I’ve said what I like from my games enough times whilst writing for B3, one of those is exploration. When I say that I mean true exploration, not a map littered with icons or waypoints taking up your screen (looking at you Ubisoft). I want an interesting and diverse world that rewards my curiosity and keeps me in awe of its scenery. The Pathless does this more than any game I’ve played this year, and I love it for that reason alone. It’s just a bonus that it’s is a pretty stellar game too.
In The Pathless, players take control of The Hunter, a master archer. Having journeyed to a mystical island, you explore the vast world trying to lift a curse that’s corrupted its spirits and the island itself. After arriving, a few beautifully animated cutscenes help set the scene whilst you explore the initial tutorial area. Rather than overload the whole game with these cutscenes, much of the plot can be told, or rather found, as you explore; Something I was immediately grateful for. Blue ghostlike orbs and slabs of writing can be found throughout the world, with each giving a glimpse into the lore or the people who once inhabited the island. It’s this and the environmental storytelling that really does the heavy lifting, and it pays off beautifully. Every little piece of dialogue only enriched the game, and the fact it’s an organic experience that you find on your own only makes the exploration that much more rewarding as you slowly unravel the story.
Though to say the exploration is rewarding would be an understatement; It’s downright fantastic. It’s pretty apparent that every design choice was made to make this aspect of the game as fulfilling as possible; Even if that means breaking conventions. Even the creative director Matt Nava echoed this point in a Playstation Blog post, and the game is better for it. One of these notable choices is the lack of a map. Instead of constantly checking a mini-map or opening menus you are encouraged to explore naturally, climbing to vantage points and finding your own way. Not only that, but there is also no fast travel or game over state. Essentially every step has been taken to make sure you’re not taken out of the game world and it pays off tremendously. This mentality and focus on exploration and discovery is just as much a part of the gameplay.
For one is the lack of combat. Aside from the bosses you face, there are no enemies to be found. This does at times make the game drag a little, and naturally brings us to the question of how the archery plays its part in the gameplay. The archery is used in a variety of creative ways. One of which is as a tool for exploration. By not having you aim, the game keeps the flow of movement constant, instead highlighting objects that you can shoot when they enter your view and range, with your timing playing a big part in how accurate your shoot is. By shooting floating talismans, which are scattered through the world, players get a boost of speed as well as recharging their dash meter. This lets players move at incredible speeds across the map, without losing control or the fluidity of movement. It’s not a lot of skill required, but it’s a nice touch for those who want to perfect their movement.
Traversing the world feels like you’re ice skating across the landscape. It’s smooth, fluid, and incredibly enjoyable, and it’s made even more fun thanks to your eagle companion. This feathered friend you acquire is used in nearly every aspect of the gameplay. Movement is made more vertical and expansive thanks to their ability to let you glide across huge areas, or using their flap mechanic to whisk you up into the air to gain height quickly; Plus you can pet the eagle.
Coupled with the other mechanics like the archery and dashing, you’ll naturally feel yourself getting better as moving across the world with ease, feeling more reminiscent of a dance than anything else.
But these aren’t just used for movement, but also in the puzzle-solving that makes up a good chunk of the gameplay. Whilst exploring ruins and areas of interest, you’ll form a symbiotic relationship between yourself and your eagle. Using both to solve the varied puzzles throughout the island for the gem-like “EXP” to further upgrade your eagle’s flap ability, making traverse even more efficient and rewarding the more you progress. Some of these puzzles and areas were a bit repetitive, but they more often than not required a good amount of problem-solving and were satisfying to figure out on the whole.
Although, with the game lacking a focus on combat, it oddly makes the boss fights that much more intense. These behemoths each have their own unique battle that takes place after freeing the towers scattered across each area. After giving chase to weaken them, you’re put into an arena that changes the feel of the game dramatically. Instead of the usual fast pace and movement of exploring, the game takes a slower approach as you dodge incoming attacks and find weak spots. Each boss has its own unique spin, and overcoming these is made all the more satisfying as the world becomes brighter and more alive as you free the spirits.
So with all this focus on the world and exploring, it’s a good thing that it’s stunning to look at. Much like Abzu, Giant Squid’s previous game, The Pathless has an incredibly unique flair to its visuals. Taking influence from eastern culture and natural environments, the two blend together into a wholly unique world that’s filled with colour and depth throughout. Huge areas of trees and forest, snowy tundras and ancient ruins fill the world to the brim with visual delights. The colours and environments only feed into the core aspects of the game, and with such a stunning world and the ease of movement, you’ll be constantly amazed at the sights and sounds of the island; All whilst never being too repetitive, and still look gorgeous as you dash across the world.
It’s pretty clear where The Pathless has taken influence from other adventure games, with aspects from games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it’s how they use these in their own unique way that helps The Pathless have its own identity. Little details like music swelling in and out, building at different moments as you explore.The ever-looming danger that moves across the land, constantly reminding you of the threat you face. It’s all these extra details that just reinforces the games focus on exploration and immersion, and are used so effectively through the game.
Overall, The Pathless is a prime example of breaking convention effectively. The lack of conventional design choices like maps and fast travel and the focus on its world, player curiosity and the way you explore made this easily one of my favourite games I’ve played this year. Giant Squid knocked it out the park with this adventure game, and I encourage any fan of Abzu, or even just exploration, to give this a go; You won’t be disappointed.