The World of Wraeclast
(There are no spoilers here beyond what you've seen of the story up to this point. This section is entirely optional, if you do not care about the story, and you can skip it if you want.)
Wraeclast is the largest continent in Path of Exile's world, and it's one covered in a long and bloody history. Its story can be hard to follow, at times, so here's a brief introduction to the major areas and powers at work:
"Now I am banished to Wraeclast. I've heard the dark rumours... seen the terror in other exiles' eyes."
Wraeclast is the largest continent in the world, and it's where Path of Exile is primarily set.
In the recent past, Wraeclast was home to the vast and powerful Eternal Empire, a sort of fantasy-Rome affair that had dominated the continent for some 1,300 years. The Empire was ruled by a secular Emperor, generally passed on as a hereditary title, along with the powerful religious Templars. Near the end of the Empire, the Templar took power in a coup known as the Purity Rebellion, crowning High Templar Voll as Emperor.
Lioneye's Watch (the Act 1 town) and Axiom Prison (where you fought Brutus) are the works of the Eternal Empire, as are all the other ruins you've seen so far. Most of the Act 2 NPCs are Azmeri, ethnically related to the founders of the Eternal Empire but having long forgotten its glories.
The Eternal Empire fell overnight in a Cataclysm shortly after the Purity Rebellion, a few centuries before the game takes place. Wraeclast is now a place of horrors and legends to the rest of the world, a place where maddened beasts tear each other apart, where dead men walk, and where the few survivors are twisted into hideous new forms. A corrupting, dark influence creeps over the ruins of the Eternal Empire, and little word escapes the horrors of the corrupted continent.
No one wants to go to Wraeclast anymore.
The Cataclysm that destroyed the Eternal Empire was not the first. Rumors and myth shroud what the world was before the ancient Azmeri came down from the mountains to found the Empire, but one word - the "Vaal" - appears in connection with ruins that predate even the Eternal Empire. And, like the Eternals, the Vaal civilization fell overnight in a cataclysm of their own...
"When I was a courier for my father's house, I'd cross Cathedral Square a hundred times in a day. On the fairest days that square would be filled to bursting with Oriath's high born, come to bask in the sun and each other's glowing nobility. It was a pretty sight, depending on where you stood."
A former outpost of the Eternal Empire, and the primary one not on the mainland of Wraeclast. As a result, Oriath - and Oriath alone among the Eternals' lands - was spared the ravages of the Cataclysm. Since then, it's been the most powerful civilization in the world, ruled from its capital Theopolis by a theocratic Templar elite (of whom the Templar player character is a former member). The Templar are not understanding rulers, and Oriath is effectively a dictatorship under the current leadership of High Templar Dominus. The Blackguards, who you've met by this point, are Dominus' soldiers - but why they, and his lover-turned-servant Piety, are in Wraeclast has not been revealed as yet.
Like the Eternal Empire, Oriath has a very European theme with Roman motifs, but with a distinctly fascist bent appropriate to their government. Much of the backstory of Path of Exile mirrors the history of real-world colonialism, in which Oriath plays the role of European colonists. Like those colonists, they also bring their monotheistic religion with them, which centers around the worship of the Templar god Innocence - they've abandoned the worship of the sun and moon gods Solaris and Lunaris revered by their Eternal forefathers.
Dates in the Eternal Empire, and in Oriath, their cultural descendant, are given relative to Imperialis Conceptus, the rise of the first Emperor. "5 IC" means "5 years after the founding of the Eternal Empire". Path of Exile takes place in around 1,600 IC; the Eternal Empire fell in 1339 IC.
Oriath's government has taken to exiling those they don't like - from poachers to heretics to rebellious slaves - to what remains of Wraeclast. The exact reasons for this practice are unclear, but the results are well-known to the people of Oriath: they don't come back. All the player characters, along with most of the main NPCs of Act 1, are Exiles, and the game picks up with your first steps on the continent.
All the player characters are from Oriath. All but the Marauder were born there; the Marauder himself was a slave in Oriath, having been captured during their raids on...
The Karui Archipelago
"The Ancestors possess the knowledge of all Karui. Every man and woman who has followed the Way has carved their life's wisdom into the meeting house of the Remembered."
The Karui (pronounced kaa-rooee) are a tribal people native to a collection of smaller islands off the coast, near Oriath. Their capital, Ngamakunui (pronounced na-mah-kun-oo-ee) is located on one such island. They and the Oriathans are enemies, the latter having conquered or enslaved a good chunk of the former. The Marauder player character is one such slave.
The Karui are based heavily on the Māori of New Zealand, where Path of Exile's developers are based. Their art and culture are recognizably Polynesian, as is their contentious history with Oriath's colonists and conquerors. Oriathans, for their part, tend to be rather racist with respect to the Karui, viewing them as savages that are, at best, worthy opponents in combat.
The Karui follow a polytheistic religion with numerous gods, of whom the most notable are Tukohama ("Father of War", respected and trusted for power), Hinekora ("Mother of Death", a goddess of the afterlife, but one loved and not feared), and Kitava ("Father of Chaos", a trickster god of primal, devouring hunger). They also practice ancestor worship, revering the Remembered spirits of those who followed their ritualistic lifestyle, the Karui Way. The Templar, not surprisingly, are not fans of these practices, and have been doing their best to convert the Karui to their worship of Innocence (without much apparent success - no Karui encountered or mentioned in the main story worships Innocence).
The greatest Karui of recent memory was King Kaom, who invaded the Eternal Empire during the Purity Rebellion shortly before the Cataclysm. Neither he, nor his army, were ever heard from again. Kaom's story is introduced by the Lore objects in Act 1, which you may have found on your own.
There were a few other civilizations in Wraeclast at the time of the Cataclysm, mostly vassal states semi-conquered by the Eternal Empire. The most notable of these are:
- The Maraketh, a desert culture from the arid Vastiri Plains in the north and east of the continent.
- The Ezomytes, whose location is never established, but is either within or adjacent to the former lands of the Eternal Empire. The Ezomytes worship primal beast gods.