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The Pathless (PS5)

By Lee Mehr 13th Dec 2020 | 4,565 views 

An inspired & nuanced structure demonstrates where Giant Squid took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.

If I were to place words like "Eastern mythology," "action-adventure," and "by former Journey developers" in the same sentence it's a foregone conclusion that indie aficionados are already on-board.  It's with good reason too.  Developer Giant Squid’s first outing with interactive aquarium Abzû succeeded as a Zen-like swimming simulator with laidback goals in mind.  In a way, the team's philosophy has now evolved to run on land; its newly-crafted world is supplemented by more interactive gameplay systems.  Although not to be outdone by its other great qualities, this cohesive & nuanced foundation is how The Pathless charts its course to being one of 2020's best games.

A shroud of darkness has befallen the world.  Known only as "The Hunter," a lithe master archer takes it upon herself to travel alone to a mystical island that houses the gods.  The goal is simple: stop whatever power is sending the world into turmoil.  After a series of unfortunate circumstances, she takes on an eagle companion to help in vanquishing a near-omnipotent zealot, known as “Godslayer,” and his corrupted subjects.

After your shambling sailboat beaches ashore, the first thing you'll notice is how rudimentary the mechanics feel.  Ambling up the shoreline with a slow walking speed and a suspiciously high vertical leap feels odd, but you'll quickly chance upon a line of floating talismans (known as "shards") to shoot.  Upon success, the concomitant result is a short dash and a partial fill-up of your agility meter. 

This is the core gameplay loop: move as fast as you can, take aim at the nearest shard, hit the target, and repeat.  Meeting at a middle-ground between heightened involvement and easy-going euphoria, the locomotion is amongst my favorites in recent times.  The way timing a guaranteed shot (displayed via UI) demands a few more deciseconds, the visceral rush upon a successful hit, the slight tension of the bow on a DualSense controller, and the nimbleness of Hunter coalesce into a nuanced movement system that's as buttery and delightful as web-swinging in the Marvel's Spider-Man series.  Ascending to the first portion of the main island and seeing an open field littered with shards put a grin on my face.  Regardless of destination, I just had to put this mechanic through its paces.

What's fortunate about my playing style is the world design actively encourages this free-willed approach.  Since Hunter and her companion's goal is stopping the corruption nestled within each god, they'll have to ascend three tall obelisks and activate their shrines with special tokens to debilitate their foe.  Since the tokens required (1 or 2 per shrine) are behind puzzles randomly scattered about each locale no path ever feels useless.  This open-ended nature makes puzzle and enemy interactions more organic as a result.

Though not mind-blowing, The Pathless' puzzle design is quite creative with the expected tropes.  With a bow and eagle being the only tools in your arsenal, conundrums run the gamut of utilizing pressure blocks, aiming fire arrows to relight lanterns, using mirrors to redirect shots, and other slight permutations of the formula.  It may be typical, but the multitudinous ways the design avoids staleness is remarkable.  There are a few misfires overall, but the majority feel worthwhile and act as pacing mechanisms for the star(s) of the show.

The modest stumpers take on more gravity with one inclusion: the ever-present patrol of a behemoth roaming the land.  After a brisk cinematic where the head boss calls upon his former-god-turned-pet, a swirling red cloud engulfs part of the land.  Within its center lies a roaming monster hoping to find you.  Get too close and you're swallowed up by this cloud.  Your eagle becomes damaged and you must stealth your way over to revive her.  Due to each leviathan’s capricious patrolling patterns, there's legitimate tension when slinking through tall grass and holding still when its vision cone glides over you.  Each boss' pathing and vision cone consecutively increases in expanse too.  Punishment for detection may not be punitive, but the disruption serves as an annoying stopgap you'll strive to avoid.

This stress-inducing element is the cornerstone of what makes The Pathless so special.  There's a thematic and mechanical inducement to revitalize each area.  Saving these fallen gods feels rewarding not only for beating a pain in the ass but in also knowing their true selves are meant to shepherd the land, not lay waste to it.  This level of pervasiveness led to some of my favorite moments of the year.  Whenever the cloud's edge snuck up during a laborious puzzle it led to several amazing, unscripted escapes that rival the most cinematic scenes of this generation.

