Diablo Meets Final Fantasy VII In This Ambitious Action-RPG

In a year filled with addictive action-RPGs with names like Diablo, Borderlands, and Torchlight, it might seem insane for another contender to jump into the fray. But the people behind Path of Exile don't mind a little insanity.

This December, Path of Exile will officially enter open beta and what the team is calling a soft launch. It's an ambitious game, a hack-n-slash RPG that blends the skill-driven lootfest of Diablo II with the materia-based character customization of Final Fantasy VII. And it's totally free to play.

But why do we need another action-RPG? Between Diablo III this May and Torchlight II this September, there are plenty of options for PC gamers looking to scratch that itch to click-click-click til the wee hours of morning. Where does Path of Exile fit in?

"I would say that Path of Exile is a game for people who care about intelligent character builds in action-RPGs," producer Chris Wilson told me during a recent Skype interview. He also told me about Act III, a major expansion to the game that will launch later this year. (More on that later.)

I'd asked him to pitch his game to a player who was maybe burnt out on Diablo or still addicted to Torchlight. Why should we play Path of Exile? How does it stand out from the pack?

Diablo Meets Final Fantasy VII In This Ambitious Action-RPG
Maramoa, a "highly decorated Karui warrior" and one of the new characters in Act III of Path of Exile.

"One of the key things is having a secure online economy," he said. "Our first design goal was to get that in place, because that way we're not just a single-player action-RPG. People can actually form an online community around it and care about their characters and items, in comparison to, for example, Torchlight II which has peer-to-player multiplayer, which has all the advantages of multiplayer but not as much security as having dedicated servers, where the character is stored on the server."

Torchlight II, which received glowing reviews when it was released last month, maintains a completely open environment. You can mod or cheat all you want; there's no security or DRM to get in your way.

In contrast, Path of Exile has a closed system because it's built around competition, Wilson says. It's designed for "hardcore" players. Which makes it sort of different than Diablo III too.

"With regard to Diablo III, I'm very impressed with the level of polish that Blizzard has on the game," he said. "We're quite different, though, in terms of, the character customization we have available is both a little more complicated and a little more unforgiving than a game like Diablo III.

"So to give an example, we have a passive skill tree which you'll see in game, that has I think 1,315 nodes. And the player travels through this tree as they level up their characters. We don't allow them to respec their choices very easily. We feel it's important that locking them into their choices means they'll feel more ownership with their character."

Wilson compares it to Magic: The Gathering in the sense that it's all about customization. You'll roam around the world, collecting skills in the form of gems not unlike Final Fantasy VII's materia. Like in Square's seminal role-playing game, you can blend and combine Path of Exile's gems to create crazy combinations. You can build attacks that split into multiple projectiles, passive fire traps, totems that summon minions for you, and all sorts of other interesting things, Wilson says. "We've seen some really wacky builds come out of the community."

The Path of Exile

In late 2006, a group of four friends in New Zealand got together and decided to make a game. They were playing a lot of Diablo II and EverQuest, so they thought maybe it could be sort of like those. But more hardcore. More tailored for people who like to spend a lot of time hacking, tweaking, and thinking.

"Our basic goal was to make an action-RPG that we would want to play," Wilson said. "We're pretty hardcore gamers... Although we've tried hard to make it approachable for new gamers, it's designed to make the hardcore gamers feel special."

So they poured in all their life savings—"Which is a great idea, it turns out," Wilson quipped—and started working. After a couple of years they started "fundraising from rich friends," Wilson told me.

"What do you mean by 'rich friends'?" I asked.

"Friends who have lots of money," Wilson said.

Well then. In September of 2010, they took Path of Exile to the west coast and started showing it off to journalists and fans at PAX Prime in Seattle. They started building up a community of interested fans—maybe 12-13,000, Wilson estimates—and then selected 10 or 20 of "the best, most intelligent" ones to join their closed alpha and help tailor the game.

"Our basic goal was to make an action-RPG that we would want to play. We're pretty hardcore gamers...

Although we've tried hard to make it approachable for new gamers, it's designed to make the hardcore gamers feel special."

About a year later, Wilson and the team launched a closed beta. Dreaming up creative ways to invite new people, they came up with a brilliant strategy: set up a timer on the Path of Exile website that would randomly invite a new forum member every five minutes.

"The community goes crazy over the fact that people are invited randomly," he said. "They have to wait a certain number of weeks or days to get invited... It got us a lot of discussion on various forums."

This April, Path of Exile officially opened to the public. For $10, you'd get early beta access and 10 bucks worth of credit in the game. More money would give you more credit and more rewards.

