Path of Exile is a gorgeous and enormous game that looks like exactly my shit — even if I have no idea what I’m seeing half the time. The free-to-play ARPG (think Diablo and Torchlight) has quietly chugged along as one of those semi-secret success stories in the vein of Warframe (a game I do absolutely adore). It looks and feels like a mainstream hit. Yet it’s too complex for much of the games press — which often switches between multiple titles a week — to cover thoroughly. I know this because we’ve tried. I’ve tried. I plan to do so again. And the next Path of Exile expansion, Echoes of the Atlas, feels like the latest in a long line of great excuses to make me give the game a serious shot.
I won’t see much of what the new update has to offer for a while, though. Echoes of the Atlas seems very focused on the endgame experience. It introduces a new “pinnacle boss fight” in the form of The Maven. This mystical murderess will appear while you’re in the middle of other, lesser boss fights. The twist is that she buffs those baddies before dropping a beacon you can take into even more encounters. From there you can summon her to watch the battle — effectively feeding the bosses to The Maven over time. Once you’ve done that enough, she hits you with a super-battle in her own realm, where you fight up to 10 copies of those enemies all at once. Finally you get to battle the big boss herself.
Live games like Path of Exile live and breathe by their recurring content. And the buffed boss rush acting as a gate to the new endgame seems like a smart way to make that work! Despite the repetitive enemies, this Maven’s Challenge actually seems like one of the more unique ideas I’ve seen from Path of Exile at my respectful distance.
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It’s not the only original content that’s grabbed my ear, though. Path of Exile works on a system of “Leagues.” It’s sort of a seasonal model that refreshes the game and its huge loot pool every so often. Each League also comes with a new time-limited event, which is meant to shake things up just enough without interfering with the core combat-heavy gameplay.
Two of the most recent Leagues — Harvest and Heist — previously drew my attention for how different they appeared. Harvest was a pseudo-gardening sim where you battled the beasts you grew. Heist was all about stealth: breaking into buildings with NPC allies and making off with the loot. Both of them seemed like wild new additions, so I’m glad to hear they’re also being added to the main flow of the game.
That being said, Harvest will look awfully different in Echoes of the Atlas. The activity is ditching the gardening aspect altogether. Chris Wilson, managing director of Path of Exile developer Grinding Gear Games, says that particular novelty wore off quickly as players exploited the system. They prepped spreadsheets and graphs to efficiently “break” the mode. Now they won’t have the chance. Instead, Sacred Groves will be something folks stumble into randomly. After which they need to pick a field to harvest and simply accept the rewards they get.
Heists, by contrast, don’t sound all that different. They’re a little streamlined is all. Wilson says this comes from the same philosophy as reducing the build time on Harvest. ARPG combat is what Path of Exile players “signed up for,” and too much in the way of that isn’t usually a good thing. As such, Heists now offer a bit of variety, but at an accelerated rate that gets people back into battle faster.
I can say as a Warframe player that too many disconnected modes can definitely spoil the experience. If all the added content doesn’t feed back in on itself, then what’s the point? Speaking of which: the new League event sounds like “pure Path of Exile.” They’re called Ritual Challenges, and basically close players into smaller arenas with unique modifiers fired by altars. The one I saw in the demo included rotating lasers for an onscreen exile to juke while they battled hordes in tight quarters. After which, the altar dished out loot and a resource one can use to buy it, which increases every time you clear a ritual in a given area.
Does that seem like a lot of jargon? It’s nothing compared to the cavalcade of words I experienced watching the preview of Echoes of the Atlas. Path of Exile is an incredibly dense game. Wilson admits this, calling it a “soul-grabbing experience,” and it’s easy to see why. The online game has an infamously huge skill tree (I’ve seen some call it the “skill forest”) and the new expansion adds even more.
As dense as the game gets, however, Path of Exile has never changed the number of skills players can equip at one time. Wilson says this helps keep the incredibly enormous game simple enough, moment-to-moment. But it’s still a scary barrier for new or potential players (like myself). New maps (this expansion adds 11 in total) and gear is nice. But they’re not fundamentally different from what so many people already play and enjoy.
Perhaps Path of Exile 2 will offer a true jumping-on point. The sequel was announced a little less than a year ago as an addition to the main game, rather than a replacement. It’s basically a new campaign that requires folks to roll new characters, but is included in the same launcher as Path of Exile. The two paths only eventually interact in the endgame. Wilson says it will be “more of a free-for-all” at that point, with both sides of players trading equipment and engaging in activities (like the Maven’s Challenge) together.
Grinding Gear Games was comparatively, mercifully spared the perils of COVID-19. The studio is one of the biggest of its kind in New Zealand, where the government has handled the pandemic scads better than the United States clusterfuck. Though a couple of quick quarantines did slow development. The studio is very much not built for work from home. Wilson is hopeful that 2021 will finally be the time to show off Path of Exile 2 in earnest.
In the meantime, expansions like Echoes of the Atlas is still the main focus! Those more in the know will want to check out the extremely detailed patch notes on the game’s main site. You can also catch a video demonstration of the news via the Path of Exile Twitch channel.