Who would’ve thought a dodge roll would finally convert me to the church of Path of Exile?
I’ve always fallen on the Diablo 3 side of the great war between ARPG fans. Path of Exile was fun enough when I’d dip a toe in, but I just wasn’t that interested in its Diablo 2 feel. And so I logged my ARPG hours in Blizzard’s fast-paced Diablo 3 instead.
But after ExileCon 2023, where Grinding Gear Games debuted new footage for Path of Exile 2 and revealed that it will be a stand-alone game rather than an expansion, I got interested in giving the series another shot. And so when the studio offered me a chance to play the same demo that ExileCon attendees played, I dove in with the hope that the series would finally click for me.
At the outset, the Path of Exile 2 demo felt like the Path of Exile I was already vaguely familiar with — albeit much prettier. I moved through the environment with the game’s characteristically slight, purposeful lag on my movement. I inserted skill gems so my character could bash some baddies with new and more interesting abilities. And I decked out my Monk in the goofy, early-game leveling gear that all of us have come to expect in RPGs.
It wasn’t until the demo’s second boss — a massive, underground worm — that Path of Exile 2 finally gripped me. The creature knocked me on my ass in an instant during my first few attempts. Then I realized I’d been using the game’s new dodge roll solely as a repositioning tool rather than an actual dodge. On a whim, I tried rolling through one of the worm’s minor attacks — which typically did enough damage to nearly halve my health — and to my surprise, my character phased right through.
And thus did man discover iframes.
So I began to analyze the worm’s attack patterns. Each new attempt on this boss came with a bit of added progression, and before long it was dead and I had the loot to prove it.
Another boss battle featured a goatlike beast on a small platform. As I dodged through its charges and slashes, its allies chucked spears at me from nearby cliffs. And, on occasion, it would summon a comical number of wolves to swarm me, forcing me to kill them before they killed me. Turns out, you get stuck if you try to dodge through a pack of 50 wolves. I had to adopt a completely different strategy than in my up-close-and-personal war with the worm, but the boss ended up being just as satisfying to fell.
These relatively low-level Path of Exile 2 bosses gave me a level of fulfillment I didn’t expect from an ARPG, since normally a big part of the combat experience in games like this is gear-based. I only expect to struggle on a boss when I’m underleveled or undergeared. But these battles felt much more akin to besting bosses in Elden Ring than beating down baddies in Diablo 4 — a game that otherwise shares a lot of DNA with Path of Exile. Path of Exile 2 showed me that, at least when it comes to combat, PoE and Diablo are doing fundamentally different things.
Killing a big boss in Diablo 4 — aside from maybe Uber Lilith, the game’s ultimate challenge — is more about gear checks, skillfully using your cooldowns, and dashing around the arena to preserve your life when things are going bad. But Path of Exile 2 boss fights are dances where you pick up more and more of the choreography through failure and practice. And it’s all thanks to the new dodge roll, which elevates the combat from a goofy dude walking quickly away from a burrowing monster to an active experience where precision and expertise are rewarded.
As for the rest of Path of Exile 2, I can’t say that I found the minute-to-minute gameplay to be as engaging as the boss fights — not by a long shot, actually. And at this point, I’d certainly say I prefer mowing down hordes of enemies in Diablo 4 to Path of Exile 2. But a Diablo boss has never had me on the edge of my seat the way Path of Exile 2’s did, and that’s more than enough to make the yearlong wait for PoE 2’s full-fledged beta feel very long indeed.