Even excellence can be improved. This seems to be Path of Exile developer Grinding Gears Games' philosophy, a philosophy readily apparent not just in the aforementioned action role-playing game's overall quality, but in the clear zeal the Grinding Gear leaders have for their art. Each time I interact with a member of Path of Exile's development team, I'm struck by the breathless passion which talents like lead designer Chris Wilson can barely contain. It is with this same passion that Wilson recently described to me the upcoming Path of Exile expansion called Forsaken Masters, which will seek penance in full on August 20th.
By the time I caught up with Wilson the team had already announced to the world Forsaken Masters' fundamental setup, but I had Wilson catch me up in his own words, though much information is available already. "The core thing we're trying to do with the expansion," says Wilson, "is add a ton of main content to the main game world. The seven masters you encounter [in Forsaken Masters] are set up so that they have their own unique missions you can do. We've announced two of them to our players; the third one is a Templar master called Elreon."
Elreon joins armourmaster Haku and master assassin Vorici as one of several experts in their respective fields who dared to oppose Dominus, the High Templar and commander of the Ebony Legion. In my first encounter with Dominus when first playing Path of Exile, the tyrant scolded me for daring to bite the master that called me to him. Wraeclast is fortunate that I was not the only one to stand toe to toe with him, however, and it's clear that master Elreon has more to offer this broken land than I ever could. Wilson says of Elreon, "He's made it his quest to try to defend holy relics that are scattered throughout the world. Every time you encounter him, he's praying next to some relics. Inevitably, the relics get attacked by a whole bunch of monsters, and his goal here, ideally, is to defend the relics."
As Wilson told me Elreon's story, I was reminded of famous flagellant Dominic Loricatus, who whipped himself while reciting psalms as a means of providing penance for his mortal sins, and wore chain mail to further chafe his punished flesh. "As you talk to [Elreon], you find out he's going for a bit of martyrdom. There's an undertone in his speech: he kind of wants the monsters to win and make a martyr of him, because he's been exiled and so on." Wilson also shared what writer Royal McGraw has authored on the subject. "Elreon has a death wish. He's been betrayed by the Templars and has come to question everything about his faith. Where stronger minds have prevailed, Elreon's has crumbled. All he wants now is to take his place at God's side, but in order to do that, he must become a martyr, no easy feat in Wraeclast. To this noble end, he has concocted a desperate plan: a series of last stands that will one day see him slain and conveyed to the kingdom of God above."
You may encounter Elreon or any of his six fellow masters anywhere in the world, including within Path of Exile's endgame map system, and each time you encounter him, the ensuing battle will play out rather differently from the last. Every fundamental aspect of the skirmish is variable: the numbers of relics and how they defend themselves ("lots of relics where there's failure if they all die, lots of relics where there's failure if one dies, a high-life relic that shoots projectiles"); monster types ("monsters that explode on death, monsters that have projectiles, fast and tough monsters, weak and slow monsters, monsters that spawn other ones, monsters that come back from the dead"); intricate monster behaviors ("whether or not the monster goes straight for the relic or whether it attacks the player, or whether it goes for the thing closest to it so you can lead them around"); and how the monsters spawn ("whether they spawn in waves, whether they spawn in a particular pattern"). The relic itself can impact the battle as well, perhaps reflecting damage back at attackers, creating consecrated ground that grants you life regeneration, and so forth. Even your goals may change; one encounter may have you destroying the relic before it kills you, while another may have you protecting it for a certain number of waves.
It doesn't surprise me when Wilson says that 70% of the work has gone into varying Forsaken Masters' battles, though the masters and their associated combat is not all that shall be new. Once you've offered enough assistance to Dominus' archfoes, you unlock a personal hideout, a personal space you might think of as a massively multiplayer game's housing, or perhaps even a guild hall. Your hideout is more than just a confined abode but an entire town for you to customize with props and decorations. Elreon's associated hideout is a library, though the way Wilson describes this library reminds me more of Wan Shi Tong's lost library in Avatar: The Last Airbender than a typical repository of knowledge. Says Wilson, "It's a little bit like The Sims, to be honest. We didn't expect we'd take this direction with this part of the expansion, but you get to place these props around your library, and our developers are addicted to sitting there and making little houses."
Path of Exile has always been good at compelling you to keep playing once you start; now I am worried that adding a Sims-like element would keep me from quitting the game at all. If your idea of a proper reward is less domestic and more discordant, however, you will probably greet other changes with hand-rubbing glee. Masters allow you to craft items, and Elreon in particular offers to teach you the fine skill of jewelcraft. Until now, it's always been difficult to find just the right piece of jewelry, for there are so many benefits any given amulet or ring might offer. The game's very nature makes loot, as Wilson admits, "a grab bag of random stuff," and thus it can be difficult to have all of your equipment aligned in a way that brings you the greatest potential benefit. The benefit of having hideout access to Elreon is that he allows you to replace a jewelry modification that doesn't suit your character with one that does.
Wilson stresses that this additional element of customization won't break the item system. "The mods you're adding aren't the largest in the game," he says, "but they're large enough to be impactful without ruining the expectations of those who want the best items to come through the random process." And of course, Elreon is not the only master offering his services, though your hideout will not be large enough to accommodate all seven of them. Initially, only two of them may be present in your hideout, but as you level up your primary master by performing more and more related tasks, then you may add a third and eventually a fourth master. Following the master's wishes will not hinge on encountering him in the wilds of Wraeclast, however: masters within your hideout will offer daily quests, which are variations on the masters' standard quests that can be accessed immediately without having to hunt for them.
With Forsaken Masters, Path of Exile provides more and more variables, thus inviting mouse-clicking aficionados to keep slashing and ensorcelling their way through the game's melancholy maps. Wilson expects that most players will have met each of the seven masters either once or twice in the first difficulty level, but warns that it won't be until after the first playthrough of the first difficulty. For me, it's the very description of Elreon himself that makes me most intrigued. In a sense, the self-appointed martyr represents myself and my fellow role-playing enthusiasts, delighting and punishing ourselves in equal measure in the name of earning a helmet or pair of boots that better reflects our digital delusions of grandeur. Fortunately, playing Path of Exile has always been its own reward, and never a punishment, and Forsaken Masters is the summons for action I've been awaiting.