Path of Exile, a free-to-play action role-playing game that has been around for four years and has received seven free expansions, is like owning a classic sports car. Those of us who recall the Diablo 2 period may find a lot to enjoy, from the brutal fighting to the mountains of produced treasure to the rewarded repetition. Playing Path of Exile for almost 85 hours in preparation for this review not only highlighted the progress made in the genre, but also brought home how laborious and time-consuming the genre can be. It’s a good example of why genre norms evolve over time.
The vast, complex, and cumbersome nature of Path of Exile’s skill system is both its greatest asset and its greatest flaw. You may exert fine-grained control over a character’s damaging capabilities and survival prospects by assigning points to a network of hundreds of passive perks. Some of the finest nodes are unique ones that alter your playstyle, such as making spells cost life instead of mana or granting you 50% extra health.
Finding and equipping skill gems, which may be connected to combine their effects, lets you construct a staggering range of active abilities, and I can’t think of a system that gives you greater leeway in character creation. I can’t recall ever encountering a system that provided so many options for customizing a player’s character. It could lead to some exciting “Aha!” moments, like when you realize you can add a vampiric healing effect to your area-of-effect attacks or set certain spells that hurt your opponents to be cast when you land a critical hit.
But this may be difficult at times. Finding a piece of treasure that appears to be an improvement may become a frustrating blockage due to the randomization of the color of gem slots and the number of linkages between them on gear. You might need to harvest unusual orbs to reroll the slots on it many times before you can use it if it doesn’t have the exact same color slots as the one it’s replacing or if they aren’t all connected . If you want better statistics, though, you’ll have to sacrifice your entire construct, which is a losing proposition.
Even while there are unlimited alternative builds, in practice, only a tiny fraction of them are viable in the late game. At some point, I felt like I was being forced down a path toward making strategic decisions and employing strategies that did not come to me. In later acts and post-campaign regions, you’ll need a particularly tanky build that stacks health, elemental resistance, and/or bonuses to your recharging overshield to have any chance of survival. This defensive focus extends into the gameplay itself, which may be frustrating; I saw several tutorials telling me to “piano your flasks,” which is what it sounds like: punching the 1–5 keys that hold refillable healing potions during intense melees.
Once you’ve completed the required skills for becoming a brick wall, you’ll be given the opportunity to pursue your own interests in the next 40 or so levels. If you wait too long to figure this out, you may be forced to start over with a new character after investing dozens of hours in the previous one, or you may have to spend a significant amount of time farming things that enable you to respec your build by one skill point. Is it even a choice if there are right and bad outcomes associated with each potential action in the progression?
I found the fighting to be quite repetitive, and far too dependent on having the appropriate gear rather than being excellent at playing a certain class, even once I had my build figured out. I can count on one hand the number of monsters that provided a satisfying challenge, and most outdoor regions can be handled by spamming a single area-attack skill. In some fights, there was an absurd amount of damage-dealing garbage being vomited into the arena, to the point where I felt like I could ignore my twitch skill and focus on where I was standing since dodging even a small percentage of it would leave me with too little time to deal damage to the boss. Having enough elemental resistance in your gear to shrug off most or all of their assaults is all that matters in such circumstances.
Even still, several of the monsters have impressive visuals, ranging from giant starfish-headed devils the size of buildings to golden angelic avatars of vengeance. The attention to detail in both the environment and opponent designs evokes the dark, gothic dungeon crawlers of the 1990s. With eerie haunting forests, storm-ravaged coastlines, and profaned old temples all making appearances, the tilesets vary enough to keep things interesting; however, some of the landscapes feel a little bland, more like a hand-painted laser tag arena than a genuine location.
Path of Exile’s plot is compelling, and it kept me playing for the whole 75 hours it took to complete the game’s 10-act campaign. It seemed like a Diablo-like, Medieval Christianity-inspired, good-vs-evil morality drama at first, but then it threw in some unexpected twists and turns that were quite enjoyable. Grinding Gear, a New Zealand-based studio, incorporates some interesting and effective parts of Polynesian mythology from their own corner of the globe, giving depth and richness to a story about Light and Darkness needing to work together to defeat a bigger and older enemy. There are tidbits of textual and voice-acted lore and NPC talks in every region that go into the history and cultures of the world, but hanging out in a town and listening to a lecture served to remind me how antiquated some sections of Path of Exile felt. If I’m going to be subjected to another knowledge dump, at least offer me something to do while I absorb it!
More than two weeks’ worth of playtime scratched the surface of the game’s deep and unending finale, which has its own tale and fresh secrets to explore. After the main campaign is through, there are still plenty of unique dungeons to explore and loot to gain thanks to the randomized treasure maps that begin falling in the game’s latter two acts and may transport you to those regions via a teleporter. Yes, that’s fantastic, but after 80+ hours of gameplay, I wasn’t exactly yearning for more.
Path of Exile is one of the best free-to-play games out there because it features one of the most unobtrusive and optional microtransaction shops I’ve ever encountered. Except for purchasing more bank slots to hold all your desired gear, gold, and skill gems, everything that can be purchased with real money is cosmetic. It is possible to enjoy the main campaign without spending a dime; by the end of Act 10, I was on the verge of running out of room in my free bank tabs. There also won’t be any annoying prompts to go to the cashier. It keeps out of your way completely until you seek it out, which is great, as opposed to some players who rush about with flashing, glowing angel wings and rub them in your face.
While I very much like the flexibility Path of Exile provides, the vast amount of story-rich adventure material accessible at no cost, and the references to some great action RPGs of yesteryear, I never found a nice rhythm with it. To complete my vehicle analogy, it’s like a car for gearheads who get more pleasure out of tinkering with their rides than driving them. The impact and responsiveness of your sprinting, jumping, hacking, and slicing is commendable, but it will never match the quality of the optimization work you put in behind the scenes. Entertaining most of the time, but not enough for someone who likes stories that focus on how to fight.
Lead developer at Lost Rabbit Digital. Writer for Good2Games. Boden began freelancing for Good2Game in 2021. He got his start making games and is still interested in the inner workings of games via the modding and speedrunning communities. He is addicted to co-op crafting games, lengthy novels, and multiplayer cryptid hunts.