Grinding Gear Games' Path of Exile has maintained a great following since the game's original release just over two years ago. The free-to-play title has received consistent support post-release, including a very substantial expansion earlier in 2015 that the developer referred to as its "2.0" release. Producer and Lead Designer Chris Wilson was kind enough to give RPGamer a demonstration in what's coming with its newest expansion, Ascendancy, which is planned to arrive in early 2016.
With its post-release support staff initially split into two teams, one working on smaller releases and the other working on the big The Awakening expansion, the developer is back to one large team working together for Ascendancy. The story for Ascendancy revolves around a set of trials created long ago by Emperor Izaro to find a worthy successor. Izaro crafted a series of trials filled with various traps, with those who pass all six trials allowed to progress into the Lord's Labyrinth. Unfortunately for Izaro, he ended up imprisoned in his own labyrinth, where he lives on and attempts to defeat those who raid it to get at the treasures inside. This new content is designed for players to enter from around the middle of Act III of the original campaign and all the way up to its current end-game.
One part of The Awakening involved vast improvements to the game's back-end and net-code, which has allowed Grinding Gear Games to introduce heavier gameplay mechanics into Ascendancy, mostly involving traps. There are six types of traps, with each of the initial six trials acting as tutorials and lessons for players to get used to specific type of traps — floor spikes, lava pits, circular saws, etc. — before they take on the combinations found in the Lord's Labyrinth. The Lord's Labyrinth is where the meat of the content comes in. The labyrinth mode brings a few roguelike aspects to the game. Players are able to go in solo or with allies, but will not be able to exit and come back where they left off during a run, which should take around forty-five minutes for most players. To make sure the labyrinth doesn't become a linear experience, its layout and content by way of traps, enemies, and tilesets change every day. Players will all access the same layout on a given day, with leaderboards set up so players can compete to get the fastest time or complete other challenges.
The labyrinth itself is split into three main sections, each followed by a boss fight against Emperor Izaro. The objective for each labyrinthine section is to find a golden key that will let the player progress. The dungeon generator is set up in such a way that there will be multiple paths to reach the next stage, and indeed multiple doors to unlock but only one key, so players may need to enter the labyrinth more than once to uncover all of its secrets or find the quickest path through. Traps and tilesets will change both between sections and every time a new labyrinth is generated, with some combinations proving dangerous, such as fire-resistant skeletons that constantly spawn in areas with lava pits, encouraging players to work through that section quickly. Another combination of monster and trap was tar zombies in an area of spike traps, where the zombies could slow down the player and make it more difficult to avoid the trap. However, many monsters will be affected by traps so players are able to turn the traps against their enemies if they are clever.
The fights against Izaro, individual encounters requiring players to remove a third of Izaro's health before he retreats to the next area, also differ each time. The first fight I was shown saw Izaro joined by three statues that lit up. When the statues were active, they provided Izaro with both offensive and defensive bonuses and the player character had to constantly move between the statues to deactivate them while fighting against Izaro himself. A second fight had various areas where the player could only damage Izaro if he stood within them. Dealing with these aspects can be important for future battles; in the first fight, a statue was left active at the end, and Izaro made sure to take it with him for the second fight to make it harder. Izaro's tactics will also change between fights, using different types of weapons as well as having a spiritual ally with her own set of attacks.
Of course, players expect to be rewarded for their troubles and Grinding Gear Games is happy to oblige. There are two types of rewards to satisfy both those players who want to just run through things once and those who plan multiple runs in a day. The first time a player completes that day's Lord's Labyrinth on a new difficulty level, they are rewarded with skill points to put into the game's new Ascendancy Classes (more on these below). These are complemented by item rewards offered at the end of every successful run. These item rewards feature randomised Ascendancy mods that add a skill onto a particular item. These mods will always be useful for earlier players, but late-game players may want a specific mod that suits their play style more and this encourages players to try the labyrinth again in the hope that they can find a more appropriate mod. Even if players do not get the particular reward they were hoping for, they may still find mods useful for trading as that reward may be coveted by a player with a different skill set.
While Path of Exile's ridiculously large and flowing skill tree allowed players to build characters however they liked, it meant that a lot of play styles ended up blending together. Grinding Gear Games hopes to offer some distinct options through Ascendancy Classes. Here, players are allowed to choose one of nineteen such classes and are given access to a skill tree unique to that class. Players can only belong to one Ascendancy Class at a time and do not have access to the skills from the other classes. The skills within each Ascendancy Class tree are designed to work together, letting players focus on that particular play style and combine them with skills from the regular tree to devastating effect. One particular example was a witch that specialised in necromancy and had the ability to pass the bonuses from her minions onto herself.
Although hardly lacking in content as it is, the extra content offered in Ascendancy should provide plenty of cause for players who have taken a break to return to the game. In offering players more in both overall exploration mechanics and combat play styles hot off the heals of its previous expansion, Ascendancy shows that Path of Exile still has plenty more life in it, and Grinding Gear Games plans to keep rolling out more for its fans for years to come.