Note: this is a serious attempt at explaining where I feel this game has let me down. It invites discussion and responses, but troll answers, personal attacks and any other such time-wasters will be reported without hesitation. If you feel this is 'TL', 'DR', and by DR I mean 'Don't Respond.'-- Charan
Summary: This is an examination (and condemnation) of Path of Exile's failure to stay true to a sacred ARPG convention, that of one vs many, despite the viability of solo play. It discusses the all-too-quick necessity to divest single target skills in favour of area of effect, regardless of class, skill choice or playstyle. The 'cheap' difficulty booster of 'more mobs' and 'more projectiles' is considered at fault, as well as the overall potency of so-called 'trash mobs'. I posit that this means where other ARPGs provide a true variety of styles within each class, Path of Exile merely teases them, with the game's method of presenting 'difficulty' forcing an almost fatal homogenisation into a single, uninspired style: 'ranged' area of effect.
The conclusion is that this monster-like behaviour by the player even during a normal playthrough is not only anti-heroic, but strips the player of the most basic reward of any ARPG -- that of knowing one can overcome many and still remain one.
ARPG vs RPG: The Individual vs The Group
If there's one thing that has always drawn me to ARPGs, it's the concept of one versus many. You against the Horde. The odds seem utterly stacked against you, but only in terms of quantity -- quality-wise, you can do so many things the enemy can't. After all, you're the hero.
To me, that's one of the fundamental differences between the ARPG and any other form of RPG: solo play isn't just permissible, it's viable. I have played many RPGs over time and virtually all of them work with the assumption that you are controlling a party, simulating that classic RPG experience: Dungeons and Dragons with a table of friends assuming the roles of a balanced party. There is a sense that alone, any of these would-be heroes will fail. The RPG is all about 'Us'. It's about the group.
Where the RPG is all about managing your party members' functions and abilities, the ARPG is much more about creating a character that can handle whatever is thrown at it -- with the unspoken assumption that whatever is thrown at it won't favour one class over another overwhelmingly. The ARPG is inherently more heroic than the RPG in this respect. Whether it's Link in a dungeon surrounded by lava, Adol facing off against corridors of ogres or The Wanderer delving under Tristram, the ARPG is founded on the notion that one extraordinary individual can overcome waves of adversity. The entire premise of the ARPG is the power of one. The potency of a single, determined, gifted individual.
Path of Exile is an ARPG. You can play it in a party but that party will rarely function as cohesively as an RPG party, precisely because of the aforementioned necessity: in an RPG, a party that doesn't work together, dies. In an ARPG, a party that doesn't work together just kills individually. A GOOD party in an ARPG can be a whole other level of excellence, but this should be a peripheral notion. Once the party becomes the focus, the demand, the ARPG has stepped away from its heroic roots and entered the much less individually-rewarding realm of the RPG.
It's not dangerous to go alone: the viability of Solo play in Path of Exile
Whether or not you can play PoE solo is not in question. Even the most challenging of content can and has been tackled by solitary players. Provided a player is willing to do whatever it takes, there is little compulsion to play in a party as regards the game's difficulty. People party for speed of clearing, increased loot and experience, and other meta-game reasons outside of what should be the game's 'core difficulty'. The game should be, relatively speaking, as difficult with 6 people as it is with 1, party chemistry notwithstanding. Whether or not that holds true is for another topic, another time. Suffice to say that the game's challenge level should not be dependent on how many people you're playing with.
And Path of Exile achieves that, despite some misgivings after the revelation of what seemed to be a 'raid boss': Atziri and her creatively named successor, Uber Atziri. Many people play this game solo and at their own pace. They are able to walk their own paths along the roots and branches of the Skilldrasil. All seven Exiles function as relatively equal starting points, given the eventuality of 'invading' the areas more commonly associated with other classes. All seven Exiles are given sufficient skill rewards along the way to deal with whatever Wraeclast may throw at them, although there are some junctions where a certain playstyle may be forced to make a difficult, almost unfair decision (A lightning Shadow, upon finishing Intruders In Black on normal, must choose between Arc, Conductivity and Critical Weakness, for example). These niggles aside, the game allows a solo player to start a character of any class and progress through the acts and difficulties without really having to reach out for skills or gear -- again, give or take.
