When it originally launched in 2013, Path of Exile was the scruffy underdog to Diablo 3. A far rougher, more understated game compared to Blizzard‘s wildly successful action role-playing game (ARPG), it lacked Diablo‘s visual flair and slick, stylish combat. But in its rise to the ARPG throne, Diablo 3 had lost sight of what makes ARPGs so uniquely appealing. It came to believe that the genre was about loot. Amassing it, trading it, and making a fat profit out of it via its controversial real-money auction house.
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Though penniless and with nothing but a tattered loincloth to its name, Path of Exile had an ace up its sleeve, knowledge. It understood that ARPGs are not, in fact, about amassing loot but about amassing power. Whereas traditional RPGs challenge you with how your character is to solve a problem, ARPGs challenge you with how awesomely your character is going to solve a problem. The bigger and more dramatic you can make that power trip, the better.
This acute understanding of an ARPG’s raison d’etre is what separates Path of Exile from every other game in the genre. Other ARPGs might be more stylish, more spectacular, more original, or more innovative. But none of them let you embark on the same raw power trip as Grinding Gear Games‘ gritty fantasy epic.
Crucially, this power-trip is directed entirely by you. Like most ARPGs, Path of Exile starts with players selecting one of several character classes, such as the Marauder, Ranger, and Witch. But these classes only define your basic stat alignment, the emphasis they place on strength, dexterity, and intelligence. Your class doesn’t define your character’s skills or abilities, and doesn’t even define their onward stat progression. They are lumps of clay for you to mould going forward. They just start in slightly different shapes.
Instead, character progression is governed by two overarching systems. The first is Path of Exile‘s infamously vast passive skill tree. Inspired by the sphere grid of Final Fantasy 10, Path of Exile‘s skill tree is a sprawling, node-based affair which each class starts on in a different position. Every time you gain a skill point, you can unlock a new node that can do anything from increasing your base stats, to boosting specific weapon damage output, improving status resistances, and much more.
There are typically multiple directions you can travel along this grid at any one time, meaning you can progress through this skill tree however you choose. Marauders can weave into the Witch’s progression path, combining their melee attacks with magical abilities, while a duellist could balance speed and strength by navigating into Marauder territory. These are extremely rudimentary examples, too. Characters can focus their passive bonuses on specific abilities like Totems, magical automatons that let you deploy in-game abilities by proxy.
On the subject of abilities, the skill tree has nothing to do with the active powers your character can wield. Those are dictated by gems. Collected alongside other forms of loot. Gems can be socketed into weapons and armour, and it’s these which dictate how your character fights, whether they use spells and incantations, or melee attacks like heavy strikes and ground slams.
But gems don’t only affect which abilities your characters can wield, they can also alter how specific abilities work. Alongside straightforward skill gems, players can pick up support skill gems, which can be slotted into loot alongside a base skill gem to augment its abilities in certain ways. They could add elemental damage to an ability, give it knockback powers, or alter an ability so that rather than casting it personally, your character summons a totem to do it for them.
All of this combined means that you can create astonishingly specific and nuanced character builds, which may or may not lie within familiar class archetypes. Yes, you can create a powerful warrior, but you could more specifically create a powerful warrior who doesn’t personally do any fighting whatsoever, instead relying on totems and minions to do all the bloody work for them.
Path of Exile‘s power curve was impressive when it launched with its original three-act-structure. But now the game has a whopping ten acts that let you slowly transform your character into a god-killing colossus, facilitated by new, higher-level systems like ascendancy classes that allow players to build even further upon the game’s already towering character progression.
This is an extremely broad flyover of a game that has been constantly expanding and evolving and drilling deeper and deeper into its own ideas for the best part of a decade. Once a somewhat crude and obscure game from New Zealand, Path of Exile has become the standard-bearer of ARPG design. When Diablo 4 launches next year, it won’t be seeking to inherit the crown from Diablo 3, it’ll be seeking to reclaim it from Path of Exile.
If you liked this article, check out last week’s System Shack entry – where Rick Lane explored No Man’s Sky‘s six-year struggle against its own crafting system.