Originally released in 2013, Path of Exile was one of the early free-to-play success stories on PC. Developed by Grinding Gears, it wowed critics with its accomplished take on the ARPG genre while also being playable without spending a dime. Now, four whole years later, the game is finally seeing a console release on Xbox One. So is it still worth checking out, or has free-to-play gaming left this once vaunted hack-and-slasher behind?
You’re a sinner. That’s something that’s made abundantly clear right from Path of Exile’s class select screen. The game casts you in the role of a citizen who has committed a serious crime against their nation’s people, a crime so heinous that they’ve been sentenced to banishment (or, you know, ‘Exile’). Once you’ve chosen your class from the six available, you’re cast out to the cursed continent of Wraeclast, and must immediately face your first harrowing trial…A painfully unoriginal opening sequence. When ship you’re traveling on is suddenly wrecked, you've washed ashore (sigh) with nary a single scant belonging to your name. Also predictably, it’s not long before you’re battling waves of undead (always a dependable low-level enemy) on your way to the game’s first town, and your first chance at respite, not to mention plenty of fetch-quest bearing NPCs to score XP from.
So far, so standard for an ARPG, the stone-carved guidelines of the genre followed to the letter: you make gradual but satisfyingly regular progress, becoming more and more handy with your weapons, skills, and magic, while at the same time, so does the caliber of enemy you’ll be facing. The shambling groups of idiot undead in the early game gradually give way to epic hordes of massive and devastating monstrosities.
Before you know it, it’s twenty hours later, and your character has gone from dirty, weaponless vagabond to some kind of mega-god with gleaming platinum armor and spells shooting out of every orifice. Or something. Leveling up your skills happens through a surprisingly mammoth skill tree/web/map, which has seemingly endless nodes radiating out forever in every direction. The genius of this system is that all the classes share the same board — it’s just that some skills are closer to some classes. Brilliantly, this means that any class can specialize in any skill, given the right planning and inclination. It’s a genuinely innovative and thoughtful take on the usual skill tree system that empowers the player to create the class they want with minimal fuss.
Exile innovates in other ways, too. Its economy is purely barter-based, meaning that when you trade-in your junk items at the merchant, they’ll give you fragments of things that will eventually be useful, rather than meaningless currency you accrue just for the sake of it. This takes a little time to get used to, but when you do, it feels not only logical but kind of liberating not always to be a slave to the almighty dollar.
Also receiving some attention is the way you equip and use your weapons and abilities. Most equipable items have sockets, which can be filled with gems you loot or gain as quest rewards. These affect how your items function in different ways -- such as adding an elemental damage effect or increasing your health regen -- and work in tandem to create some really great combinations. This system also means that your favorite weapons stay useful for longer as you switch out their gems for the more powerful ones you find in later quests. Yes, the combat itself is the usual repetitive ARPG fare, but that’s par for the course, and these other tweaks help mitigate the monotony to a great extent.
The visuals, aren’t too shabby, either, especially considering Exile is a four-year-old game. The character models are a little basic, but there’s some great environmental detail, like the beautifully moonlit waves lapping against the sandy shore in that opening section, and the crackling campfires which pierce the gloom with the warm orange glow.
This visual competency, coupled with a pleasant interface and fairly decently-acted character dialogue, combine to give the impression of a very slick overall package. This is as important as ever, as Exile is going toe-to-toe with a giant of the genre which has already made a big name for itself on consoles. Diablo 3 has recently seen a boost in popularity, too, thanks to the recent reintroduction of its Necromancer character class. Although Blizzard’s classic dungeon-botherer isn’t free to play, it’s still a threat to Exile’s fledgling player base. And while Diablo’s combat feels just a little more tactile, somewhat more solid, Grinding Gears’ RPG compares favorably to Diablo in every other way, and that’s a testament to how hard the devs have worked to set their game apart. From the dark fantasy setting to the selection of classes on offer, everything is just slightly left-of-center, creating plenty of crucial uniqueness, and leaving Exile feeling like far more than just an off-brand Diablo.
How has the translation onto consoles fared? Really well, actually. Just as many preferred Diablo 3’s hack-and-slash gameplay when played with a controller, here, the same is true, with Exile utilizing the now tired and tested ‘hold-a-shoulder-button-for-alternate-skills’ system, which keeps you across all your powers, attacks and skills with only the slightest of learning curves. It’s an intuitive fit for this sort of game, to be mashing buttons, rather than clicking a mouse ten times a second, so much so that I’ve actually come round to preferring this way, and I’m sure many will end up agreeing with me.
Best of all, Exile’s generous free-to-play system is still very much in place. As far as I’m aware, there’s never been a less intrusive system of in-game purchases in this sort of game, and that contributes enormously to my desire to keep playing. The in-game store’s main source of income seems to be cosmetic items and convenience upgrades such as large capacity storage and the like. Everything else in the game is achievable by anyone. That huge skill tree would have been a prime candidate for monetization, with certain areas accessible more quickly through in game purchases, and others segregated completely behind pay-walls. That’s simply not the case, and Grinding Gears should be commended highly for resisting that urge in the first place, and again here with the console release. It’s almost as if they don’t want all that intrusive stuff ruining their game or something. It shouldn’t be radical, but it is.
If ARPGs have never been your thing before, then Path of Exile’s repetitive combat and slow, methodical progression is going to do nothing to change your mind. But if this sounds right up your street, then there’s potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay waiting to be discovered here. And that’s without spending any real world cash. Which is a pretty sweet deal, by anyone’s standards.