By yourself but not alone: Your path, but not your walk
The issue that arises is not which path a player chooses, which class or which style, but how they employ it to get by. What starts out as a true experience of One vs Many gradually dissolves into something else: a simulation of Many against Many.
The start of the game is quite enticing for someone seeking the feeling of overcoming the odds: the Exile wakes up, literally one with nothing, beats a zombie to death and takes a skill. This single event is a microcosm of what the player might expect from there in: beating things up, taking their stuff, and generally proving the supremacy of savagery over civility in a world without morals. This is a far cry from other ARPGs where one typically starts 'on a quest' and is clearly heroic. Path of Exile is much, much simpler, and this initial encounter sets that tone.
This continues for a while, as the Exile makes their way through the areas. And by and large, the Exile can get by using any of the skills offered as a reward. More economical players will choose area of effect attacks and spells, and it is perhaps telling that each class is now offered one that seems to fit their archetype very early:
Witch: Fireball (magic)
Shadow: Reave (claws, daggers)
Templar: Ground slam, sweep (staff)
Ranger: Split Arrow (archery)
Duelist: Cleave (swords)
Marauder: Ground Slam, Cleave (mauls, swords, axes)
Scion: Spectral Throw (everything and anything melee)
There are, no doubt, some players who wouldn't even bother with any of the other skills on offer restricted to single targets. Racing in particular doesn't allow for that sort of frivolity.
But if the other skills are on offer, then it is fair to say they should be viable, even if they're single target only. And they are, early on. Even in situations where one must deal with 'adds' or minions, the damage output of a single target spell or attack is usually sufficient to outgun the oncoming horde. This, I feel, is the very essence of the ARPG: the lone 'hero', facing hordes, armed not with an army or 'sweeping' screen-clearing skills, but an attack or a skill that deals more than enough damage to clear so-called 'trash mobs' efficiently without turning more difficult foes into pushovers.
Path of Exile fails this condition spectacularly, and it does so well before even the end of its first difficulty, arguably its 'story'.
Upon reaching the middle of Act 2, the Exile is presented with a choice of support gem for completing the quest 'Sharp and Cruel'. These include Melee Splash, Fork and Lesser Multiple Projectiles. A quick glance at the reward list shows that each Exile is offered at least one of those. The other options augment an existing skill that is very likely already Area of Effect. An exile that has relied on a single target skill until this point is very, very strongly encouraged to choose a support gem that will transform their single target skill into an Area of Effect ability.
The irony that this is a reward for a quest that involves dealing with 'endless' minions and a boss in a very tight environment should not be overlooked either.
Again: common sense dictates, as the hordes grow stronger and more populous, that one should choose a transition from single target to multiple. If one can. It is very much a path of least resistance. But if an option exists, it should be viable. To say otherwise is to declare the other support gems traps, and again, there are likely many players who believe they are.
The difficulty only increases from there, and it really only increases in one direction: more enemies, tougher enemies, faster enemies. They don't get smarter; the environments don't really present any more challenge. All that happens is that as one progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious how forced one is to play Area of Effect. It is a natural response to the way in which Path of Exile escalates its challenge.
There is little room for engaging, tactical play. A game that started out as potentially one vs many has become your many vs their many. Whether you're throwing multiple Spectral weapons, forking Sparks, Cleaving, using totems, trapping, melee splashing, Reaving...you're essentially pretending to be more than one offensive force. By the time an Exile reaches Dominus, they're going to need a very effective means of dealing with very fast, very strong multiple enemies. Area of Effect is a given.
The feeling of One with Nothing overcoming the seas of bad guys, that visceral satisfaction of knowing your one attack or spell is THAT much stronger than their life, has been lost to a much less entertaining One With Everything. You are a one-man army, but not in the cool, heroic sense. You are an army because your damage output looks like something an army would launch, rather than simply having that effect.
