What makes Path of Exile different from Diablo and Torchlight

Games like Diablo and Torchlight are popular, but if you want an alternative to the alternative, then Path of Exile might be it.

New Zealand-based Grinding Gear Games introduced an ongoing open beta of its point-and-click action-role-playing game in late January. The developer strove for a darker and more realistic style than some of the “bright, cartoony RPGs” out there, which automatically distinguishes it from Runic Games’ Torchlight 2.

A number of other qualities set Path of Exile apart from the competition. Here’s what you can discover.

It’s free, but it’s always online

Diablo 3 cost full price ($60) when it launched, and Torchlight 2 less than half that, but Path of Exile is completely free right now for anyone who wants to play.

Brian Weissman, one of Grinding Gear’s founders and the producer on the game, confirmed that it would stay that way — even after the beta ends. Microtransactions are how it stays profitable (the developer is enforcing “a strict non-‘pay to win’ policy”), and they allow for ongoing development.

That also means it’s always online.

“The game was designed to always be played online; this fact is instrumental to the way that our economy is structured,” Weissman told GameZone. “Allowing players to play client-hosted games means that players have absolute control over their saved character files. This completely undermines one of the primary incentives for playing Path of Exile: the acquisition of awesome loot through gameplay or trading. If you can just conjure up whatever items you want using an editor, [the] game would be far less enjoyable.”

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Enemies respawn when you’re away

Not every action-RPG features respawning enemies. Once players clear an overworld or dungeon, the enemies might stay dead.

Path of Exile enables players to fast-travel via waypoints, which are common to many other games, but they can also choose to pass through previously conquered areas and gain more experience.

Weissman said while there’s no actual set timer for respawns, “if you remain out of the zone for too long, it will close.”

That means if you come back to the game after an extended period of time, you’ll find fresh enemies lurking about.

“All of the instances in PoE are randomly-generated, so the layout, distribution, and density of enemies will be different every time,” he said.

A barter system instead of gold

Wraeclast is a completely gold-free world. Players trade items they’ve collected for other valuables, such as portal scrolls, flasks (aka health and mana bottles), or equipment. Sometimes, these items are split into fragments and require players to acquire a set number before they can be used.

This system is derived from the barter economy in Diablo 2, with one crucial difference.

“Sure, there was gold [in Diablo 2]; tons of it, in fact,” said Weissman. “But because gold was so common, and there were so few uses for it, it effectively didn't exist. People bartered with items because they had to; you really just couldn't buy anything meaningful with gold. With this in mind, we realized that there was no reason whatsoever to put gold into PoE either.”

Weissman says the team “couldn’t be happier” with how bartering in Path of Exile has turned out, calling it “incredibly popular.”

He said, “Some players balk at the lack of a uniform currency, but they quickly realize just how well the system works. Websites have sprung up to list the going rates for PoE currency items; people debate them in forums and carry out elaborate trades that involve dozens of different items.”

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Flasks are replenishable and versatile

Players can assign health and mana potions, or flasks, to the 1-5 number keys, but they won't buy them in bulk before embarking on quests like in other action-RPGs — which Weissman calls “cumbersome and obnoxious.” Instead, these containers hold “charges” and refill when you return to town.

“It establishes a good natural pace for your engagement with enemies,” he said. “When you are fighting against enemies that are too difficult for your given level or equipment, you'll know because you'll frequently find yourself running out of flask charges.

“The same thing is true for fighting against bosses. Because you can't just fill your inventory full of potions, you are operating with a more limited resource in boss encounters, which changes their strategy quite a bit. You always have the option to portal back to town, but portals themselves are a limited currency item.”

Flasks also take on affixes, which activate on use. “The mods do things like increase armor during the healing effect, increase your movement while healing, dispel chilling or burning, and so on,” said Weissman. “We even have a whole range of flasks that don't deal with health or mana at all but instead give the player temporary buffs.”

Passive abilities are more grid than 'tree'

Choosing stats and abilities to upgrade is a regular part of character-leveling in action-RPGs. Path of Exile divides a character’s main attributes between intelligence (blue), strength (red), and dexterity (green), and certain classes specialize in one or a combination of these qualities.

The Ranger, for example, is strongest in dexterity. She shares the same passive skill tree as other characters but starts at a point that’s relevant to her needs, such as handling with a bow.

This design resembles the popular sphere grid from console RPG Final Fantasy 10.

“We decided early on that we wanted a system that gave players maximum flexibility in character design,” said Weissman.

He added, “We feel we've done a good job of balancing the classes though we're still in beta, and it's still a work in progress. A recent patch, 0.10.2, included a big rebalancing of the passives in the Duelist branch of the tree. We watch the passives that players are using very closely, and we will make additional changes to the tree as the game evolves. Fortunately, it's a very wide-open system, with over 1,350 nodes, so tinkering with a little bit of the skill balance doesn't have game-breaking ramifications.”

