The Pathless Review — It's About the Journey
The Pathless is an excellent game for the camper in me that wants to spend some time exploring outside.
Review copy provided by the publisher
The ability to instill a sense of wonder and exploration in a player is not something easily done by a game. There are so many open-world games today that feel like they’d be better suited as a linear series of missions because the worlds they’re set in don’t tell a story of their own. The Pathless is a perfect example of an open-world game defined by a world that justifies its own existence.
The Pathless comes from Giant Squid Studios, the developers behind 2016’s ABZU. Grammy Award-Nominated composer Austin Wintory makes a return to give another Giant Squid game a fantastic soundtrack. The team’s progression from ABZU to The Pathless is pretty clear: both games have the player exploring an ancient and forgotten world and have a heavy emphasis on player discovery. Giant Squid games aren’t worried about telling complex narratives. Instead, their focus is on atmosphere and narrative themes.
The Pathless tells the story of a skilled archer known as the last Hunter as she journeys across an isle on the edge of the world, a place where the realm of man and the realm of spirits intersect. Her goal is to reclaim the light and lift the curse that has been put on the world by the Godslayer. To do this, she’s tasked with freeing the gods from the curses the Godslayer put on them.
The gameplay for The Pathless is unique. It’s something I’ve never seen before and works in a way that when I was done, I felt like I had been doing it for years. In order to move quickly around the large island, the Hunter needs to refill her sprint meter by shooting talismans that have been scattered across the world. There are thousands of talismans littered everywhere so there are rarely any moments when you’re gunning it through a forest or an open field that you’re worried about running out of juice.
“[The movement] is the absolute highlight for The Pathless.”
When I first started the game, I was worried about how that mechanic would work. Speed and accuracy are not things that typically go hand in hand, so to remedy that, Giant Squid threw accuracy out the window. There is no aiming mechanic in the game which means that hitting targets isn’t about your precision, but instead your timing. This mechanic works outstandingly well and is the absolute highlight for The Pathless.
The talismans you shoot give you a burst of forward momentum in addition to refilling your meter, so, for example, if you’re trying to get across a large canyon quickly, you need to time out your jumps as well as exactly when you want to hit each target. If your timing is wrong, you might find yourself falling. While it might be a minor setback, missing a jump isn’t the end of the world all thanks to your eagle companion.
The eagle is a useful tool for traversal and puzzle-solving while also serving as the Hunter’s lone companion. The emptiness of the world is made apparent from the moment the Hunter sets foot on the beach. The world is strewn with the skeletons of those who came before who occasionally have messages for the Hunter to read which give the player a glimpse into what life is like outside the island as well as what has been lost. It has some interesting world-building that helps enforce some of the themes the game is trying to convey.
The main loop for The Pathless is centered around exploring the world to find offerings for the gods. This lifts the dark aura around them and allows the Hunter to get close enough to free them from their curse. To get offerings, you have to solve puzzles that are placed throughout the world.
The pacing starts to be an issue when looking at the puzzles themselves. While slowing things down every now and then helps me appreciate the moments when I’m whipping around mountains, I would have liked some puzzles to incorporate the movement mechanics from the rest of the game. Most puzzles revolve around lining up hoops to shoot through or finding blocks to weigh down buttons. While the puzzle design is generally pretty good, the lack of integration with other mechanics makes them feel disjointed and sometimes slow.
The game is purposefully obtuse in where the next puzzle lies which is something I like. Other than using the Hunter’s “spirit vision” to get an idea of where to go next, exploration is up to you. There’s no minimap or HUD so the world has a sense of wonder and mystery to it that’s akin to Breath of the Wild—the main objective is always clear, but so much of the fun in The Pathless comes from the journey.
“…so much of the fun in The Pathless comes from the journey.”
Because of its obtuse nature, the game can last as long as you want it to. If you’re feeling adventurous, you don’t have to keep the story going and can spend as much time as you want in any given area to find all the secrets hidden within it. It would probably only have taken me four to five hours to finish if I were just blazing through the story, but similar to Breath of the Wild, that’s not really the point.
The only downside to spending a lot of time exploring the world are the sections when a corrupted god will surround you with their dark aura causing you to be separated from the eagle. These sections totally kill the pacing and just aren’t very fun. You have to avoid being seen by the god by moving very slowly to get to your eagle. It’s weird to me that the game would take away the unique flow of its traversal to railroad the player into an uninteresting stealth section.
The boss fights with the corrupted gods themselves are, however, epic and feel larger than life, but they all start to blend together towards the end. The first fight was invigorating and exciting and I couldn’t wait to see what other kinds of encounters there would be with the different gods, but I was disappointed to find out that they all are pretty much the same.
“My biggest critique of The Pathless is that most mechanics aren’t taken far enough.”
My biggest critique of The Pathless is that most mechanics aren’t taken far enough. The incredible movement mechanic is only used to get you from place to place and doesn’t end up meaning a whole lot in terms of puzzles or boss fights. There’s a section in each fight where you chase the god through a burning forest and it’s the highlight of the entire game because you’re using the skills you’ve learned from moving about the world in a much more tense environment. Now, mistiming a shot might mean being hit by a fireball or losing momentum and letting the god get away. However, those sections are few and fleeting.
At the end of the day, the traversal alone is enough for me to recommend The Pathless. It’s just fun to get from place to place using your bow; everything else is just a bonus. The overall story is good with performances from Laura Bailey and Troy Baker, the different environments are vast and beautiful, and while the puzzles have a wide range of difficulty, they’re still fun to figure out. It’s just a shame that there’s no synergy between each individual gameplay loop. The Pathless is absolutely worth your time if you’re looking for a game with a sense of adventure and a rich atmosphere.
Oh, and you can pet the eagle, 10/10.
Editor’s Note: Petting the eagle is a 10/10 experience, The Pathless is an 8/10.