Becoming the beast: What's wrong with it?
I can imagine the response to this may well be, 'so what?' If using Area of Effect skills kills more things quickly, why not go for it? This is what the game seems to want people to do. So do it. Why fight what the game demands of you?
I would argue that this approach takes the idea of 'becoming the beast' too far. There is a beauty to how Path of Exile illustrates its basic philosophy, a borderline cliché with more than a vague echo of Nietzsche's maxim from Beyond Good and Evil (or the opening monologue of Pacific Rim, if you like): to fight monsters, you must become a monster. Or, as Nessa would put it, become that which even nightmares fear. The Exile starts with nothing, as a nothing in Wraeclast, but ends up with everything, an embodiment of everything Wraeclast represents.
Unfortunately, this also means stepping away from being 'heroic' in potential and becoming the beast. A hero is heroic precisely because the odds are against them. The rush of overcoming those odds is the hero's reward, and in some cases substance of abuse. A beast, on the other hand, finds its pleasure not in overcoming odds but simply destroying things. It has no concern for odds or adversity. As far as the beast is concerned, the easier the killing, the better. Further, the more challenging, the less likely the beast is to bother, because the beast is if nothing else instinctively economical with its resources. Once again, we have the path of least resistance, but this time not being chosen by a would-be hero. This time, it's being rampaged all over by a monster obliterating entire hordes in one attack. More often than not, the player-monster kills from afar, because if one doesn't need to be in harm's way, why go there?
War is Hell...Bullet Hell: Path of Exile the shooting game?
One game often considered a prototype for not only Path of Exile but the entire 'multiplayer ARPG' sub-genre is Gauntlet. Although dressed up as a fantasy game, Gauntlet is in essence a shooting game: all four heroes have, by default, ranged attacks. If a monster gets too close to a hero, the hero will kill it but is guaranteed to take damage. Gauntlet is classified as a hack and slash game, but I would argue that's more due to its fantasy aesthetics than the game play. Anyone attempting to actually hack and slash in a game where your default attack is ranged isn't going to last very long, or at the very least is going to be told 'you're doing it wrong!'
That this can probably also be said of Path of Exile is problematic. As noted above, the Exile is given a wide range of skills, and not all of them are by default ranged or area of effect. Also as noted, it seems that 'melee, single target' is a temporary state for any given Exile, as support gems soon attempt to 'upgrade' said skills into area of effect or ranged abilities.
Here I am speaking not only of Melee Splash and Lesser Multiple Projectiles, but also the Totem and Trap supports, both of which act primarily as 'fake party members', since they can essentially discharge skills as the Exile would, but from a position distanced from the Exile. The Mine support gets a bit more of a pass because it has to be laid 'in person' and manually detonated (typically). The Mine is, ironically, more of a traditional trap than the Trap, which can be hurled with relative precision and magically lands set up and ready to be sprung. The Totem, obviously, is even more guilty of moving Path of Exile further away from the one vs many ARPG focus. There's no denying these support gems are clever and facilitate some very interesting play styles, but do they really belong in an ARPG?
Note that I'm not asking if they belong in Path of Exile. Given that the game's difficulty scales not with smarter, more creative enemies but with enemies that fire more projectiles, move faster and/or hit harder, simulating a party-style output of damage by the player is absolutely logical. Most would consider it essential. But Path of Exile is the first ARPG where I have felt this way even on the first playthrough, even well before that point of mindless grinding, boss runs and farming. As early as the Pyramid of act 2, the game is relying on rooms full of multi-projectile mages and super-quick snakes that cause damage over time if they land a hit. While this is before the more potent support gems such as Trap and Totem, it's well after the first wave of AoE-makers such as Melee Splash and Lesser Multiple Projectiles.
