On the Right Path

Path of Exile
Reviewed On
Available For

MMO Offers True Free To Play Experience

The old adage says that the best things in life are free. Of course, free and high-quality aren’t always synonymous. That’s proven to be true in the video game world for years, with free-to-play games often lacking the budget to create a deep, lasting gameplay experience.

In general, free-to-play games have also implemented a micro-transaction model, offering players a free game with the caveat that most features can only reasonably be obtained by forking out cash in some capacity. Acutely aware of these stigmas, Grinding Gear Games set out to create a free RPG that delivered the same quality of any retail release without nickel and diming its players. With Path of Exile, the developers did just that, crafting an experience that doesn’t just stand as a great free-to-play game; it’s one of the best RPGs in recent memory.

A dungeon crawler in the vein of games like Baldur’s Gate and Diablo, Path of Exile thrusts players into the world of Wraeclast, a cutthroat, hostile land with death and disaster accosting you at every turn. It’s standard fare for an ARPG, but Path of Exile has some tricks up its sleeve that make it stand apart from similar games.

Players start by choosing one of seven classes to challenge the hordes of monsters lying in wait. The starting class you choose affects your beginning location on the PoE skill tree, a slight misnomer that becomes critically important early on. I say misnomer because the "skill tree" doesn’t actually unlock any skills. Instead, you unlock new abilities by picking up skill gems, which you can obtain through quest rewards or as random drops.

The skill tree itself acts as a way of modifying your character, affecting the behaviors of skill gems and other passive abilities. It seems like a straightforward design until you realize that it’s not so much a skill tree as it is a skill superhighway.

Unlike most other RPGs, every character uses the same tree, with the same passive abilities available to everyone. The starting areas for each character are designed to cater to each class’s specialty. For instance, the witch, the primary casting class in PoE, has skill nodes near its starting point that offer increases to intelligence, spell damage and mana regeneration.

But, should you so choose, it’s possible to jump onto one of the skill paths that takes you towards a dexterity build, thereby increasing your critical hit damage and evasiveness. This system works particularly well for the hybrid classes, such as the templar, a mix of strength and intelligence. With that kind of freedom, PoE never feels like a restrictive experience, and it adds to the sense that the game really wants you to experiment and find new ways to play that even the developers themselves hadn’t anticipated.

While the passives are critical to staying alive, the fun in slaying hordes of Wraeclast’s evil denizens comes more from hurling fireballs or swinging a giant sword through a swath of enemies. That’s where the skill gems come in to play. In keeping with the theme of being different than other ARPGs, Path of Exile has its own twist on setting up your skills.

There are three different colored gems: blue, green and red. In general, blue gems are spells, green are dexterity-based, and red are melee abilities. At the same time, every item you pick up has sockets of varying number and color. The sockets can be blue, green or red. See where this is going yet?

Every gem has to go into a slot of matching color. When a gem is slotted into a piece of gear your character has equipped, it gains experience points just like you do. The gems then level up independently, and as long as you meet the stat requirements, you can continue making them more powerful. The skill gem system boasts a refreshing, innovative design that becomes positively brilliant once you factor in the second type of asset: support gems. As mentioned before, every piece of gear has gem slots of various color and number. As the game progresses, the game begins generating loot with slots that have a curious gold link connecting them, which is where you put support gems.

A support gem alters an existing skill into something more powerful. Take the totem gem, for instance. When placed in a slot linked to the fireball skill, the gem creates a totem that repeatedly hurls fireballs at your enemies. Another example is the fork support gem. When paired with a projectile attack, any hits cause the missile to split and carry on to strike other enemies.

It’s an outstanding design that gives the game tremendous versatility, but it goes even deeper than what’s already been mentioned. With the right gear, it’s actually possible to link multiple support gems to a skill. Using the previous two examples, a fireball gem linked with totem and fork would create a totem pole that hurls fireballs which split upon striking an enemy.

To make obliterating monsters an even more enjoyable experience, PoE makes romping through its diverse environments a joy to behold. From lush jungles to murky, dreary caves, there’s a beautiful attention to detail in the artwork everywhere you look. In a touch of nostalgic game design, Grinding Gear Games also included random maps, adding to the sense that you really are exploring Wraeclast for the first time.

With all of its grandeur in gameplay and graphics, the best design choice Grinding Gear Games made may be something much simpler. Although it’s touted as an MMO, players can enjoy Path of Exile as a single-player experience, without the constant pressure to participate in group events. Having chosen to play it that way, my only experience with other players has been seeing their character models running around in town. But once you set foot into the main map, the game creates an instance that you control.

That’s not to say you can’t play multi-player, but the game puts the option in your hands, something other similar games, such as Marvel Heroes, haven’t done. It’s a great touch and just goes to show how much thought and effort the developers put into their project.

Holding true to their word, Grinding Gear Games only included micro-transactions in PoE for aesthetic purposes, as a way to give hardcore fans a means of customizing their characters. You can also purchase more space for your shared items stash, but PoE offers ample room from the get-go.

Path of Exile shines in every possible way and is easily worth a $60 price tag. It’s a complete experience with virtually unlimited replay value that’s absolutely free-to-play. Bearing that in mind, there’s no conceivable reason why any PC gamer shouldn’t download this marvelous game.

Path of Exile gets 4.5 GiN Gems out of 5 for being a fantastic RPG with unlimited value.

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