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An immense amount of free content and extremely open-ended character progression never quite overcome its underwhelming combat.

After four years and seven free expansions, Path of Exile is still like the free-to-play action-RPG version of a owning a vintage sports car. From the unforgiving combat to the piles and piles of randomly generated loot to the encouraged repetition, there is plenty to admire for those of us who remember the Diablo 2 era fondly. But in light of how far the genre has come, playing more than 85 hours of Path of Exile for this review also reminded me how high-maintenance and cumbersome it can be. In many ways, it’s a reminder of why genre conventions should change over time.

Path of Exile’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness is its sprawling, intricate, oftentimes unwieldy skill system. By allocating points into a web with hundreds and hundreds of passive bonuses, you can achieve very fine control over a character’s damage capabilities and survival potential. The best of these are special nodes that completely change your playstyle, like giving you 50 percent more health but causing spells to cost health instead of mana.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a system that grants more freedom in designing a character.

Finding and slotting skill gems into gear, which can be linked to combine their effects, allows you to create a mind-boggling variety of active abilities. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a system that grants more freedom in designing a character. It leads to some satisfying “Ah-ha!” moments, like when I realized I could set certain enemy-debuffing spells to automatically cast when I scored a critical hit, or give my area-of-effect attacks a vampiric healing aspect.

This can be a burden, though. Since the color of gem slots and the number of links between them on gear is randomized, finding a piece of loot that seems like an upgrade can actually become a frustrating roadblock. If it doesn’t have the exact same color slots as the one it’s replacing, or if they’re not all linked properly, you may have to farm uncommon orbs to randomly reroll the slots on it several times before you can actually use it. Otherwise, you are faced with the no-win choice of breaking your entire build for the sake of higher stats.

My Way or The Highway to Hell

And in reality, only a small percentage of the seemingly infinite number of possible builds are endgame-viable. I eventually found myself semi-railroaded into certain tree choices and tactics that would not have come naturally. In order to survive later acts and post-campaign areas, only really tanky setups that stack health, elemental resistance, and/or buffs to your recharging overshield will allow you to survive. This emphasis on defense even extends into the moment-to-moment gameplay in annoying ways; I discovered many guides encouraging me to “piano your flasks,” which is almost exactly what it sounds like: semi-mindlessly mashing the 1-5 keys that contain refillable healing items during tense melees, a tedious bit of flailing that is absolutely necessary to survival at higher levels.

 

If you want to be anything but a brick wall, you have to check off all your basically mandatory brick wall abilities first and then you have some freedom to go your own way for the last 40 out of 100 levels or so. Realizing this too late can mean starting all over when you’ve already sunk scores of hours into a character, or spending huge amounts of time farming items that allow you to respec your build one skill point at a time. If these progression choices have right and wrong answers, are they really choices at all?

Bossed Around

All that really matters is having gear with enough elemental resistance.

Even once I got my build dialed in, I found the combat to be fairly monotonous, and that it leans much too heavily on having the right gear rather than being good at playing a given class. Most outdoor areas can be cleared by spamming a single area-attack ability, and I can count the number of bosses that felt like a rewarding challenge on one hand. Some fights were just absurd, with so much damage-inflicting garbage being constantly vomited into the arena that I felt like I was being told I might as well forget about twitch skill or trying to pay attention to where I was standing because it was impossible to dodge a significant amount of it and still have a long enough window of peace to do damage to the boss. All that really matters in that situation is having gear with enough elemental resistance to be able to ignore most or all of their attacks.

Many of the bosses look really cool, though, from towering, starfish-headed demons the size of a large building to golden, angelic avatars of vengeance. The level and enemy art overall brings to life a modernized rendition of the dark, gothic dungeon crawlers of the 90s with great attention to detail. A good variety of tilesets including spooky haunted forests, storm-wracked coasts, and profaned, ancient temples keep things interesting, though some of the areas felt a bit flat – more like a beautifully hand-painted laser tag arena than a real place.

Tale as Old as Time

Path of Exile doesn’t skimp on the story, which helped maintain my interest across the more than 75 hours it took me to complete its 10-act campaign. What initially comes across as a Diablo-ish, Medieval Christianity-inspired, good-vs-evil morality play ended up throwing some welcome surprises into the mix. The New Zealand-based developers at Grinding Gear incorporate some exciting and effective elements of Polynesian mythology from their own corner of the world, adding texture and nuance to a tale of Light and Darkness having to work together against a greater and older threat. Every area is brimming with written and voice-acted lore snippets and NPC conversations that dig deep into the history and cultures of the world, though standing around in town listening to a lecture only served to remind me how dated some aspects of Path of Exile feel. Shouldn’t I be given something to do as I’m receiving yet another lore dump?

 

There’s also a robust and potentially endless endgame with a story of its own and new mysteries to uncover, of which I was only able to scratch the surface after playing more than two full work-weeks’ worth of hours. Randomized treasure maps start dropping around the last two acts, and those can take you to brand-new areas via a teleporter, meaning you’ve got plenty more unique dungeons to see and gear to earn even when the main campaign is behind you. I think that’s great, but I wasn’t exactly itching to play another 80-plus hours when I got to that point.

As a free-to-play game, Path of Exile also deserves praise for one of the least obtrusive and totally optional microtransaction shops I’ve seen in a game of this type. Nearly everything you can spend real money on is purely cosmetic, with the exception of extra bank tabs to help you store all the gear, currency, and skill gems you want to hang on to. By the end of Act 10, I was just barely getting to the point of running out of space in my free bank tabs, so it’s definitely possible to experience all of the main campaign to its fullest without ever spending a cent. And you won’t be bothered with constant reminders to visit the cash shop. Aside from other players running around with flashy, glowing angel wings and rubbing them in your face, it stays out of your way entirely unless you go looking for it, which is really nice.

The Verdict

As much as I highly respect the freedom Path of Exile offers, the massive amount of story-rich adventuring content available for no cost, and the nods to some truly great action RPGs of yore, I never really fell into a good groove with it. To bring my vehicle metaphor full circle, it’s like a car for people who enjoy working on cars and really squeezing every last little bit of performance out of them more than they enjoy actually driving. The running, leaping, hacking, and slashing is impactful and responsive, but never quite feels as good as the behind-the-scenes work you put into optimizing it. As someone who prefers to focus on the skill of combat itself, I was consistently entertained but ultimately a bit underwhelmed.


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