But I ask again: should an ARPG demand of its solo player Area of Effect ability? I recall making it to Hell difficulty in Diablo 2 with single target attacks solo. Sometimes it was even with just default attack, if one had the right gear. Diablo *One*, that most pure of One vs Many experiences, didn't even have AoE attacks, although every class could, to some degree, use spells. A good Rogue could clear Hell/Hell with her trusty Windforce and default attack. Titan Quest overcame the issue by making melee a matter of 'procs', such that default attack could, if the character trained properly, activate cleave-like attacks without making them standard.
And if we broaden the definition of 'ARPG' to include single player games (anything from Zelda to Torchlight), then the demand for AoE is, despite what may seem logical, even lower, primarily because ARPG designers have, until fairly recently, understood that part of the fun of playing a single player ARPG is in feeling solitary, in wading through waves of enemies rather than blasting them to bits before they can even get close enough to be a threat.
I would argue that any game that encourages if not outright demands a class choose ranged/Area of effect play over single target/melee (even if, especially if single target melee seems to be that class' specialty) is less ARPG, more shoot-em-up. The difference of a shoot-em-up typically being 'instant death if damaged' where an ARPG has life and defences is less significant than it should be in Path of Exile, given how frequently one-hit-knock-outs (or instagibbing, or one-shotted as some put it) can occur.
Between its proclivity for projectile 'spam' and one-hit-kill mechanics, Path of Exile's occasional resemblance to a bullet-hell game is unsettling and unhealthy...especially given how twitchy and precise bullet hell games are: there is no room for internet lag/desync in that genre...!
We DO need another Hero: Why Path of Exile needs to reclaim its ARPG roots
The moment an ARPG blatantly preferences ranged over melee, area of effect over single target, it loses its heroic (or in Path of Exile's case, anti-heroic) essence. The primal satisfaction of a sword biting into the enemy, of an arrow thunking into its skull, of a spell literally disintegrating one's foe is gone. The connection between combatants becomes as impersonal and disengaged as dropping bombs or pushing buttons to launch nuclear strikes. The flashiness of the skills is still there, even exaggerated and overwhelming at times, but it has no value in its separation from the act of killing the enemy, one at a time. Path of Exile's push towards area of effect, ranged style depersonalises the experience of killing and makes it routine. And from routine, there's only a small, lazy step to 'boring'.
There is a reason racing is so entertaining and engaging. Beyond its demand for precise timing, for knowing who to kill and who to avoid, what racing does is strip away all those fancy toys and abilities that can effortlessly obliterate a screen at a time and return the player to that original state. One with nothing, and everything ahead of them. Each kill means something, and seeing those first few zombies fall to pieces from a rusted sword or a piece of wood or even a basic fireball (AoE, yes, but still just one projectile and not exactly massive in its blast radius) feels heroic. They're the first steps towards the gaining of power.
But that power isn't what I expected, not what the game advertises at first. No matter how good you get with that sword, unless you figure out a way to throw it, to extend its range well beyond traditional melee (Splash, Reave, even Cleave to a degree), you're going to fail. Even if you become the most amazing archer in Wraeclast, one arrow at a time will never suffice unless it explodes, splits, causes poison gas, chains, forks...anything to extend that single arrow attack into an impersonal 'spam' of damage. Even a mage, traditionally the most destructive of ARPG classes (at the expense of frailty and limited resources), must before long gain some relatively cheap, easy area of effect (preferably at ranged) ability just to get by.
So what starts out as a viscerally awesome experience is soon replaced by what can easily be considered drudgery. For the first 20 or so levels, Path of Exile is an excellent ARPG. Beyond that, it becomes more of a shooting game, partially because of how it ramps up difficulty and partially because the player has no incentive to do otherwise. The support gem system, and the fact that all classes can equip all skills, is also not guilt-free in this regard: it's difficult to reward the usage of single target skills if that skill can then be made into a ranged AoE. Perhaps the existence of these support gems is sufficient proof that Path of Exile doesn't fail as an ARPG, but succeeds as a shooting game.
If so, I think that's a terrible shame.
