Jumping into Path of Exile in 2021 took me several days of preparation. This wasn’t my first time with the free-to-play action-RPG, but it had been a couple of years since my last visit. Path of Exile is bewildering enough to wrap your head around as a new player, but even as a lapsed one there’s a lot to learn thanks to quarterly events called challenge leagues. These keep the game brimming with new content and loot to discover, but also include new mechanics for players to assimilate into their grinding.
To give you a little context on just how daunting PoE is to a new player, the passive skill tree boasts over 1,300 nodes to pick from every time you level up. Every item is loaded with stats and attributes to check, and many have buffs associated with skills on that baffling passive skill tree. The prospect of starting out in Path of Exile is aggressively complicated.
However, as a new challenge league was about to start (named ‘Ritual’), this seemed like the best opportunity to dive back in. New leagues, much like seasons in Diablo 3, offer players an incentive to build brand-new characters and barrel through the game at breakneck speeds.
So I started reading about the new mechanics and events set to arrive in Echoes of the Atlas, the expansion that accompanies the new Ritual challenge league. It was all set to kick off in mid January, around Friday afternoon in my time zone. I had studied the basics and crammed them into my brain as if preparing myself for an exam, but something still felt off: none of my friends were planning to return for the new league, and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.
As I was looking for recommendations on starter character builds I stumbled upon a Path of Exile Discord server and decided to join, commenting that I was looking for a group to tackle the new league with. Less than an hour later, I found myself with a Bleed Bow Gladiator build guide and waiting in the lobby of the Turtle Tank server, a small community led by a Dauntless and PoE streamer.
That Friday I played for ten hours, taking the occasional bathroom break, staying hydrated, and not skipping meals because I’m not 13 any more. It was an intense day. Challenge leagues give players the chance to start with a fresh economy and offer prizes for reaching the end, so players rush through the campaign, which can usually take between eight and 15 hours or more, depending on your expertise. For seasoned players this is just the start – an appetiser before the endgame kicks off. Endgame, coincidentally, is the focus of the Echoes of the Atlas expansion, which I was planning to cover for work, so I had to get there as fast as possible.
I don’t remember much of that first day. The Turtle Tank members had been through this dozens of times already, and were basically on autopilot while I mashed the left mouse button on the ground just trying to follow them, constantly looking at the map so I wouldn’t lose time entering the wrong room or stumbling into a wall. Luckily, when players are in a group they can teleport to a teammate’s location at any moment, which made the first few hours a lot easier.
I had reached level 60 by the time I called it a night, my character already close to the end of act seven of ten. I woke up the next day, had something to eat, and sat back at my PC ready to pick up where I left off. Time zone differences meant that none of the players who had helped me the night before were online, so I tried my luck with public parties. I jumped between a couple of parties during the last few acts of Path of Exile’s campaign, which only took a few more hours. I had reached my goal of getting to Echoes of the Atlas and had planned to turn my attention to something else, but that’s not quite how things panned out.
Instead, I found myself logging in on a daily basis, always opening my friends list first, checking up on anyone that was online, and asking if they wanted to team up. It reminded me of the summer of 2010 when I played World of Warcraft for the first time. Everything was new to me, but people were always willing to help. Back then I learned about a social component in MMOs that still amazes me to this day, where a private message or a party invitation to a random player can lead to an online friendship that lasts for years. Unexpectedly, Path of Exile’s community has made me feel the same way.
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By the time the weekend was coming to an end, I was relatively familiar with the endgame. I was mostly grinding through maps alone, but as soon as they proved to be a bigger challenge than expected, I went ahead and started a public party. In less than 15 minutes I had a full group waiting for me to select a new destination to slay through. I would have stayed up all night again, just as I used to back in my WoW days, enjoying the company, even if we were just talking about Path of Exile. Even if we didn’t know each other at all.
Path of Exile is a daunting game. Most of the players I’ve spoken with agree on this, with some saying they still forget how certain mechanics work after five or six years. The time commitment is also huge – without that initial push my progress through the campaign would have been drastically different, and much slower – but the community knows all of this. You can tell they enjoy helping new players. They snap up questions in general chat and respond with detailed breakdowns, and there are plenty of public and private parties dedicated to helping new players find their way. It’s a collective effort that’s entirely driven by the community.
Being an adult means I can’t continue doing day-long sessions most days, but I’m completely attached to Path of Exile and its community now. It’s an odd feeling, often tinged with nostalgia for WoW, a different time in my life that’s not returning any time soon. But I’m glad to know I can relive that sensation in a different game, on a different scale, whenever I want. All I need to do is open my friends list and send a few messages.
There’s still a way to go until the Path of Exile 2 release date, but Path of Exile’s player count is continuing to rise. It’s among our picks for the best free PC games, so check it out of you’re looking for your next Diablo-like experience.