With loads of characters, areas, and depth, plus extremely fair monetization, this is one free game that every RPG fan needs to try.
In Path of Exile, you play as a warrior who has been exiled from his or her native land of Oriath to a troubled region called Wraeclast. From there, you have to fight through numerous regions. The story advances primarily through fully-voiced NPC conversations, along with occasional clunky cinematics. Story isn't the most important element in this style of game, but this one provides enough motivation without getting in the way of the adventure.
Characters and leagues
Path of Exile features seven primary character classes, one of which (the Scion) unlocks after completing Act 3. They all have one or more subclasses, called Ascendancy classes. Here's a breakdown.
- Duelist: He fights with melee attacks and can also summon an AI minion to fight alongside him.
- Templar: Fires projectiles, including three balls of lightning at once and a chain lightning attack.
- Witch: A female spellcaster with high intelligence.
- Ranger: She uses a bow and is extremely dexterous, but can wield swords as well. Despite being a glass cannon, the ranger is my class of choice.
- Marauder: A melee fighter with tremendous strength.
- Shadow: A dexterous and intelligent fighter, he uses short-range weapons and traps during battle.
- Scion: She can develop into any character build thanks to Path of Exile's skill system. This makes her an advanced character, and she must be unlocked later in the game.
Compared to other Diablo-style games like Diablo III and Vikings: Wolves of Midgard, Path of Exile has a much higher emphasis on playing multiple characters. You get enough free slots to play at least one of every class (the game doesn't tell you how many free slots remain), with additional slots available for about $3. The generous allotment of slots makes it possible to create pack-mule characters solely for the purpose of storing items.
Further encouraging the use of new characters is the league system. Leagues are game world variations that affect how the game plays. The standard Hardcore option (in which a character killed in hardcore gets kicked down to the standard league) is accounted for, but that's just for starters. Two additional categories of leagues exist, called challenge and race leagues. Challenge leagues offer special prizes for completing challenges within it, and there are tons of challenges.
At launch, the Harbinger challenge league adds enemy summoners called harbingers into the mix. Players can opt into Hardcore Harbinger as well. As with the PC version, more leagues will be available for limited time periods in the future. This creates a ton of replay value without overcomplicating the game as some of Diablo III's more advanced modes tend to do.
Skills and respecs
Your arsenal of characters can be developed in different ways thanks to Path of Exile's deep passive skill system. Passive skills boost stats and attributes without input from the player. Players receive a passive skill point each time they level up, as well as some from completing quests.
The passive skill system is similar to traditional RPG skill trees. But instead of a small tree for every character, this game features one enormous tree full of skills that all characters can access. You can mix and match abilities by unlocking skills along with various branches, but this creates an opportunity cost compared to sticking with the character's native abilities.
The downside to this expansive skill system is that respecing characters isn't as easy as it should be. Players will naturally earn a limited number of respec points, meaning you can change some of your skills but not all of them. To get more points, you'll have to grind endgame content – the developers don't even sell a premium respec option. This strict respec system encourages the use of expert players' builds rather than experimentation. On the other hand, you can always start a new character if you really goof one up.
Gameplay and combat
Path of Exile is a Diablo-style action-RPG with an emphasis on exploration and loot collection over combat. It also features minor MMO elements, such as public towns in which players can meet and group up or trade items. The lack of an in-game chat system limits the Xbox One version's social potential, though.
Although this game plays a lot like Diablo III, it has some distinct differences. Instead of a single hot-bar with skills assigned to every button, the diamond-shaped hot-bar here is located in the lower-right corner of the screen, with an attack or skill assigned to each face button. By holding Right Trigger, players can access a second set of skills – basically the same setup as in Marvel Heroes Omega. You can access eight skills using just the face buttons and one trigger, freeing up the other three buttons for other tasks.
The combat mostly feels tight, with lots of variation between the many character classes. But minor targeting issues can be irritating on Xbox One. During fights, your character autotargets enemies and might not always target the closest threat. Mine has randomly fired in the wrong direction instead of the way I'm facing on occasion. And the radius for targeting items and waypoints is wonky as well. Sometimes I'll have to readjust my position several times before I can stop highlighting another player in order to select the waypoint I actually need to use (as shown in the screenshot above).
