Walking the Path of Exile

A few months back, I wrote a post about how I would probably never play Path of Exile. From that point on you had to know it was inevitable that I would.

The character select screen in Path of ExileI did not, for the record, end up trying PoE because my view of it had changed. Instead, it was due to my job with Massively Overpowered. MJ provides most of our PoE coverage, but since ARPGs are one of the main genres covered by my column, I feel I should have at least some minimal experience with the big names in the genre, including PoE. And since it’s free to play, there’s not much to lose by trying.

Path of Exile is not entirely what I expected, though it is pretty close.

Given its popularity with the “uphill in the snow both ways” crowd, I was expecting this game to have some quality of life issues, but I was not prepared for just how bad it would be. What stands out for me about Path of Exile more than anything else is just what an absolute nightmare inventory management is in this game.

Maybe it gets better later on, but at least to start, inventory space is severely limited. Making matters worse is that there’s no gold in this game; it’s all barter. Yes, really. So your “currency” also takes up inventory space.

The barter rates aren’t exactly generous, either. Town portal scrolls, for example, are actually fairly pricey, at least from the perspective of a low level character. I quickly realized the optimal way to play was to just not pick up the large majority of loot. It doesn’t sell for enough to justify the cost of taking a portal back to town to sell it.

For a loot-grinder game, this feels downright bizarre.

My witch in Path of ExileOh, yeah, and unlike any other game made in the last twenty years, you can’t double click or right click to sell things, either. You have to click and drag each item over to the sell window — which is entirely separate from the buy window, because screw you, that’s why — which itself has limited space.

On the subject of items, I do want to note how irritating it is to have your skills tied to socketed gems. Nothing like not being able to equip an item that’s an upgrade because its sockets are the wrong colour.

I also quickly realized that there isn’t actually much depth to PoE’s massive and much-applauded skill web. The large majority of the passives are very simple, and it’s not hard at all to figure out a build. It doesn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out that if I’m playing a class focused on magic and pets I should take the passives that buff magic and pets.

The only thing that makes it challenging is the fact that the damn thing is so huge and is not exactly laid out in the most logical fashion.

The really funny thing is that the actual gameplay — at least at low levels — is really easy. Right now I don’t even have to push buttons on most fights. My zombies can just mow down everything for me.

Near as I can tell Path of Exile’s vaunted challenge is based almost entirely on bad UI design. Clear up some of the QoL issues and you’re left with a relatively simple and pretty easy game.

Combat in Path of ExileNot that I’m really surprised. The kind of people who speak most loudly about games being too casual these days are generally not the upper tiers of players. They’re people who want gatekeeping so they can feel elite regardless of their actual skills.

All that said, there is one thing that impressed me about PoE: The world-building actually seems really good. The setting seems quite deep and fairly original, and I found a lot of interesting lore snippets out in the world. Each is narrated by some surprisingly strong voice acting, and as in Diablo III you can keep moving and fighting while you listen to the narration. It’s great.

Based on its reputation, I had not expected PoE to be a game that puts any effort into story at all, but instead the story seems to have had quite a lot of love poured into it.

This is a world I would like to spend more time in. I am more than a little tempted to keep playing based on the strength of the story alone. I’m just not sure it’s worth fighting with the gods-awful UI and inventory issues.

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Astellia Impressions

Astellia isn’t a game that’s really been on my radar, but the Massively OP staff were given a number of keys to the beta, and I’m always up try a new MMO, so I decided to check it out.

At least Astellia is prettyI won’t say it’s as bad, but Astellia reminds me of Trinium Wars in that it feels less like a real game and more like a parody of bad MMO tropes.

To start with, the tutorial is about 90% cutscenes and 10% gameplay, or at least it feels that way. I admire that the developers actually wanted to make story a priority, but they’ve mistaken more story for better story.

There’s not really an effort to explain the setting to you, to develop any characters, or to give you any reason to become invested. There’s very little context for anything. Instead you’re just bombarded by an onslaught of corny dialogue and ridiculous fantasy names — and this is coming from a guy who willingly and happily reads a series where the name “Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor” is a central part of the story.

As far as gameplay goes, the main selling feature of Astellia — and the source of its name — are the Astels, fey spirits you can collect and then summon to aid you in combat. Very much shades of Pokemon here.

Looking over the journal of potential Astels you can get, it seems there are more options later on, but the Astels available to me at the start were all in the form of seven year old girls. It’s exactly as creepy as it sounds.

My archer and her Astels in AstelliaAlso, one of them has a giant cup of tea on her head, and her abilities centered around buffing allies with “soothing tea” mid-combat. I acquired her whilst an army of demons burned my character’s home village, presumably murdering everyone she ever cared about, and the tonal dissonance was so whiplash-inducing my immersion never really recovered.

It’s also probably worth noting that the Astels didn’t really seem to do much. Maybe they feel more impactful when you’re in more challenging content and/or have leveled them up more, but in the time I played it felt like I could have ignored them entirely and nothing really would have changed. Not a good sign considering this feature is the Astellia’s chief claim to fame.

The graphics are pretty, but not so pretty as to make the game really stand out. The bar is pretty high these days, and Astellia isn’t going to compete with the likes of Black Desert, especially since there isn’t a lot of personality to its art style. I will say some of the character and mob design is pretty cool, at least.

Combat in Astellia is your standard tab target affair, complete with mobs that drop dead after a few hits and don’t seem to require any tactics to defeat. There’s an active dodge mechanic, but I didn’t encounter anything that actually needed to be dodged while I was playing.

Female armour is alive and well in Astellia

This is reasonable attire for an adventurer to wear into battle.

What surprises me more than anything, though, is how bad the animations are. None of my abilities had any kind of flair to their visual or audio effects, and it felt like they had no impact at all.

If there’s one thing you can usually count on Eastern games to deliver, it’s great combat animations, but in Astellia — at least as an archer — they were at best on par with those you’d see in a ten year old Western WoW clone.

This, at least, could be attributed to beta jankiness. This was a true beta test, not a soft launch, so there’s still time for combat to improved. A lot of the game’s other problems feel pretty deeply ingrained, though.

The worst thing is that without Astellia’s glaring flaws — its overbearing attempts at story-telling, the vague whiffs of child exploitation, and the like — it wouldn’t be memorable for anything at all. There’s really nothing about it that’s unique or interesting — it plays like it was built using a checklist of generic fantasy MMO tropes.

The classes, for instance, are as generic as they come. Warrior, assassin, archer… There’s not even an attempt at originality.

While it seems a bit arbitrary to me, the trend seems to be to compare Astellia to Bless Online, and for my money, Bless is a much better game. Bless had better graphics, a better story, better classes, and better combat.

My archer in AstelliaI’d still tentatively recommend checking out Astellia if/when it becomes free to play, but only as an exercise in kitschy silliness. This is definitely not a game I see as worth playing seriously. It’s all the ridiculousness and creep factor of TERA minus the good combat, which was about the only thing TERA did right.