Having never played Giant Squid’s debut game, Abzu, (blasphemy, I know) I wasn’t completely sure of what to expect coming into The Pathless. I recall seeing footage here and there, most notably during a State of Play and being wowed by the art style, puzzle solving and sense of freedom and fluidity of movement that the character possessed within the open world.
All of these individual components coalesced together to form something I wanted to experience on the launch day of my shiny, new PlayStation 5. Now, having made it to the other side of such a hectic launch, I can say with certainty, The Pathless, is not only one of the PlayStation 5’s de facto titles, but also manages to fit snuggly into one of my favorites from 2020.
Venturing into the Unknown
Once you step off your boat, The Pathless sets you loose within an island devoid of restraint yet, brim with possibility. The sprawling world within this compact adventure see’s you traversing a wide array of geography ranging from ice capped mountains, to open pastures, long forgotten ruins and densely packed forests.
In essence, The Pathless sees you taking the reins of a nameless hunter traveling with the hope to cleanse an island plunged in darkness. An island that has seen its fair share of hunters fail and perish in their attempt to revert the island to its natural state.
It’s made apparent as soon as you step foot on the island, the almost irreparable damage that the Godslayer has brought upon this land. A canvas of darkness has washed across the entirety of the land, a darkness that has infected the benevolent deities, which have morphed and twisted into unrecognizable, shadows of their former selves.
With your always reliable bow and trusty eagle at your side, it’s up to you to restore the land and its deities, to their original, unaltered form.
A World Built for the Curious
The seamlessness of the open world and how organically each section manages to flow into each other, remains one of the game’s most crucial components. However, the sheer scale and vastness of the island, isn’t just meant for show. The aforementioned vastness, encourages those who allow themselves to be whisked away by their own curiosity and inane urge to explore, to truly prosper here. This freedom of exploration, is further accentuated through the absence of a mini map and thankfully, that curiosity is not only encouraged, but satiated, thoroughly.
As you dash through plains of green and mountain tundra’s, you’ll often stumble upon a wide array of environmental puzzles, discovered by a second vision that highlights points of interest in red. However, it is through these puzzles that the Hunter acquires lanterns and more importantly, lightstones. By obtaining the latter, the Hunter can power up several of the towering totem’s found on each of the plateaus to progress the story. While, some of the puzzles are certainly more memorable than others and some would disregard them for their simplicity, I personally found them a worthy pallet cleanser. And, I’m not afraid to admit, that a few of them even stumped me for a while, which only made the eventual “Ah-ha!” moment, that much more rewarding.
At the center of the experience, what manages to tie together all of the game’s moving parts to create an adventure worth exploring every corner, is the movement system. Immediately, you’ll find yourself privy to an unfathomable number of floating gem’s littered about each area in the game. Once broken through the use of your bow, causes the Hunter to fill up a stamina meter and sprint faster. And it is through this mechanic, that exploration across such lengthy distances, manages to avoid feeling like a chore but instead, feels like an absolute delight. So much so, in fact, that there were a few cases where I simply just ran around aimlessly with no goal in mind, but rather, wishing to mess around with the movement like a kid at a playground. Since, there’s such an overwhelming amount of these gems laying about, coupled with your bow having a pseudo aim-assist, the question of flow and speed is never brought to the forefront. In other words, you aren’t forced to slow down as you attempt to line up a shot on a gem. Instead, developer Giant Squid, prioritizes how the player can reach their destination with as little hinderance and blockades as possible, while also maintaining, the natural fun experienced through the exhilarating speed. In this way, your mind doesn’t get bogged down by anything else but your own momentum. The island provides the tools and it’s up to you to make use of them in such a manner that maintains that speed.
A Sea of Red
The serenity and intimate contemplation that the game’s zen succeeds in instilling into you, only lasts so long. A churning, twisting storm of molten red, also inhabits the same world in which you’re traversing and solving puzzles within. Contrary to my own belief, the storm isn’t content with allowing you to leisurely stroll about, since the storm will occasionally move and expand. Instead, the storm acts as a looming danger, a constant reminder, as to the damage the Godslayer has wrought upon this land. If you venture too close to the storm, there’s a price to pay. There’s instances where you’ll find yourself in the middle of solving a puzzle, when all of a sudden, waves of crimson, begin to paint the floor you walk. This warns you of the incoming threat. And in these moments, they accomplish creating enough fear and stress, that certainly pushed me to drop everything I was doing and run like hell. Part of this insistence on wanting to avoid these storms, is due to how they pluck you out from your usual exploring and place you into a scenario that really brings the gameplay to a halt. Getting caught withstanding, the storm may even expand to a point where it actually begins to catch up to your heels if you’re running away. In turn, this causes these organic encounters to coalesce into a desperate, mad dash to safety, where every shot from your bow matters.
With light restored to the three totems in that specific plateau, this triggers the beginnings of a boss fight. These typically begin with you entering said storm and engaging with the tainted deity in a thrilling, adrenaline paced race, which allows the Hunter to make good on their name.
These red soaked plains, open up a bit in these moments, almost removing some of the terrain that might’ve otherwise proved intrusive on your hunt. Leaving the chase, uninterrupted and opening the door for you to truly let loose with your speed and the use of your bird.
Once the deity takes enough damage, stage 2 begins.
Although, many would consider the movement in The Pathless, the game’s defining trait, I would argue the games bosses deserve just as much recognition. After fighting the games first boss, I fully expected the rest to follow suit with some minor tweaks to freshen the formula.
But, boy was I wrong…
Simply put, The Pathless‘ bosses are some of the most memorable fights I’ve had in recent memory. One boss sees you dodging fireballs raining from the sky like some sort of bullet-hell shooter, while another plays like something right out of a 2D side scroller with some light platforming peppered in. I’ve yet to mention Austin Wintory’s meditative, spiritual score, because for me, the music truly shines during these boss encounter’s. The music hit this fine balance of conveying just how outmatched I felt coming across these godly beings but also providing me with the energy I needed to persevere and make it on the other side.
And persevered I did. Through uniquely designed bosses of both the mechanical and visual ilk. Through Cernos, Kumo, Sauro and the Godslayer. And all the way into an ending which left me grinning with tears welling within my eyes, partly due to the relationship and bond you forge with your eagle companion throughout your journey. By the end, you feel as exhausted as they do.
The Pathless succeeds as a meditative jaunt across a vast open world, ripe with mysteries explorable through a liberating movement system. Mysteries, mind you, that warrant the occasional drifting off from the beaten path, so long as you allow your wonder and curiosity guide you.