and a good wand drops, who gets it? Is it the first one to notice, or should it be the witch who is the lower level and will be helped more by the wand? It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but Diablo’s loot system is pretty much perfect in this regard, with everyone only seeing their own loot and thus fallouts avoided.
Another issue with the loot and general control system is that “shoot” and “pick up stuff” are mapped to the same button, so if you are surrounded by loot and need to fight, it’s way too easy to pick stuff up without meaning too, which again leads to accusations of loot-ninjaery (it’s a thing, trust me) and embarrassment as you have to drop the item you didn’t even want.
And as for the trade system? That’s a complete waste of time. The guys that I play with have played more games than you can shake a stick at, largely in a party with myself, and so we aren’t new to sharing loot. However, none of us could get the trade mechanic to work. On the surface, it seems like a great idea, allowing you to swap loot with a friend or even a random player in the hubs of the Acts. Time and time again we tried, as my Ranger tried to give my lower levelled friend some gear to help him out. We selected our items, hit accept trade, and were thrown out to the Hub, with the items we wanted to trade still in our respective inventories. As I discussed earlier, you can’t just discard stuff when in a Hub and so we had to go out to one of the levels with enemies in, so I could drop the gear and he could pick it up. This is how it’s done in Diablo and it works well, but the trade system in Path of Exile is a waste of time at the moment.
Server issues are also a thing, which are annoying in an always-online game. In the first couple of days after launch, I was regularly getting disconnected from the server, which resulted in being thrown back to the Main Menu, having to load in again, and all progress in a level being lost. Many and varied were the profanities uttered when this happened close to the exit. Another amusing server problem is that the game will seem to freeze, and so you wiggle the stick, press the buttons to see if you can elicit some response. Assuming you aren’t logged out, the game will then perform all the actions you asked it to in fast forward, Benny Hill kind of speed. It looks amusing, but usually ends with you running head first into the biggest pile of enemies on the screen and dying. The last kind of server-side weirdness I’ve seen is when the enemy that you are fighting will freeze, become invulnerable, and then either disappear altogether or reappear behind you and batter you into submission. Cheap deaths are never fun.
All in all then and Path of Exile is an enjoyable game, held back by some peculiar design choices, both in game and in the UI. When it’s working smoothly, four player multiplayer is a real laugh, and if you have a number of like minded friends makes a very strong case for this game being downloaded. Playing the single player campaign is also fun, with a strong sense of story and NPCs that can be spoken to in order to flesh out the back story, making you feel like a part of a bigger picture. However, with the problems regarding the UI and the servers, this game can also be very frustrating to play. For the asking price, it’s a bit of a no brainer if you like Diablo-style games, but be aware that this product is nowhere near as polished as Diablo. With a bit of tweaking and overall smoothing of the rough edges, Path of Exile could however be a contender.