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Skills are items

In Path of Exile, players learn new active skills — the kind they can use regularly in combat — by socketing their items with colored gems. This system includes both normal skill gems as well as support gems, which fit into linked sockets. These even level up, and players can swap them out of their arsenal anytime and assign new skills to the QWERT keys.

Blue, red, and green gems work in any item with a corresponding color socket even if it bestows a weapon-based property. As long as the basic conditions are met, players are free to arrange their gems however they want.

They acquire these gems two ways: as quest rewards and random “world drops.”

“Quests generally award skills that a specific class will be most interested in, especially early on,” said Weissman. “A Marauder, our pure-strength character, will get a choice of mainly melee-based strength skills from quest rewards.”

On the other hand, random drops exhibit no class bias. “Monsters can drop any skill or support in the game, including those given out through quests, but some skills can only be found through random drops,” he said.

Deep character customization

Players have “nearly limitless ways” to experiment with their characters, says Weissman, and that may have a little something to do with the game’s background.

“Few people know this, but one of the biggest inspirations behind PoE is the card game Magic: The Gathering,” he said. “In M:TG, you build a deck from an enormous pool of available cards, and you add flavor distinction to your deck with your choice of colors. Every color in Magic has a distinct role to play, much like the classes in PoE.

“So a player of Magic might play a predominantly black deck, but they might splash a few cards in green or white to shore up some of black's inherent weaknesses. Similarly, a Duelist in PoE might specialize mainly in melee-oriented sword passives, but he might splash into a few mana or crit nodes that are part of the Witch branch of the tree.”

Weissman himself was a huge professional Magic player in the mid-to-late nineties.

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Team up or go alone — but stay connected

Path of Exile features a global chat log on the left side of the screen that players can hide or adjust as they see fit. This helps you feel connected when you’re playing solo and immerses you in the lingo and lore.

It also comes in handy when joining or creating parties on the noticeboard. Players can choose to band with others based on level or area; they have the freedom to name groups whatever they like to attract certain types of players to their party. Fellow adventurers can then communicate directly by activating a specific setting in the chat log and typing private messages. This is helpful for taking on more challenging areas.

Weissman says the game is fun either way although the mechanics do change slightly to compensate for the extra players.

“If you're playing in a group, and a higher quality item drops on the ground, it will be temporarily allocated to a player,” he said.

“If that player is too slow to grab the item or isn't interested in it, the allocation eventually [lifts], and the item becomes fair game for anyone who wants it.”

He added, “Another way that group play shines is by allowing players to use more esoteric builds that simply might not work solo. There are lots of skills designed to augment people in your party, and there are plenty of players who enjoy taking a support role in groups. All of the content in PoE is available for any type of player, solo or grouping.”

From ‘ladders’ to ‘leagues’

Grinding Gear has taken the idea of “ladder seasons” in Diablo 2 one step further with race events called “leagues.”

Weissman said, “We're right in the middle of our first league season of 109 scheduled events. When a player joins one of these league races, they make a new character, and they are competing with everyone else in that league. The league runs for a set duration — anywhere from one hour to a full week — giving players a chance to test their skills on all levels of the game.”

The developer then tracks players’ progress — not just how they’re doing in relation to others but also what milestones they’re hitting first. This earns them seasonal “reward points” and unique prizes.

“We also plan to introduce player-created leagues down the road as a paid microtransaction,” said Weissman. “These leagues will allow players to invite their friends, to compete against each other using all sorts of innovative or wacky rule sets. Many of the paid leagues will be [player-versus-player] variants for those who favor that type of gameplay.

“As far as we know, PoE is the only game offering competitive events like this, so it sets us apart from other action-RPGs.”

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Plenty of end-game material

A good end-game is important to players; it’s been a topic of concern for other action-RPGs, like Diablo 3.

Grinding Gear has come prepared.

One option is the maps, which appear toward the end of Merciless difficulty. Players can take these stone fragments to the Eternal Laboratory, where they open six portals to special areas.

“Things get much more interesting once the player begins to alter the mods on the map,” said Weissman. “Using many of our in-game currencies, players can increase the rarity of their map to Magical, Rare, or even Unique. As the maps increase in rarity and monster level, they gain additional challenges, and of course, they offer bigger rewards.”

Then there are the leagues, like the future “Cutthroat League,” a PvP free-for-all where you can kill other players and plunder their corpses for inventory and equipment (everything but the skill gems).

“We ran a few test Cutthroat events during PoE's closed beta, and the response has been tremendous,” said Weissman.

Players can also grind on bosses, killing them repeatedly, or take part in additional PvP, which is still growing as the open beta continues. Head-to-head and team-focused arena-based combat is available.

Grinding Gear is also currently working on an expansion to Act 3 and is making this a yearly goal.

“We're also rapidly adding new weekly content in the form of new skills and unique items, which will give veteran players lots of new ways to test their strategic character building abilities,” said Weissman.

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