Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS5, PC
There’s an indelible beauty present in The Pathless. I’m not talking about the game’s art direction, sound design, and musical composition — though, yes, those are things about it that are indeed very beautiful. What I’m talking about is the way the game is able to make you, the player, feel something while exploring its artful open-world… and the way you’ll feel after your time in that world is over. Developed by Giant Squid, the studio that previously brought us the serene underwater adventure Abzu, The Pathless is a thoughtful — and above all, powerful — journey through a wondrous land.
A Magical Hike Through a Cursed Forest
Within its first few moments, The Pathless introduces you to its vast world and mysterious protagonist, the Hunter. Little is known about either, and as you play, the game chooses to keep a lot of its lore mysterious and almost poetic. What you get is an interpretive adventure that relies largely on its sights, sounds, and exploration to create a massively evocative tone. Oh, and an adorable eagle companion that will hop on every perch it can find in the environments.
As the Hunter, you have to eliminate a curse that has ravaged a peaceful forest. Your eagle friend can help you solve puzzles in smaller areas and carry you high above long stretches of forest. The eagle almost feels like an extension of both the Hunter and the game world — your feathery buddy is pretty much the bridge between you and the environment, creating a sort of fluidity between your actions and how the environment reacts to them.
The Pathless is in line with games like Abzu and Journey: It’s a thought-provoking experience, but it’s thought-provoking because of how serene it is as it allows you to both reflect and let go while playing. That said, this game is a lot more action-driven, requiring you to rid the forest of its curse while witnessing monstrous abominations. As such, it introduces turmoil and chaos to its meditative design, which, quite surprisingly, creates a powerful dichotomy of emotions.
Despite being an open world game, there’s no map to guide you in The Pathless. Instead, you’ll rely on your Spirit Vision. This is toggled with a press of the triangle button on the DualShock 4, and it highlights cursed areas, as well as locations where you might find special secrets. You’ll notice multiple highlighted areas, and for the most part, you can visit those spots in any order. Collecting talismans and placing them in shrines will cure parts of land from the curse, prompting you to toggle spirit vision so you know where to go next.
The flow of The Pathless is pretty simple: collect a talisman, maybe solve a handful of puzzles in a temple, free the land, and travel or fly lengthy stretches. That said, the puzzles themselves are a delight thanks to how intuitive they are. There are different kinds of switches — some require you to shoot them with an arrow, while others need to be stepped on (or rather, have a heavy item placed on them). You’ll use your arrows as well as your eagle pal’s ability to carry small statues to trigger all of these switches.
Fluidity and Connectedness
Though the puzzles in The Pathless are often quite simple, they’re not boring or redundant. In fact, it’s their intuitiveness that makes them so much fun to solve. You’ll rarely, if ever, find yourself stuck while trying to figure out how to progress through an ancient, dilapidated temple.
This fluid progression is present in the way you move through the world, too. You’ll go from solving a few puzzles to running through the lush forest world and then gliding over it with the help of your eagle. It’s immensely pleasing thanks in large part to the movement animations. The Hunter can sprint quite fast, and though a meter dictates how long you can sprint, there are gems virtually everywhere that you can shoot with your arrows that’ll replenish your sprint, allowing you to run at a fast pace for long periods without bringing the action to a halt.
Running rapidly around the environments will get you an up-close look at the game world, but it’s when you’re gliding through the air, hanging on to your eagle, that you’ll be able to catch glimpses of the forest from far above. It’s truly awe-inspiring, and it’s in those moments when you’re high above the ground that you gain an appreciation for the open world The Pathless offers.
If you’re looking for things to do, the open world of The Pathless may not meet your criteria. The game is less about overloading you with trinkets and side missions and more about giving you a large, mysterious landscape to take in. I was reminded of Shadow of the Colossus and Red Dead Redemption 2, where there are things to do, but a part of the joy in those games comes from moving across the countryside. The same can be said here, though you won’t be traveling nearly as long as those games require you to do.
The open world design of The Pathless is quite unique for this type of zen experience. No, there aren’t loads of things to do, but running rapidly through tall blades of grass and soaring through the sky make for satisfying world exploration, whether or not anything is actually going on in the area you’re traveling through. That said, the game doesn’t go far beyond the six-hour mark — this is a condensed open world adventure that never feels like it’s burdening you with an intrusive length.
The Pathless Successfully Blends Serenity with Turmoil
It’s not all peace and quiet in The Pathless. You are, after all, trying to cleanse a once-tranquil land from malediction. The game’s art portrays that good-and-evil contrast quite well. The majority of land you travel through consists of green grass, tall trees, ancient-looking murals, and majestic architecture. Sprinkled in between all the beauty, though, is fiery rot. Strange creatures will appear and threaten you and the land. Eliminating the evil from different areas will once again fill the sky and ground with color. It’s a sight to behold, and it makes you feel a sense of triumph.
Austin Wintory is back with yet another beautiful, atmospheric score. You’ll hear classical string instruments, droning themes, and even humming vocals. When you don’t hear any music, you’ll hear calm, ethereal sounds. The way the music changes to fit the tone of the area you’re in at any given time makes for a powerful audiovisual treat.
The Pathless is the perfect game to play if you want to sit back and just take in a gorgeous collection of sights and sounds. There are objectives and puzzles, but these help invite you into the world further. Whether you’re running across fields, witnessing the land below while gliding with your eagle, or exploring ancient ruins, there’s never a dull moment to be had here. The Pathless is magnificent, meditative, and contemplative, and it could be exactly what you need.