One of the challenges in attempting to play (and review) a new game every week is managing the backlog of titles that I’ve accumulated in my review queue. For the most part I’ll always get around to the ones I’m really looking forward to, but there’s always a smattering of other ones that, if I’m not careful, will slip by me. I’ve tried managing the list with things like Grouvee, but whilst that’s probably the best thing I’ve found out there it’s still only a partial solution. This is my roundabout way of saying I slept on The Pathless last year, a title I definitely had keen interest in since Abzu was such a joy and Sky: Children of the Light was a (relative) disappointment. Whilst I still very much enjoyed The Pathless on a visual level the core game loop became repetitive quickly and the added elements of exploration and discovery weren’t enough to make up for it.
The world has been burdened by a terrible curse, stemming from a faraway island where the spirits of the gods, the Tall Ones, have resided since the beginning of time. This curse comes from the work of the Godslayer, a person who sought to kill the gods to become one himself. You are The Hunter, the last in a long line of master archers who’ve sailed to this island in hopes of breaking the curse, none of which have since returned. Upon your arrival you discover that the Godslayer has corrupted the Tall Ones and is on the precipice of completing his ritual. The Eagle Mother, the creator spirit, asks that you cleanse her children and stop the Godslayer, lest the world fall to the curse forever.
Yet again it’s clear to see Matt Nava’s influence on The Pathless’ visual style, leveraging the low poly low texture stylings that we’ve all come to know and love as trademarks of the indie scene. The Pathless differentiates itself from its predecessors in scale, with all the environments being huge areas with many vantage points designed to give you views to soak yourself in. That sense of scale rapidly disappears when you get up close though as the environments are very much designed to be appreciated from afar and traversed across quickly. All in all the visuals do a great job of impressing upon you the overarching theme of the game: one small person up against insurmountable odds.
The Pathless is an exploration/platformer, giving you an expansive open world to explore and numerous movement based mechanics to traverse it quickly. The main one of these is the spirit meter and targets that you’ll be flinging arrows at. When you hit them you get a burst of speed and are able to sprint for a limited period. Later on you’ll unlock the glide and burst mechanics, allowing you to ascend upwards which unlocks a lot more of the map to explore. Your goal for each section is to find a number of talismans to cleanse the three obelisks scattered around the map, all the while avoiding the corrupted spirit of the area. Dotted inbetween the main challenges are a number of collectibles, half of which are just flavour text whilst the others are a secondary progression mechanic that gives you additional “flaps”, allowing you to go higher in a single jump.
The main movement mechanic takes a bit of getting used to as whilst all your arrows in this game are auto-aimed they’re not as reliable as you’d first think they are. Whilst there’s the usual things like obstacles getting in your way the charging up of the aiming mechanic to lock onto the targets seems to miss more often than it should. Once you get a bit more of a feel for it traversing long stretches is pretty easy, making those large maps far less intimidating. The addition of the flap mechanic is, at first, just another challenge that you need to use but it doesn’t take long to get enough gems together that you can flap your way past a lot of pain.
I also appreciate the inclusion of a mechanic that reveals the general area of where all the things you need to collect are, saving you endless hours of wandering around wondering if you’re in the right area or not. The Pathless also includes many more talismans and unlockables than you’ll need to finish the level, meaning you’re not having to scour the far reaches of the map just to make it to the next level. You will however still likely find yourself doing exactly that as whilst you can readily find where all potential secrets are not all of them are needed to progress you through the level. Towards the end you start to get a sense for where the progression puzzles will be located but it can still be a little frustrating to go through a whole bunch of exploring only to get rewarded with yet another handful of gems.
The problem here is that, after a while, this explore and solve puzzles mechanic starts to become pretty stale. Whilst you’ll likely find mastering world traversal rewarding after a while you start to dread having to make your way across the map again to find the next talisman. The boss fights for every level don’t help with this repetition either, with all of them being essentially the same for the first half and only deviating slightly for the second. It is made somewhat more palatable by the fact that you can’t fail any particular challenge, ensuring you’re not replaying whole sections again for a single mistake, but it still starts to grind after a while.
Whilst there’s no major technical issues to report there are a few design choices that make the game feel a little bit more clunky than it otherwise needed to be. For starters the need to fill the spirit meter to sprint which, when you’re moving from place to place, isn’t an issue but when it comes to solving the puzzles it starts to wear you down. The devs have taken great care to make most of the puzzle rooms tight and easy enough to traverse without needing to sprint, but many of the larger ones feel like slogs just because you have to slowly make your way through them. I can appreciate the idea of wanting the player to slow down for them but when 90% of the game is spent at a much higher speed being forced to crawl just doesn’t feel right.
The Pathless’ narrative is more overt than its predecessor, told through your interactions with the titular characters, the world and the various bits of flavour text scattered around the world. It’s certainly competent in its telling but I didn’t feel any emotional resonance with the characters, plot or the story’s conclusion. This could be due to my tiredness with the core game loop’s repetitive nature as I found myself only being able to play through one level per night at most before wanting to put it down. That being said I’ve sat through much worse stories from much larger developers, so it has that going for it at least.
I can see some classing The Pathless as something of a misstep for Giant Squid but in reality I think it’s more a sign of growing pains for them than anything else. The Pathless is an ambitious leap for the company, seeking to make a more broad experience that still contains all the elements that made their previous work so captivating. In many respects they still achieve that, with the visuals, themes and overall feeling of the game matching closely to that of its predecessors. Where it falls down is in adding more on top of that core exploration mechanic, relying too heavily on it and thinking that new environments to explore is sufficient to keep the player engaged. So whilst I’ll rate this lower than Abzu I’ll do so with a careful eye to the future, hoping that they can use this as a base to build something even greater.
The Pathless is available on PC, iOS, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 right now $56.95. Game was played on the PC with 5.1 hours of total play time and 41% of the achievements unlocked.