One of the benefits of this column is the fact that a variety of games that otherwise wouldn’t be on my radar suddenly come to the fore. With the launch of The Fall of Oriath and the impending release of the ARPG to Xbox One, I was pretty much destined to see how Path of Exile free to play works out. After being indoctrinated into the joys of ARPG gameplay through the likes of Diablo 3, I have to say that Path of Exile – both in its gameplay and its free to play model – is refreshing.
This game was released in October of 2013, though I hadn’t heard much about it up until the lead up to Fall of Oriath’s launch. That’s essentially a way for me to admit two things: that I’m not paying attention to all of the MMO titles that are out there, and that Path of Exile is a hidden gem.
The game starts off strong in terms of atmosphere pretty much immediately. You choose one of six different character classes and play someone who has been shunned by a great empire and exiled to the realm of Wraeclast, where it’s presumed you’ll be slaughtered by the myriad evils there. Everything about this game is oozing with despair and danger, from the rain-soaked starting areas to the gorgeous jungles, even to a genuinely dark and foreboding dungeon.
Not only is the world of PoE fascinating, but the gameplay is too. While at the brass tacks level it’s not terribly dissimilar to any other ARPG with mouseclick movement and a limited action bar, the bigger wrinkle is that abilities and spells are all tied to Gems that can be found, looted, or bought. Nearly every item has a Gem slot and Gem slots come in different colors that fit into the same colored slot. It’s probably one of the more interesting wrinkles in the game.
On top of the Gems mechanic you’ve got access to an absurdly diverse Skill Tree that lets you build your character practically any way you want to. I started life as a Duelist, a character who by initial impressions relies on swift light weapon strikes and high dexterity to do his work. Instead, I followed a progression path that focused on two-handed weapons and high strength, molding him from a fleet-footed rapier swinger to a hard-hitting powerhouse.
What this combination of systems offers is something that feels a lot deeper and more meaningful than the progression offered by Diablo 3. While gear certainly plays a part in how your character feels, the Gems and the Skill Tree both combine to make the RNG element of loot drops feel a bit toothless and put the power more into the player’s hands. It’s a system that I’m sure I’ll be stacking against other ARPG titles from here on out. It’s that good.
Another thing that strikes me about Path of Exile is the level of challenge it provides. While Diablo 3 is definitely great fun and makes you feel like an utter steamroller from pretty much the outset, Path of Exile’s sense of power progression is a slow burning experience. You will die. You will need to manage using your potions appropriately. You will actually have to avoid attacks and projectiles. And you will have fun while doing it.
Sometimes that challenge comes with some cheap tactics. For example, there are necromancer-type enemies who hang back behind hordes of foes and keep resurrecting freshly-killed enemies over and over, and there’s one type of hellhound enemy that explodes when it dies, forcing melee-minded characters to eat lots of cheesy damage.
There’s also the Harbinger League mode, which denotes random monsters as Harbingers who run around and summon extra foes or have additional powers. These Harbingers more often than not consistently flee from you, swarming you with targets until you can’t actually click around them and get overwhelmed.
Despite some very crappy AI tactics like that, Path of Exile still packs a lot of fun and a good level of challenge. Bosses were actually engaging fights, enemies were overall pretty intelligent, and I had to plan a solid build carefully as I went along to survive. As far as a game, Path of Exile is an excellent online ARPG experience.
But what about the game’s free player experience? As always, I’ve broken up my free arrival experience of Path of Exile into four different categories: Account Limitations, Store Interruption, Store Offerings, and Store Reliance. Each category I’ve then given a rating of Minimal, Acceptable, and Oppressive with explanations on why I came to those ratings. Finally, I’ll offer up a summary of what I think Path of Exile is like for those arriving for the first time without buying in.
Account Limitations: Minimal
What are Account Limitations? Anything that locks content away from you, from character or class choices to hotbars, access to dungeons or end game. These are things that flag you as one of the “freeloaders” and restricts your play.
As far as limitations go, there is literally nothing stopping you from playing all of Path of Exile. There’s no obviously locked inventory, there are no walls between you and character classes, there’s no restriction on modes. Absolutely everything Path of Exile has to offer is yours to play. It’s really just as simple as that.
Store Interruption: Minimal
Store Interruption is based on how frequently you’re reminded of the in-game store during play. This either occurs through pop-up reminders that dominate your screen or buttons that redirect you to items offered in the store.
The simplicity extends into the game’s store implementation as well. You’re greeted with some storefront reminders at the point of logging in, but beyond that I was hard-pressed to see a store redirect button or some other advertisement. Path of Exile wants you to play the game.
Store Offerings: Acceptable
The Store Offerings section is a quick look at what the store has to offer. From the selection to the variety of items, this is your at-a-glance idea of whether the store is interesting and if prices seem to be fair.
The Path of Exile in-game store has a lot of fascinating cosmetic items and vanity pets on offer, along with a couple of service features for players such as extra Stash Tabs. About the biggest thing I can criticize here is that the cost of these items is a touch on the higher side; $20 gets you 200 of the game store’s points, and a lot of the store’s items easily can climb 50 points over that mark or more.
Still, it wasn’t enough of a dealbreaker for me to score it lower than that. Perhaps it’s because everything else about the game’s free-to-play model is so well done that I find this more tolerable than most.
Store Reliance: Minimal
This is an overall score of whether a game enters the “pay-to-win” realm with its offerings. Does the in-game store have an abundance of boosts? Does the leveling curve feel like you need to buy pots in order to progress? That’s what Store Reliance measures.
The big reason I feel the way I do about Path of Exile’s F2P model is because the store is chock-full of cosmetics. Advancement items such as potions, armor, equipment, and Gems are all earned purely in-game, freeing up the store to offer up skins for weapons, armor, even footprints and summoned Portals back to town.
Path of Exile gets it. While the look of the equipment earned in-game isn’t exactly mind-blowing, the skins on offer are and the store is just oozing with neat offerings. With so many cosmetic options and store offerings that keep the hell away from gameplay, it’s hard not to love.
Between Path of Exile and Marvel Heroes, it’s like the online ARPG developers of the world are paying more attention to how to implement free-to-play monetization than practically every other “proper” MMORPG game out there. I’m not sure why that is, exactly.
Regardless of the reason, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Path of Exile is an outstanding slice of ARPG gaming bliss served up generously on a free platter. No matter what platform you end up playing on, you’re going to have a complete experience.Related: ARPG, Column, F2P, F2P Kingdom, Free to play, Grinding Gear Games, Path of Exile