"We sold $200,000 of packs in the first long weekend," Wilson said. They're now up to $1.24 million. As of last week, they'd sold 82,240 packs (including 95 $1,000 packages).

When they launch this December, Path of Exile will be free-to-play, with optional microtransactions. Both of those terms—"free-to-play" and "microtransactions"—sound like poison to many gamers' ears these days, of course. But Wilson promises that payments will only be for things that are "convenient or cosmetic."

"Recently in the way we describe the game we always downplay the free part, giving people the expectation that they have to pay for it," Wilson said. "And it's just a nice surprise that it is free. And if I could do it all over again I would've actually put a nominal retail price on it—you know, $20 or something—just so there's an association of quality with the product. Our goal is so that you can sit down and play as much as you want... without paying anything."

(You won't be able to sell items, either: "We also understood how badly Diablo players reacted to the concept of item sales in that game," Wilson said.)

Diablo Meets Final Fantasy VII In This Ambitious Action-RPG

Hold on, I asked Wilson: If the game is free-to-play, won't people who dished out $10 for early access be peeved when it suddenly goes free this December?

Think of the early beta access as a bonus, Wilson told me. "You're paying $10 in microtransaction credit and to help support the development," he said. "But you're also getting a beta key."

Not an unfair deal. And development for this game has needed quite a bit of support. Today, the Path of Exile team consists of 19 people. They've been working at the game for almost six years. So I had to ask: what the hell took so long?

"It's our first game project and we're perfectionists," Wilson said, laughing. "I think part of the reason is we're kind of trying to play by our own rules, because we don't know the way a large company would do it, and we're not constrained to do it the way a smaller company would. So if we were to get say venture capital or a publisher or something, they might say, 'Do it, put 100 people on this and get it done. It's much better to get it out early.' or something.

"We're just doing what we can afford with the level of income and savings we had."

Diablo Meets Final Fantasy VII In This Ambitious Action-RPG

The Third Act

Act III of Path of Exile, which we can reveal exclusively on Kotaku today, will take place in the city of Sarn, pictured above. Right now, Path of Exile consists of two acts; the third will launch this December alongside the open beta. And Wilson says it will expand the game's content by an additional 50%.

Here's the full description for Act III, straight from the team at Grinding Gear Games:

You're standing at the edge of Sarn, the ruined capital of the Eternal Empire. Not so eternal now. Its citizenry is gone, taken by death and undeath in equal measures. Where hawkers shouted their bargains, ladies browsed for silks, young lovers walked hand in hand... creatures of nightmare stalk and feed. Beasts born of corruption. The restless dead, bitter and lethal. A cursed city of painful promises and preternatural peril.

This is Path of Exile, Act III: The Eternal City of Sarn

You are an exile, banished for your crimes to Wraeclast, and given a life sentence in the land of the damned. But Wraeclast wasn't always like this. It was once an empire of ten million souls, a beautiful and bountiful continent that prospered for more than a thousand years.

Something happened. A cataclysm. A corruption beyond reason. Wraeclast took itself off to bed one balmy evening and, come morning, it failed to wake. It slumbers, tossing and turning in the perpetual nightmare that enslaved it during the darkest hours.

Whether Witch, Marauder or Duelist, Templar, Ranger or Shadow, it's up to you to slice and slaughter your way through the squares, marketplaces, and abandoned homes of this necropolis...

...to answer a question.

Who murdered Wraeclast?

You're not alone in your curiosity. Others explore the twisted capital city of the Eternal Empire. The Ebony Legion has sailed from Oriath to scour Sarn for its secrets... avaricious maggots on a fecund carcass. General Gravicius plunders its tombs for wealth and power.

Piety of Theopolis harnesses corruption like a lover to her bedhead. Her lovely visage hides an imagination most monstrous.

Is everyone and everything in Sarn out to kill or maim you beyond recognition? Pretty much... with a few exceptions.

As a fellow exile, Hargan, will tell you: "Welcome to dirty, old Sarn, the metropolis of opportunity. The opportunity to make something of yourself or the opportunity to have a very messy death."

Diablo Meets Final Fantasy VII In This Ambitious Action-RPG

Grinding Gear's approach is really interesting. While many publishers prefer to close off their doors and keep players at a distance, the team behind Path of Exile is all about communication. They put a lot of time into their community, because that community is really all they have.

"We've put a lot of effort into engaging with the community as much as we can," Wilson said. "For a small project like us, they're the lifeblood.

"If the community gets bored and goes elsewhere, then that's all our money wasted."