The Pathless Review

November 20, 2020
Also on: PC, PS4
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The Pathless attempts to inject a long tradition of minimalist fantasy Zelda-likes with a focus on movement and casual play. You play as the Hunter, and you’re trying to cure four animals that were gods — called Tall Ones — that once defended the land, but are now cursed by someone called The Pathfinder. You and your companion eagle must solve a number of puzzles to activate towers, therefore allowing you to fight and cure a god and progress. A mysterious echoing voice speaking an unfamiliar language guides you on your journey. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The Pathless wears its influences — Breath of the Wild, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico — on its sleeve, but perhaps veers a bit too heavily from homage to imitation. 

You sprint and glide around the world of The Pathless by shooting at targets which litter every nook and cranny of landscape. These targets add to your boost meter, which expands significantly after beating one of the game area’s bosses. Some targets line up to points of interest, and some are just there if you’d like to keep your momentum going. Given the marketing of the game, I was expecting the experience to be more reliant on movement, speed and flow, but that isn’t really the case. Even in the most open areas of the game, your top speed is relatively low, and you’re only traversing vertically by slowly gliding with your eagle buddy. In the game’s final, ice-laden area, this changes a little, with certain targets boosting you up. I would have liked these littered throughout the game from the start. As it is, most of your time is spent cruising at a medium pace to a puzzle area. The targets are inconsistent, too, especially when you’re in a puzzle area. I often found myself shooting things in the wrong order while standing still because the target just kept moving around. 

It's like rain on a puzzle day.

There are two types of puzzles: ones that give you the resources to activate the game’s towers and more optional ones that fill up a meter that will eventually earn you another flap on your eagle. This means more verticality. As far as I could tell, none of the puzzles relied upon movement or speed, and just took you to a screeching halt. There is one optional puzzle in which you have to follow butterflies to different spots before a ticking clock winds down, but these only serve to increase your maximum flaps and you don’t actually need to move fast to finish them. You just need to know where each pocket of butterflies spawns by using the scanner. 

The puzzles are rudimentary and repetitive, and I found myself challenged only once. Essentially, you’ll be tasked with lining up different rings or torches to fire at with your arrows, or using your pet eagle to carry a pot from one pressure pad to another, or a combination of the two. The solutions are obvious almost immediately in most cases and, even if they’re not, you can pretty much solve every puzzle by shooting at the first thing that looks like it’ll affect the next thing. My issue with the puzzles is less that they’re easy— after all, it is supposed to be a blissed out, more casual experience — but more that they repeat themselves. They don’t evolve past their first iterations, and instead just get a bit longer. There will be more torches. Or more rings. Each level of plateau also contains a wandering, red, fiery elephant in the room: a traveling stealth section.

Sometimes the game can be a very chill experience.

Each area’s infected god wanders around the map, potentially ensnaring you in this blood-orange instance wherein you have to recover your eagle. You must avoid the cursed beast’s line of sight and stick to the shadows while making your way to the poor, helpless bird. The light and shadows are visually stunning, and the fire emanating from the beasts is absolutely radiant. Unfortunately, playing through these segments is an utter bore. You’re completely bereft of your normal moveset, and have to slowly inch towards your bird in this crouched stance. There isn’t any nuance to the stealth system, or a way to distract the beast. Even when the beast is looking away, you can’t stand up and make a brief run for it. It’s easy enough to avoid these sections altogether, though you can be caught unawares by one as you’re busy doing a puzzle or if you simply need to get to one specific tower that happens to be in a stealth zone. 

Traversing the world of The Pathless might feel therapeutic and open to some, but I found it to be a rather empty chore. As the Hunter, you don’t have many — if any — options to interact with the world around you. Animals — which the game focuses on heavily in its storytelling and themes — simply run away from you when you approach. I know that sounds like a small thing, but it feels disappointingly limited. Every single piece of environmental storytelling is tied to one of the game’s required or optional puzzles and the story, frankly, doesn’t really get that much more interesting the more you learn about it. After you beat the boss of each area, which requires you to cleanse a Tall One of its curse, you have the option to move to the next area to complete the rest of the puzzles in that environment for an unnamed reward. I made the decision to make my way to the end first, and then double back and do this. Rather than a mini-map, your only resource for navigating in the game is spirit vision, which is a blue-hewed scanning mode that you can activate to view interesting points on the map. It looks garish, and if you switch to it while moving you decelerate completely. Furthermore, you have to listen to an incessant bell that rings like an old phone landline left unattended. It’s simply an unpleasant way to play the game, but it’s the only compass you have. 

It's all Greek to me!

It also doesn’t differentiate between puzzles that simply increase your flapping ability — completely unnecessary by the time you finish the game — and puzzles that give you the resource for the big reward. All these puzzles just show up in red. You also won’t see anything if it isn’t close enough to you. Even if you find a high point where you can see the entire area expanding around you, you won’t be able to see points that are too far from you. I spent about forty-five minutes in the first area looking for the final puzzle to see what the reward would be. In the end, it was an underwhelming power-up that would have been nice to use during my actual playthrough. 

Aesthetically, the game is gorgeous if a bit derivative of its aforementioned influences. There isn’t really a whole lot to see in the open-world, and the most striking images in the game — those of its animalian gods — are few and far between. The rain effects and reflections are spectacular on the PS5, and the main character animates beautifully when interacting with her pet eagle. You can massage the eagle at any time, and there are bits where you are required to do so, and it’s a very sweet and expressively drawn sequence. The bosses, in particular, are an especially brilliant use of colour and particle effects.

The eye of the storm!

If there’s one saving grace to The Pathless as a whole, it’s the boss fights, which offer a far more diverse set of thrills than the standard gameplay. Each one begins with the fastest sections in the game, where you have to catch up to each beast by chasing it through a burning forest. They then settle into an area where you have to avoid them while attacking their weak points. It’s standard fare as far as the genre goes, but the fact that they’re so visually stimulating and come at you in a variety of phases goes a long way in surprising the player and creating that feeling of epicness.

The Pathless makes a big point of saying that it’s more important to choose your own path than to follow in the footsteps of someone else. It’s unfortunate, then, that The Pathless feels so indebted to so many games that came before it. It claims to offer freedom but forces the player to navigate its world in linear, rote ways. There are some exciting morsels of gameplay and a few incredible sights to behold, but I never felt like playing this game was a path that I really needed to take.

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For all of its grandiose stylings and ambitions of being a pure reduction of the open-world formula, The Pathless never feels greater than the sum of its parts. It feels like more of a small-scale time waster. It’s fine for momentarily taking your mind off of things, but those wanting a consistently strong and engaging experience may want to follow a different path.
Jon Peltz

I am just a guy from Miami who first got into gaming through PC Gamer demo discs. I adore adventure games, even though I am usually forced to use a guide when I get fed up pixel-hunting. My favourite games are Shadow of the Colossus and Grim Fandango. I have two cats: Nori and Pizza.