About three times a year a new three-month challenge league kicks off in Path of Exile. Every participant starts at zero, without access to their high level characters and well-stocked stash. As the name implies there are challenges to overcome and in doing so exclusive prices to be earned.
While many games do something like this to keep the playerbase entertained, Grinding Gear Games go the extra mile by introducing a new kind of game mechanic for each and every league and making that new content a central part of the experience. Most of the time these new mechanics have proven to be fun and rewarding gameplay elements and were subsequently added to the game as a whole after the respective league ended, albeit with a much lesser probability to spawn in any given area.
There have been lots of challenge leagues by now, hence a great many interesting mechanics have made their way into the game. Despite being ‘just’ an ARPG and basically being about nothing but killing hundreds of thousands of monsters, the game has reached a point where it never gets boring. Well, to me at least.
I’m not the fastest or most efficient monster slayer and loot collector though, so starting over multiple times a year was never really a viable option for me. I made my first character in the Ambush League when I started playing the game over four years ago. After that league ended and my characters were converted to Standard I actually never played in another challenge league until now.
This time some things were different. My main characters in Standard are pretty much at the end of their (reasonably obtainable) progression, and while just playing the game is fun and all, progression as a motivator is not to be underestimated. Also the new league looked even more interesting to me than the ones before.
The new league is named Incursion and has an Aztec theme going, which already appeals to me aesthetically as well as historically. The mechanics are also pretty cool. In almost every area (this will be toned down a good bit later in the base game, I’m sure) you meet Alva Valai, an archaeologist of sorts, who is searching for an ancient temple’s location. She can teleport you back in time to one of the temple’s rooms while still under construction. There you have to fight its inhabitants and, depending on what you do, alter layout and properties of the finished temple.
There’s always a pretty narrow time limit and mobs don’t always drop the keys you need to progress in the way you had planned, but it’s fun either way. After eleven incursions Alva pins down the temple’s location in the present and travels there, taking you along for the ride. The temple is huge and can be rather challenging (at least on lower levels). The rewards vary, as always, but until now I always felt it was worth my time, and, more importantly, pretty fun.
I decided to again play a Summoner Witch for this, although I have a high level one on Standard already. I just like the playstyle so much and know it in and out, so I know exactly what I can and can’t do with her.
How much fun is starting over, then?
Pretty darn fun, I have to say. At first I was a bit annoyed by not even having the barest necessities available (like enough Scrolls of Wisdom to identify everything I picked up), and by my Zombies dying too often. But from level 15 or so I got into the groove again, and also started to feel the motivation that stems from progressing left and right, all the time, in one way or another. There’s always the next character level, another cool quest reward, another new item, oh, now I can have a personal hideout again, all while doing incursions and shaping the next temple run to my liking.
I had completely forgotten how hard it can be to obtain gear with the right amount of linked sockets in the right colours so you can use your important skills with the strength they need to have for you to succeed. Once you’re used to having hundreds or even thousands of Orbs for crafting your equipment just right you forget how it feels to not have them.
Astonishingly this has been one of the most fun aspects of starting over for me. Swapping out an ok piece of gear for a worse one just because the latter has one more gem socket is a bit weird, but also feels kind of cool if it lets me socket the gems that I want. It reminds me a lot of Magic: The Gathering sealed-deck tournaments. Having to make do with what you get instead of having your vast collection of cards at your disposal can be really satisfying if it works.
I don’t regret diving into this new league, and I’m eager to see how many challenges I can complete until it ends.