Path of Exile is an upcoming point-and-click action role-playing game from Grinding Gear Games. It's planned to be a free-to-play title with "ethical" micro-transactions (where you can pay real money for some items, but those items only change your appearance and not your capabilities in the game). At the moment, Path of Exile is in closed beta, and it appears to be somewhere over halfway complete. I spent a couple of weeks playing the game, and in the following pages I'll try to give you an idea of what it's like, how it differs from other action RPGs, and, ultimately, why it might be worth your time.
Path of Exile combines some tried-and-true game mechanics with some new ideas. When you start up the game, you might notice that it has a 3D engine, but then it locks you into an isometric view, and so it looks like dozens of other action role-playing games. It also has a familiar interface. You left click to move, you left click to attack, you hold down the left mouse button to continue attacking, you hold down the shift key to attack without moving, you right click to use a skill, you press the alt key to highlight objects on the ground, and so forth. If you've played any point-and-click action role-playing game in the last dozen years (and especially Diablo II), then you can probably jump right into Path of Exile and start playing it without any problem.
What makes Path of Exile stand out from the competition is its unique take on several of the genre's more intricate details. For example, while it currently has five classes (six are planned), including ranger, witch, and marauder, the classes don't really put any restrictions on your character. A witch doesn't have to focus on spells, and a marauder doesn't have to rely on heavy weapons and armor. The only elements that your choice of class changes are your starting ability scores (strength, dexterity and intelligence), some of your quest rewards, and your starting position on the passive skills board.
Speaking of skills, that's another area where Path of Exile is unique. Active skills only appear on gems (which you find as you play the game), and then you have to socket them into your equipment to use them. That means when you look for equipment, you have to pay attention to the sockets in the items as well as the stats, to make sure that you can support all of the skills you want to use. Plus, along with skill gems, there are also support gems, which improve any skills gems that they're connected to on an item. For example, one support gem adds cold damage to skills, and so it's worthwhile to find equipment with as many sockets as possible so you can add cold damage to as many of your skills as possible. Sockets are color-coded for different skills (dexterity skills are green, strength skills are red, and intelligence skills are blue), and skill gems gain experience as you do (to a maximum level of 7), adding to the complexity.
There are also a host of passive skills in the game, arranged on a grand board that looks like the craziest game ever invented. Your class determines your starting position on the board, but then you're free to move in any direction you want. I primarily played a ranger in the game, and a lot of the skill nodes in my part of the board were for dexterity bonuses and bow bonuses. There are also some special nodes that give new abilities, like a knockback effect on critical strikes and a piercing effect on arrows. As sort of a wild guess (I tried counting but then quickly gave up), I'd say that there are well over 500 nodes on the board, and so it's a good idea to take a close look at it when you start your character, and then plan out some routes to take.
Want another unique feature? In what is likely an effort to derail gold farmers, Path of Exile doesn't include any sort of in-game money. Instead, whenever you sell items, you receive back fragments of scrolls or shards of orbs. Currently, you can only receive one type of scroll this way -- Scrolls of Wisdom, which are used to identify objects -- but there are a variety of orb shards, including one set that combines into Orbs of Alchemy, which convert "normal" items into "rare" items. The payouts from the vendors are reminiscent of the Horadric Cube recipes from Diablo II, which means you have to pay attention (and perhaps use the generous equipment stash found in each town) to maximize what you get back from the equipment that you sell.
Other parts of the game aren't as unique. For example, the world is divided into acts, and each act features a hub town where you can do some shopping and pick up some minimalist quests (usually to go out and kill somebody). In between the towns there are distinct map areas, where the theme and level of each area is fixed, but the layout and the enemies are random. After every two or so map areas, you find a waypoint, which allows you to return to town. If you don't want to wait for a waypoint, then you can also use a Portal Scroll to return to town. Then when you finish exploring the map areas for one difficulty setting, you can repeat the process at a higher difficulty setting. If that doesn't sound familiar, it should. It's taken verbatim right out of Diablo II.
Or consider the equipment, which comes in four flavors: "normal" (basic items), "magic" (1-2 extra bonuses), "rare" (4-5 extra bonuses), and "unique." Item drops are always random, and the bonuses are for things like your damage, your attributes, and your chance to find better items. There aren't any set items, at least not yet. This is roughly the same system as used in every action role-playing game, and it works about as well here as it does elsewhere. The most interesting thing about the equipment is how Grinding Gear Games handles potions. Instead of collecting stacks of potions or gathering health and mana balls as you fight, Path of Exile uses flasks. Flasks can contain health or mana or both, and they fill up as you fight enemies. That means you don't need to constantly replace your flasks; they're a part of your equipment, and you use them over and over again (and they can be "magic" or "rare" just like other items).
Finally, in its current state Path of Exile only has an online mode, where an Internet connection is required to be able to play. But you don't have to group with other players. The more people you have in your party, the tougher the enemies are and the better the loot is, but equipment just falls to the ground, where the quickest player can grab it, and so grouping is something of an iffy proposition. But nicely the towns in the game are world zones where players get to mingle together (as opposed to the combat areas which are instanced for each party), and so the towns help to make Path of Exile feel more like an MMO rather than a collection of instances. Path of Exile also includes various leagues, where different leagues have different rule sets (including a hardcore league where you can only die once). The default league is friendly and cooperative, but in other leagues you might be allowed to attack and kill other players, or you might be rewarded for reaching a certain goal first.
When I first heard about Path of Exile, I thought it looked like a lightweight Diablo II clone. But after playing it for a while, I'm prepared to at least drop the "lightweight" part. Grinding Gear Games was clearly influenced by Diablo II, but they've added enough new features -- and, whoa, enough complexity -- for their game to stand apart. Path of Exile is also currently a 2GB download even with its campaign only half finished, and so there shouldn't be any confusion between it and those free-to-play browser games, either. It's tough to say how successful Path of Exile might be -- especially with Diablo III just around the corner -- but so far it looks like it's on the right track, and you certainly can't beat the price.