Path of Exile is the best dungeon crawler in the world right now.
In Part Three we go over what makes the game’s world unique and interesting.
Building a Home for Chaos
Path of Exile began with a rather simple story. It didn’t try to impress anyone with a fleshed out world, a memorable cast of characters, or a sense of your hero’s significance. No matter which class you picked during character creation you’d start the same: you were once an accomplished example of your class back in the wonderful city-state of Oriath, but then you got caught committing some sort of crime/sin and were exiled to the dreadful continent of Wraeclast. Your goal is to some day find the man responsible for your exile — Dominus — and kill him. The enemies you fought and the bosses you encountered were either generic evil monsters or lackeys for Dominus. Nothing special, but at least it wasn’t pretentious.
Before long, Grinding Gear Games trickled out more information about Wraeclast’s ancient civilizations and their significance. Those Skill Gems? They have origins with the Vaal, a long lost empire which became corrupted and decadent. They put out some comic books explaining key moments in history, but I never read them. The story didn’t matter in Path of Exile, so why would I? Then a Lovecraftian demonic substrate was revealed; glimpses into a nightmare reality hidden from most people’s eyes. Still not that special. As new Acts were added to the story we allowed to visit some areas we heard about earlier and finally confront and kill Dominus, getting our revenge. But although he represented the holy inquisition that stamped out misbehavior, this question of a corrupting force was bigger than Dominus, and in fact he seemed to be deeply connected with the evil that lurked behind the mask of normalcy. Once again I shrugged off the whole thing. Part of me was annoyed that they would keep trying to create a larger woven narrative for a game that — we had all agreed! — would never have an interesting plot.
Gods and Monsters
Nowadays, after the recent ultra-expansion called Fall of Oriath, I marvel at how far GGG has taken their world. Not only do you finally get to see the place you were booted out of, but an entire pantheon has been revealed, and the cosmic forces at play have become more tangible. It’s not meant to be complex like Metal Gear Solid or ambiguous like Dark Souls, it’s just a solid framework to give your accomplishments a sense of greater impact. As you get further in the story you eventually have to go back to the start and revisit places you saved earlier, and it all feels different. It feels like you changed the world. The characters you talked to before recognize you and give you a new sense of respect. New threats have arisen, but this time around you’re not just an “exile”, you’re the enigmatic savior of the world as they know it. Let me tell you, as somebody who’s quite sensitive to cheesy and pretentious writing, Path of Exile could have gone a lot worse than this when it comes to tone. Part of me wishes I could erase my first impressions of the game all those years ago and come back to it with fresh eyes. So much has evolved and improved since the early days when I dismissed the plot, but I have to consciously force myself to take stock of what a fantastic job they’ve done.
Even the endgame has a respectable twist to it. You gain the ability to visit alternate realities and track a mysterious being through them. It’s perfect for an Action RPG like this, where random generation of content is king. You can’t have a tight, linear and perfectly scripted story in a game that’s supposed to have infinite replayability. What you need instead is a good excuse for why there’s an inexhaustible supply of danger everywhere you go.
In an Action RPG a lot of story is conveyed through visual design. Enemies, locations, and items found can flesh out a story without needing to say a word. The enemy designs in Path of Exile could be better in this regard, but not without treading into the same territory as every other “fantasy” genre game. Although it feels cool to explore a world and discover the unique races of various lands, it’s been done a billion times. There are no elves, orcs, or dwarves to meet in either Wraeclast or Oriath, nor have I witnessed a dragon. There are no bright and adorable races to make you go “awww” or an archetypal evil stepmother witch who will evoke that timeless trope. As I said before, this game goes with a more horror/Cthulu school of design, keeping everything in the general realm of spooky or disturbing. This isn’t my cup of tea, personally, but I respect it as a way of both honoring the (frankly unbeatable) tone of Diablo II and taking it in a more original direction. Rather than a neat and tidy Heaven-versus-Hell paradigm where a demonic invasion is brought on by Satan himself, you have a much more ambiguous and arcane sense of evil, with the gods themselves being questionable meddling figures. Depending on how tired you are of the “timeless” nostalgic formula you may find this highly refreshing, or a shame.
What I can say with confidence is that GGG handles its own material with the utmost class. There’s a brilliant twist about half way through the game where you team up with Sin, the misunderstood outcast of the pantheon who wishes to see all the gods silenced. When this happened I got nervous. I feared some sort of edgy Luciferian preaching where it turns out that their God figure is actually the bad guy and their Satan character is actually the cool liberator of mankind. But thanks to the way they establish the pantheon of arrogant cosmic forces who are all beyond the pale, the moral of the story is less about commenting on religion in our own society and more about establishing a world in which good and evil are not handed down by deities, but born out of humanity’s ambition and hubris. I’m still a bit fuzzy on the details, but I’m pretty sure the idea is that all the gods were once mortals who ascended to godhood. Pretty sure that’s a big part of the story, and I’m pretty sure your own character “ascends” multiple times. That’s a damn fine paradigm to establish for an Action RPG, and one that I hope GGG continues to explore.