A thoughtful look at a world waiting to be discovered, and solved.
When an archer draws a string back, they are carefully charging an object with force, the bowstring, to propel another object, the arrow nocked on the bowstring, forward toward a target. An archer chooses where to strike, prepares the strike, then strikes, either hitting the target or landing wide. An archer shoots with purpose.
Pathless is the latest game from Giant Squid, the indie developers behind underwater adventure Abzu. You control an archer called the Hunter, exploring an island, to find and save some giant animal spirits, and stop the evil machinations of the villain. You have your bow to shoot things, your bird to help you glide around, and your brain to solve puzzles. You walk through fields, you run across bridges, you sneak by huge monsters.
As the Hunter, there is a simple structure to the game for you to work your way through: saving each spirit one at a time. But how you manage the saving, how you travel through this land, is up to you. The developers let you loose, not with a single target, but dozens. You are an arrow that can pick it’s own path, ignoring the obvious bullseye to find harder targets to hit.
The open world of Pathless can be reduced to a numbered list of specific regions, to particular ruins, to certain collectables. To do so would be a disservice, to take away the act of discovery from you. But to put things simply, it is an ancient place filled with nature and religious ruins left by previous travelers to the island. You will explore these ruins and learn about the nature there, the zealots that came there, and the purpose of the ruins. The flavor of the world is something like the animated masterpiece Princess Mononoke.
As the player controlling the Hunter, you are free to see it all, or to stay on target and just do the little required to save an animal spirit and move on to the next section of the island and the next giant spirit. But to rush through this world, single mindedly following the path of least resistance is to miss everything in the larger world outside the path.
This is a world of puzzles. Dozens and dozens of them. You only need to solve a few to move forward in the game. But the joy of this title is exploring everywhere, finding everything, and then solving every single thing. Some puzzles are large ruins, where you use your bow and your bird to solve, getting the keys needed to move forward. Other ruins are to give you the power to fly higher and glide longer with your eagle’s assistance. So you can go ruin to ruin to ruin and try to do it all.
And yet, applying that method of travel wouldn’t show you the all that is to be experienced in this world. Many other puzzles in Pathless are small things, only solvable once you know the language of the game. It is reminiscent of the Korok seeds from Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, these little puzzles with obvious or not so obvious solutions.
There were concepts I didn’t discover until I got halfway through the game, then I realized I had missed solving them for so long, and I had to go back — that is, if I wanted to go that extra mile, to travel around even longer, searching for more, ignoring the omni-present way that leads to the game’s inevitable conclusion.
So Pathless, like another game I recently discussed, is really about finding puzzles and solving them. It is the “Aha Moment” felt dozens or hundreds of times — your choice. It is finding all the collectibles, learning all the lore, seeing and doing everything. And while that sounds and seems a lot like other open world games like Assassin’s Creed or Breath of the Wild, it is not these things.
There is little combat in the game. Your bow doesn’t shoot monsters covering the land, there aren’t any, except for bosses; there are plenty of puzzles using your bow and there is a mechanic where you shoot talismans floating in the air for bursts of speed. There are few items and actions. This isn’t an RPG with gold to pick up, healing items, various tools to equip, or armor and weapons to loot from enemies. There is no complex leveling or skill tree to choose from; though you do learn a few abilities throughout the game, but not in any way like others where you gain experience and spend it to customize your character.
Pathless is purely about traveling, finding, and solving. This makes the game feel more like Shadow of the Colossus, but with a more developed world that is rich with lore and fewer boss fights, which are focused more on figuring out the pattern than fighting the huge beast who can rip you apart.
The graphics are stylized, simple, but wonderful. A beautiful world of forests and plains, a vast island stretching all around you and upward into mountains. The music is similarly atmospheric, but not emphatically drawing attention to itself. It is an undertone of loneliness and solemnity, occasionally punctuated by orchestral swells during cinematic moments. The sound effects and sound design are crafted well, including the way the sounds of the natural world slip away when you enter the spirit world.
The story is streamlined and well presented, with lore waiting to be uncovered and digested. It is all reminiscent of the things I mentioned before, but reducing it to such a simple equation would be another disservice. It isn’t just “Breath + Colossus + Mononoke.” It is a large world waiting to be experienced and mastered. While that is a land that may not appeal to everyone, for many it will be a beautiful and intriguing place to wander.
Three and a half stars out of four.
[Software provided by Annapurna Interactive. Hardware provided by PlayStation. Images courtesy of Annapurna Interactive.]
Kevin Ohannessian is a freelance journalist who has been playing games since the Atari days and covering them for 15+ years. You can find links to past work at KevinOhannessian.com and contact him with khohannessian AT gmail DOT com.