Saturday, June 25, 2016

PoE: Cruel Summoning

I've been revisiting Path of Exile (PoE) with the latest expansion, Prophecy. My undead-summoning necromancer witch has now made her way through Cruel difficulty, after finishing Normal a few days earlier.
In my experience, Cruel difficulty is well-named. It's the second of three difficulty levels, covering approximately levels 40 to 55. This is where you learn whether the build idea that you were so excited about back at level 1 is going to actually function the way you'd hoped. All the skill gems are available, you've got enough passive skill points to get the most important nodes on the passive tree, and a good selection of gear is available. With the exception of some specialized builds that use high-level unique items, everything is in place. Now the difficulty is cranked up and you hope it all comes together. If not...well, there's a reason they call it Cruel.

When you start over in the first act after finishing the previous difficulty, everything seems pretty easy. Those early monsters don't have the powerful skills that you see in the later acts. That's a good thing, because you may need time to get used to the reduced damage resistance that affects your character with each difficulty level. If you don't deal with that, the tougher monsters (especially act bosses) can be a very nasty surprise. Around act three or so, even the normal monsters are hitting hard enough to hurt pretty badly if your defenses aren't up to par.

Thanks in large part to my prior experience with the game, I didn't have too much trouble with anything in the Cruel story quests. Knowing exactly where you need to go, how the bosses act, and the most useful rewards to take all helps. I was actually a bit surprised at how easy the act three and four boss fights were, compared to the last time I played PoE. The added character power from the ascendancy classes and prophecy rewards makes a noticeable difference.

Going through the Cruel Labyrinth was not so easy. I died once when I got stuck in some traps. On Normal those traps did some damage, but nothing a health flask couldn't fix. On Cruel, they were a lot more dangerous. Partly that's because my witch wasn't focused on defense as much as some builds are, but my lack of familiarity with the area didn't help either. Whatever the reason, that experience taught me to be a lot more careful moving through the trap areas. I also died once to the boss, who throws a very powerful ranged attack that isn't easy to avoid, particularly in the final room where a bunch of traps are also present. I eventually made it all the way through, but I'd definitely say going through the Labyrinth is much tougher than any of the story quests, including end-of-act boss fights.

I tried something with my character's build that I'd not done before with a necromancer: I picked up Elemental Equilibrium. The idea of that keystone node is that hitting a monster with one elemental damage type (fire, cold, lightning) makes them vulnerable to the other types. Usually that means you want to alternate hits: use fire to make them vulnerable to cold, then use cold for extra damage and make them vulnerable to fire, repeat. But with a necromancer, your minions' hits don't cause the vulnerability effect. So if I hit the monsters with lightning (making them vulnerable to fire and cold), then my minions can use fire and cold for extra damage all day long, without having to worry about alternating the damage types. It's been working incredibly well, particularly against the high-health unique boss monsters.

When I started Cruel difficulty, I had a few prophecies left over that could only be completed in Normal. So I had to use the seal option to remove those, and stored them in the stash for future characters. I suppose I could have gone back and completed them instead, but that kind of back-tracking didn't appeal to me. That's a bit annoying, but since it only happens once at the end of each difficulty level, it's not a major problem.

I've come across a few prophecies that have some pretty interesting effects. For example, there's the Undead Uprising, which resets all the monsters in the act two zone Old Fields to skeletons, and spawns a unique boss in that zone. Or the Wealthy Exile, which makes the next rogue exile you encounter drop all rare items. I'll admit that I'm already a bit tired of seeing some of the more common prophecies, but it's fun when you get one of the more interesting (and rare) ones. There are also some prophecy chains, sort of a mini-story told through a series of individual prophecies.

Next up for my necromancer is Merciless difficulty and end-game maps. I'm looking forward to seeing how well her build holds up there.

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