Some games are all about engaging the player in action, others are about immersion in the story, and a small but growing number focus much more on creating an experience based on atmosphere and unique gameplay. The Pathless, released by – Giant Squid, the team responsible for Abzu, is very much a game in the latter category, landing the player into a world of purple hues with the briefest of background stories and exploration being the first order of play. When done well, these games feel truly ground-breaking but when executed poorly, they quickly become a bore. The Pathless, true to its name, follows neither way but meanders somewhere in the middle.
A quick introduction sets the scene of a world tormented by demons with the heroes dispatched to fight them off destined to never return. Any visions of a series of intense battles against increasingly challenging bosses this conjures are quickly dissolved as your character, a kind of female ninja archer simply called ‘Hunter’, lands on the shores of an island on the edge of the world. No hordes await – just a beach and a trail to follow.
The basic controls involve standard walking and sprinting limited by an energy bar that needs to replenish before you kick on. However, as you round the corner to head inland, you encounter diamond targets that offer a speed boost when you hit them. Hit several in a row and you woosh across the land with the trees, hills, and rocks a blur around you. This works well as a way to engage the player while moving beyond simply pushing up on an analogue stick. You can also use these targets while jumping to increase your height and get to some of the more hard to reach areas.
You soon meet a fallen giant eagle, one of the gods under attack by the demons. Your first quest then unfolds – you must light up a series of towers that have been claimed by the forces of darkness. To do so, you simply have to explore – locate the towers, find a way to climb them, locate a statuette to return them to the light. This is all fairly straightforward with the only challenge to find where you need to go – no puzzles beyond some targets to hit and pressure plates to activate and no combatants to defeat.
Once this is done, you gain a companion for the rest of your journey in the shape of a more regular sized eagle. This will fly above and beside you, help you glide to difficult to reach places, drop stones onto those pressure pads, and expect a little TLC after a scary encounter. The combat that does appear as the game progresses, much like the puzzles, rarely threatens to result in a ‘game over’ screen and is simply a matter of keeping your cool and firing off those arrows.
That is where this game didn’t quite do it for me. The first hour was engaging as I explored, became familiar with the gameplay, and tried to piece together the story. However, it just failed to evolve from there. The methods I used to solve those first few puzzles were the ones I largely used throughout the entire game. The enemies encountered didn’t really feel any different or any more challenging than each other. The story was revealed so slowly that it didn’t hold my interest. This could, like Abzu, have been another atmospheric game of exploration. Alternatively, it could have been a game that combined unique visuals and controls with a series of increasingly difficult puzzles and boss fights. It could have been an interesting short-form game, or it could have been a long-term challenging game driven by a mysterious story. Ultimately, it is none of these things. In that sense, it is very much Pathless.