Time to take the road less traveled and talk about an indie title, The Path of Exile from Grinding Gear Games. This game is good, great, even, for a free-to-play, indie start-up title. I’ve been playing the closed beta version every day since I got back from PAX. Its basically a Diablo 2 clone, but don’t let that fool you into a sense of indifference about it. Instead of trying to reinvent the Action-RPG-wheel, Path of Exile went down the “fine tune and innovate where appropriate” route.
This game has lots of paths and many exiles. Should be fun!
The game has the same feel and flow to it as does the Diablo series: its a dark dungeon-crawler with randomized zones and a multi-act story arc. The inventory and UI controls are nearly identical to that of Diablo 2, but really this only serves to make Path of the Exile easy to pick up and understand immediately for fans of the older games. The major distinguishing differences come in the form of a vastly improved and more in-depth skill tree and a whole new ability system. Instead of the small, limited skill trees for each class that grant specific ability power-ups in other Action-RPGs, Path of the Exile has one huge (seriously, there’s like 700+ nodes) skill ‘forest’ that all classes have access to and can assign points to that affect their passive attributes. If a player really wanted to they could create a melee focused Witch or a magically inclined Maurader, or go the more normal route and choose between increasing the Duelists’s proficiency at duel-wielding or sword-and-board fighting. Active skills, however, do not come from the skill tree. Players will occasionally find, or be rewarded with, small gems during the game which they can affix to special gem slots in their armor. These gems are what grant players special abilities like fireballs, lightening strikes, and whatnot. The gems, and the abilities that come with them, become stronger as they are worn by the player during combat. Better armor pieces have more gem slots and even specialized slots that allow you to fix rare passive gems that affect the attributes of normal ability gems. These passive gems can change it so that your fireball becomes two fireballs, or it travels quicker, or has more of an AOE effect. With some armor pieces, you may even be able to have multiple passive gems affecting a single ability gem so that you shoot can multiple, super fast fireballs that explode upon impact in a wide shower of fiery death. Personally, I think I prefer Path of Exile’s new skill tree and gem ability systems over the more prototypical systems of other Action-RPGs. You can still play as the typical Ranger or typical Marauder classes, or you can mixing things up a bit which really adds to replay value and the ever crucial character customization aspect.
Told ya, loads of paths for these exiles to take. There's supposedly around 700 nodes (I am so not counting to verify that) and you'll only ever get around 100 nodes filled in on one character. Note: This is still beta and subject to change.
Now, it wouldn’t be a proper game review from me if I didn’t have at least some comments to make about character design or art. So here it is: YES! This is how you do it! Or, at least, this is definitely one way to do character art that is not sexist or demeaning to women gamers. I know it seems like a rail a lot against any sexy women in revealing outfits in games, but its not women showing skin or being sexy that bothers me. It’s when only women show skin or are sexualized, or when women show massively more skin or are much more sexualized than men. There’s a big difference really, its just that so few games seem to even remotely come close to an equal dynamic between sexy men and sexy women, that critiques of this trend can come across as ‘GAH, ladies showing skin?! HULK SMASH!’ to those who don’t understand that nuance. With Path of the Exile, however, we find a very nice balance: the women show quite a bit of skin (the Witch is wearing a fairly short, tattered dress and the Ranger is wearing a tank top with pants), but so are many of the men (the Templar is wearing a short toga and the Marauder is wearing a long loin cloth). They also manage to avoid having the somewhat skimpy outfits of the women be sexualized while the skimpily dressed men stay un-sexualized, a misstep that many games fall into. Instead, the Ranger exudes an aura of power much like the Marauder and the Witch has the same ‘gone through hell and survived’ air to her that the Templar does, if a little less stoic and more vengeance-y than he is. This is actually one of the things that caught my eye and drew me to the game. It is a major plus in my book and while it doesn’t make the game anywhere near the Perfect Feminist Game™, it does put it up a couple notches above other games.
I also love that the Witch's background story reads more like something out of the time of the witch hunting craze than some overly romanticized fantasy concept. Then again, this is Path of the *Exiles* so that makes sense.
All in all, Path of Exile may not be breaking any huge boundaries when it comes to gameplay or the social perspective, but it definitely is making good steps forwards on both accounts. It’s a completely free-to-play game from a small team of developers. They could have gone down the easy road and used outrageously big boobed women in bikinis begging you to rescue them, “My Lord” (yea, I’m looking at you Evony), to get attention and money to their total knock-off of a game, but they didn’t. They took the road less traveled, and by that made all the difference.