Potions that restore health and provide other benefits are assigned to both bumper buttons and three directions on the D-Pad, providing quick access to five total items. These carry limited charges that refill when visiting towns. Of course, you can equip gear that boosts health and mana regeneration as well.
Tapping down on the D-Pad toggles the map overlay, facilitating navigation of Path of Exile's tremendous randomly-generated environments. The game also displays a minimap in the corner of the screen. This keeps you from needing the map overlay as much as in other Diablo-likes.
Inventory management is another area in which Path of Exile's developers deviated from the standard Diablo template. Every piece of loot you acquire takes up varying amounts of space in your bag. To carry as many possible things at once, you have to move items around and squeeze things into the allotted spaces.
You'll basically pick up less items than in other games, focusing on loot that specifically benefits your character or has a high value. Not picking up every single thing takes some getting used to, but it actually benefits the pace of the game.
Players will rely on two basic types of consumable scrolls as well. Identification scrolls do what they do in every RPG: identify rare items. Portal scrolls create portals to town. The relative scarcity of portal scrolls makes trips to town far more infrequent than in Diablo III. Sometimes you'll just have to keep progressing through an area or two until you find a waypoint that lets you warp back and forth between town. Because waypoints don't appear in every single area, you'll need to manage your trips outside of town carefully.
Surprisingly fair microtransactions and monetization
Path of Exile is a free-to-play game that has truly been designed to be completely playable for free, without creating any disadvantages or obstacles for players. There are no XP boosters or premium weapons to buy, so everyone advances through the game at the same basic rate.
Of course, the developers need to make money, so there are still a number of highly optional things to buy with premium currency. The most useful ones include a variety of stash tabs for $3 and up, allowing players to store a larger quantity of items for all of their characters to access. Character slots are $3, and are also useful for hardcore fans of the game.
Beyond that, you can buy a lot of expensive cosmetic items and effects. These provide a nice level of visual customization for your character and attacks, but they're otherwise completely inessential. You can also buy pets to follow you around during your adventures. They start at $3 and go all the way up to $25. Again, pets are purely cosmetic, so don't feel disadvantaged if you don't buy one.
Overall impressions of Path of Exile
You could be forgiven for not expecting much from a free-to-play RPG. Even the next best free Diablo/MMO hybrid, Marvel Heroes Omega, pales in comparison to Diablo III when it comes to production values and monetization. Path of Exile isn't a mega-budget game like Diablo, but you'd hardly know it.
Since the Steam version's inception in 2013, Grinding Gear Games has done a great job of revamping and improving the game. The Xbox One game, which includes the latest Fall of Oriath expansion, is highly polished outside of the wonky targeting and a few bugs and crashes. You get an absolute wealth of content, all playable solo or with online friends, and without the usual free-to-play nags and limitations.
Given Path of Exile's history on PC, you can expect frequent updates that make the game even bigger and better in the future. The developers have promised extensive graphical improvements for Xbox One X, which could end up making this the best-looking Diablo-like game on Microsoft's upcoming console. And we're told that local multiplayer is in the cards as well. Even looking to the present, we can confidently recommend jumping in now and enjoying your adventurers' return from exile.
Path of Exile is free to play on Xbox One and Steam. To coincide with the launch of the Xbox One version, players can buy a number of limited edition premium bundles. The First Blood Bundle costs $19.99 and includes $20 worth of currency, an extra stash tab, and a weapon effect. The Oriath Supporter Pack costs $29.99 and packs $25 worth of currency, a weapon effect, and a special social frame.
- A huge action-RPG with tons of free content.
- Loads of characters and free slots with which to play them.
- Great world and monster design.
- MMO-style towns make the world feel alive.
- Targetting inside and outside of combat is imperfect.
- Some bugs and crashes. For instance, the game crashes when you select the "Resize UI" option in the settings.
- No easy way to fully respec character - not even a paid option.
_Path of Exile First Blood Bundle for Xbox One provided by the publisher._
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