Escaping from a cloud and turning on some shrines isn't the end of the story though.  Upon doing said task, Hunter takes the fight to them.  Each engagement is split into two phases: an extended chase sequence and a platforming-flavored brawl (akin to old CrashJak, and Sly Cooper boss fights).  Though more subtle in the chase portions, each and every boss sequence has its own personality that fits accordingly with its aesthetic gimmick.  From the well-paced construction to the majestic splendor, each fight feels momentous in a way few recent games have achieved. 

Since my gushing has become too overwhelming for me - curmudgeon critic of claptrap - now's the best time to bring up the flaws.  I feel I ought to get away from minor annoyances, like the languid walking speed, and focus on the big target: the final god's location.  Whereas earlier levels feel like Giant Squid through and through, the frozen tundra feels more like Ubisoft.  The overly expansive environ relies on eagle-gliding and jump shards to get anywhere at a reasonable rate, you'll spend more time in Spirit Vision due to weaker signposting, and a copious amount of cliff faces could lead to you being backed into a corner over and over again.  I'd also like to file a harassment suit against said fallen god too; he was consistently looming over me whenever I was completing a puzzle housing a light token.  Every.  Single.  Time.

Without a doubt, this roadblock deflated my enthusiasm for a while.  Once it'd passed and returned to solid footing, The Pathless' better qualities took hold of me again.  Even a quirk like eagle petting could've been a minor distraction but becomes necessary for removing charcoal across her body.  Skillfully interlocking these not-so-complex mechanics makes Giant Squid's adventure feel so thoughtfully-designed.

To most of you well-versed on modern indie titles, simply invoking Creative Director Matt Nava (art director for 2012's Journey) by name is enough to know it's a looker.  Like Abzû's splendid color palette, there's something about the island's vibrancy and texture I couldn't help but admire.  Traversal wouldn't feel as enjoyable were it not for Hunter's lissome animations while dashing, jumping, and sliding from place to place either.  The enemies may be sparse but they're all varied and fit perfectly into the Eastern-inspired story, especially the malevolent look of Godslayer.  After playing on a next-gen console, I can also say my experience with the world was rarely - if ever- interrupted by technical annoyances too.

Rounding out the people you'd find in an old thatgamecompany yearbook, Austin Wintory returns as the game's composer.  Like that of the interlocking mechanics, The Pathless' soundtrack is another cog in communicating lonesomeness when traveling through the desolate island.  Juxtaposed with those somber tunes are exciting tracks when action uproariously kicks in.  Considering the wildly disparate moods compared to Abzû, Wintory's inspiration varies from traditional European to Eastern instrumentation and blends in beautifully, despite having to consider the proper timing in a condensed open world.  I know I have a habit of gushing over modern game soundtracks, but there's just something about the collaborations between Wintory and this team that make for something exceptional.

For a game with such emotional moments, it's surprising how sparse the narrative feels.  Part of that earns respect.  Instead of veering towards grey morality, the story has a vested interest in utilizing archetypical dilemmas to great effect.  The sincerity of both its core message and expected steps shines due - in great part - to its execution.  You palpably feel every setback Hunter deals with until the end.  What dampens that enthusiasm comes from wishing to get more background about the fascinating world.  And when considering the final message, which uncharacteristically gets pushed in your face, I couldn't help but wonder if there was some thematic inconsistency there.  Whether that’s misinterpretation on my part or not, the fusion of Western developer and Eastern-inspired narrative elements is handled with careful consideration.

As with most indie games of these stripes, value can be unsatisfactory to some players.  It's a $40 game ($50 for a physical copy) and I finished the campaign in roughly 6 hours - as a non-completionist run.  But I think for the story meant to be told it's an effective runtime.  The core mechanic still feels fresh to me, there are extra tokens to collect within each revived area, and gemstones that provide a permanent buff to your eagle are hidden everywhere too.

Whether admiring the artistry in motion or addictive means of traversal, The Pathless handedly succeeds in keeping your attention.  Sure, it's easy to see “Artistic Indie Game (TM)" after a cursory glance at its art style, soundtrack, and the studio's reputation.  But it's when you consider select elements - disparate from its current contemporaries - mixed into this confection that you notice what makes this interactive odyssey feel unique.  Such inspired choices show where Giant Squid took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.


Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

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This review is based on a digital copy of The Pathless for the PS5, provided by the publisher.

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