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Path of Exile

Hands-on Preview
"Though PoE doesn't appear to boast anything starkly original at this point, I personally can't wait to experience the full game."

Up and coming independent developer Grinding Gear Games (GGG) has been working on an action RPG that borrows heavily from the Diablo series. This diamond in the making has been in closed beta since August of this year, but GGG hopes to begin open beta early 2012. Although Path of Exile (PoE) is their first project, polish, balance, and a strong sense of what gamers want clearly hold chief importance to the developers.

Upon first glance, one might mistake PoE for Diablo. While the similarities are apparent, PoE shaves off some of the gritty graphics, and replaces them with smooth, clean aesthetics accessible to gamers on most machines. The specs haven't been released yet, but I've seen this game run at high frames on dated machines. Similar to Nintendo's approach on the Wii, GGG seem to prioritize beautiful, though dreary, artwork over high-end graphics. Granted, Diablo II was released over ten years ago, but one can't argue that PoE looks better. For those still playing Diablo II and its plethora of mods (I know you're out there), PoE might be just what the shaman ordered.

Like the pictures suggest, PoE exudes the same gloomy atmosphere as Diablo II. For those lamenting Diablo III's new direction, rest assured that this game will satisfy your hunger for isolation. Upon starting the game, your hero wakes up washed ashore, only to find a fellow survivor devoured by a zombie. Every encampment encountered thereafter holds three or four fellow survivors, just barely able to sustain themselves with whatever debris they can find. Each NPC has their own story to tell, each less hopeful than the next. From the beginning, a sense of inescapable doom hangs in the air. The only reprieve from this hopelessness is the adrenaline-infused thrill of battle waiting just outside of each designated safe zone.

Battles ensue much in the same fashion as in the Diablo series, but the differences lie in the details. Players will find themselves once again scavenging loot, nit-picking about minor differences between one bow and the next, all while enhancing their weapons and armor with gems. However, these gems add a little more than the old rocks did in Diablo II. These materia – err – skill gems offer abilities no matter what piece of equipment they accompany. Each skill gem comes in one of three colors – green, red, and blue, which represent dexterity, strength, and intelligence, respectively. Once the gem is put into the properly colored socket, players can spam away with cleaves, blink strikes, firestorms – you name it. This replaces the skill trees in Diablo II, but PoE boasts its own passive point system that I like to call the Sphere Grid, because, well – it's near-identical to Final Fantasy X's system. Though, if the Sphere Grid were able to ingest steroids, Creatine, and experimental Russian growth hormones reserved for future super soldiers, we'd have PoE's web of metagaming. While the possibilities may seem endless, the fact is that a marauder will unlikely venture into the witch's tree, but may dabble in the ways of its neighbor templar or duelist.

Path of Exile offers six classes, five of which are accessible in the beta: witch, templar, marauder, duelist, and ranger. If I were to guess at the sixth class, I'd say it's going to be some kind of brawler or monk based on item drops and the types of passive abilities offered in the grid. All conjecture aside, each class feels unique. The witch, of course, relies heavily on spell casting, while the templar is a beefier variation of the witch, able to fit either role as necessary. Marauders might as well be "barbarians," and the duelist is more or less a quicker, more accurate version of his melee brother. Rangers stand alone as the physical ranged class, and the "monk" is stubbornly absent without leave. My friends and I dabbled in each class, and I can attest to their unique feel, though Diablo II definitely had more specialized classes.

A trip to PoE's web site reveals that GGG has plans for PvP and other goodies still in the works. Keeping in mind PoE is still in beta, I enjoyed myself immensely, though briefly. Upon completing the two acts offered, my character continued onto the next difficulty in a sort of new game+. The new difficulty offers a greater challenge, better drops, and a few secrets that I won't spoil. Like Diablo, PoE functions quite well as a solo experience, but I couldn't imagine playing this sub-genre of the action RPG without a few buddies. And don't worry about coercing your friends into playing: GGG guarantees that PoE will always be free, with the only purchasable perks being aesthetic changes – NO gameplay enhancements. Players are free to scour the wastelands and ruins of PoE at no charge until they grow unhealthily attached to their virtual warrior, spending more money on pixel clothing than they do actual clothing for themselves.

Though PoE doesn't appear to boast anything starkly original at this point, I personally can't wait to experience the full game. What it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in balance and polish. For those who winced at Torchlight's cartoony appearance, and wrote all-caps emails to Blizzard about how they ruined the Diablo series with its third installment, register for your beta keys or wait until open beta begins early next year. This previewer still has some questions, which I hope I can get answers to in our upcoming podcast where we'll interview PoE's lead developer, Chris Wilson. Until then, I'll be giving Eastern Sun a fond farewell.


© 2011 Grinding Gear Games. All rights reserved.




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