But I don't think this was by design. I believe that in using more projectiles, faster and stronger enemies, larger and replenishing hordes (Weaver's Nest, Piety's minions, Dominus' endless supply of miscreations) as their main means of ramping up difficulty, GGG soon realised that single target melee (or even ranged) was out of the question. I don't think they fully realised how their solution, being the introduction of skill and support gems that blurred the line between melee and ranged or outright allowed players to create 'dumb' versions of themselves (totems, traps), would gut the game of its original appeal. My belief is they rightfully saw a way not only to enable players to deal with this fairly dull means of making the game harder, but of minimising their exposure to the woes of desync. Although I've skirted that well-worn issue, it has to be acknowledged that ranged AoE players have a MUCH easier time dealing with desync than someone desiring to go toe-to-toe with an enemy that might not even be there. This is just another path of least resistance, or perhaps it's even a necessity. I think it's a mixture of chicken and egg here: desync is easier to handle if you play Ranged AoE, but the changes made to enemies as the game gets 'harder' (faster, more projectiles, more enemies overall) are themselves catalysts of desync.
This is why Path of Exile needs to reclaim its ARPG roots. An ARPG isn't about super fast enemies on screen or hordes of mages firing multiple projectiles to a point where an entire room is little more than a mess of magic bolts. It's not about having to employ the same methods as the enemy just to get by, or more precisely doing what the enemy does, but even better, even worse. The ARPG is about one vs many. It's about being tough enough that any single 'trash' mob can barely scratch you IF you want to get into the fray, but being overwhelmed can be fatal. It's about your damage output from a single attack killing a 'trash' mob fairly easily, such that you don't need AoE or ranged because where an AoE spell or attack might take 5 instances to kill 4 mobs, a stronger single target attack can do 1 in 1. The Area of Effect is good for steadily clearing crowds; the Single Target is quicker but runs the risk of being overwhelmed. This is standard RPG damage philosophy, but Path of Exile missed that lesson.
Path of Exile cannot, in its current state, afford to embrace that most crucial of distinctions -- Area of Effect has to be as lethal and efficient as Single Target. Single Target must become Area of Effect. This game has no room for assassins, sharpshooters, or any sort of precision work. In the end, every Exile loses their humanity in forgetting the value of each kill. They just become beasts of mindless, effortless spam. Sword swings become sword throws; sniping becomes spray-and-pray; 'one good stab' (to quote the Shadow), a simulation of many. And the magic, much of which is by default ranged or area of effect, gains power not primarily by dealing more damage but by hitting even more targets. And the apex of this escalation is when the Exile is nothing more than the origin of other things delivering mass death: chained arrows, trap-triggered explosions, totems firing multiple fireballs or arcs of lightning, 'spectral' copies of one's weapon flying through the air to hit anything in the way in what has to be the most 'Gauntlet'-like any ARPG has ever been.
One with Nothing, nothing owned and nothing to lose, becomes One With Everything, delivering Everything, taking everything...eventually, taking Everything for granted.
People wonder why I start over so much. It's not because I 'suck', or because I'm unhappy with my builds. It's because I don't want to reach that inevitability, that point where I'm just spamming the same skill over and again and decimating screens at a time. I know I could do it, because people with far less time than I have do it effortlessly. I do not feel this is a matter of skill.
I simply never want to take anything in this game for granted. I want to play as a character who kills things for themselves, whether that means single target melee/archery or 'hard-cast'. I refuse to play this game passively or 'easily'. If the option exists for me to play actively and intensively, then I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to. But I acknowledge, in the game's current state, this means hitting walls that aren't walls to players who are far less discerning, who are willing to do whatever it takes, even IF the demands of the game are contrary to its puported nature as an ARPG.
But in the end, it's up to GGG, not me, not any player, to figure out ways to make the game harder to take for granted. To restore the reward of playing as a genuine feeling of enjoyment rather than the inertia of grind. I think that reassessing their approach to AoE and the demand on the player to embrace it as a style regardless of their class, weapon or Skilldrasil choices, might be a good step towards that end.