"...although I'll happily play the next title in each series, for right now Path of Exile stands above the rest."
Some genres lend themselves to success with just a pinch of ingenuity, pretty graphics, and game design balance. The hack 'n' slash genre is such an example. Here, critics and enthusiasts have seen few, if any, games that they didn't enjoy. The least favorable among them still earn positive reviews wherein the primary criticism is, "Why play this game when you can play one of three better titles?" In a feud that mimics a miniature version of the console war, Torchlight 2 and Diablo III fans have at it, proudly touting that their game is the better of the two. Runic Games has planted its flag and established itself as a worthy contender to the masterfully crafted Diablo series. That said, the folks at Grinding Gear Games have solely dedicated their efforts for a number of years and several iterations of beta testing to develop what some have claimed is the spiritual successor to Diablo II. I, of course, refer to the newly released Path of Exile.
Path of Exile is intimidatingly deep in its customization, but also touts a brooding atmosphere that characterizes the desolate continent. The most noteworthy feature of Path of Exile is its skill tree, which was inspired by Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. For some, the options available bring on panic attacks, while others salivate at the prospect of individualizing their experience. With seemingly limitless possibilities, the seven character classes can be crafted several different ways, the only limitation their initial placement on the grid.
For the most part, the grid is sectioned off into Path of Exile's three main stats: dexterity, strength, and intelligence. Without going into too much detail, the seven different characters are placed in such a way that players are guided in a certain direction, but not forced into one build. For instance, a Marauder is completely strength-based, but nothing stops him from veering off the beaten path and becoming a spell caster; in this event, many levels would be wasted putting passive skill points into a path that basically leads the Marauder into the Templar and Witch's area. The question is: if you want a spell caster, why not start as a Witch or a Templar, who is placed between the strength and intelligence trees? However, the trees aren't defined by stats alone. Throughout the monstrous map of nodes are all sorts of buffs, such as a percentage increase in damage when using an axe, or being able to summon one additional zombie and skeleton. Most players will not want to map out their entire tree at the onset, as their plan is likely to change as a result of certain equipment and gems they obtain over the duration of their adventure. Even more noteworthy are the infrequent keystone nodes that offer great rewards in exchange for substantial penalties, such as a node that allows a character never to miss a hit, but will also never make critical strikes. With limited skill points available to each character, planning is somewhat important, but the game doesn't require perfection, even at the highest difficulty.
Similar to its ilk, players fight isometrically in what initially feels like an excessively zoomed perspective. Loot drops with frequency, ranging in rarity and available gem slots. Aside from the skill tree, the gem system allows players to further customize their character by using different abilities and supports to enhance linked gems. In this way, Path of Exile is a demanding, cognitive experience. At the onset, traipsing around the harsh environment relatively carefree doesn't pose much of a problem, but when players complete one iteration of the campaign, the next difficulty demands more strategy. Available for solo play or a team of six, the way in which players approach Path of Exile varies somewhat depending on party size. Of course, enemies in an instance are stronger with more people, but they also drop more loot. The way in which loot drops depends on the party leader's settings. Loot may be dropped on a free-for-all basis or rares can be reserved for a random party member.
Whether running solo, playing with friends, or blazing through an instance in a public party, Path of Exile demands one's full attention, as lazily playing typically results in death and a small experience penalty. The stat tree may offer the illusion of choice for some, since a Witch is unlikely to spec anything but intelligence, but the tree offers so much more than just flat stats; truly, a player's character feels individual, especially as characters gain levels and obtain better loot.
Though Path of Exile's campaign is relatively short, the variety of enemies and added buffs through each difficulty command a different experience even while the game is ostensibly the same. Path of Exile is rarely a passive experience, and communication is oftentimes necessary to thwart the mobs and unique bosses that appear in each random instance. If the campaign begins to grow stale, however, players are welcome to join any of the events routinely offered. Most events are races in which new characters are made with random loot. Over a predetermined period, players travel through randomly generated instances, battling for the highest level by the time the game ends. The downside of these events is that more often than not, the winner is decided by the most dedicated players who know the game backwards and forwards. Fortunately, even if one doesn't place, points are earned for meeting certain thresholds, which may earn players unique loot by the end of the season.
Path of Exile tries to have a storyline, as players hear of Wraeclast's rather complicated history from carvings, settlers at encampments, and lead enemies. The way in which the story is told is less in the present, and more as a history book. Players who enjoy a more active, present plot will be left wanting in this regard, but, more than that, the inundation of faceless names is especially taxing. Try as I might, I simply couldn't focus on the rich history GGG tries to communicate. Still, after reading up independently on the world they've developed, the plot is generic, at best. Regardless, MMORPGs and hack 'n' slash titles rarely offer a deep narrative, and most who venture into Wraeclast aren't likely to expect a gripping tale.
Graphically, Path of Exile isn't necessarily the best out there, but the spell effects appeal to the eye and drab ruins ably communicate that the earth itself may be dead. Even without knowing the backstory, Wraeclast reeks of decay just in its visuals. Aurally, the world is hush and vacant, the only indication of life lying in the cacophony of combat and cries of pain. Like the graphics, the music communicates a land smothered in sorrow, with not one upbeat tune in its repertoire that I can recall. Players won't be jamming to these jigs in their cars, but when wearing a good pair of cans, the world within becomes a little more real.
Whenever a combat-intensive game releases in which players can go from 100% health to 0% in a couple of seconds, one of the most important questions is whether or not it controls well. Unfortunately, this isn't Path of Exile's strongest area, though issues with the controls won't ruin the experience. In narrow, walled off catacombs or caves full of enemies, more fragile characters may be prone to death purely because of the clicking mechanic. The animation of skills and labored movement of some characters and their equipment may spell death as escaping an ambush may prove difficult. Players who try to click backward while enemies frantically move around may accidentally target an enemy rather than move to the desired location. Furthermore, clicking on errant equipment littering the ground may further impede a hasty exodus.
Preference among Diablo, Torchlight, and Path of Exile may be a matter of taste. To be quite honest, all three series have proven themselves to be top-notch experiences in the realm of action RPGs. In terms of atmosphere and the unique approach to character building, each latest title offers an engaging experience guaranteed to wile away the hours. I've immersed myself in each world, and although I'll happily play the next title in each series, for right now Path of Exile stands above the rest.