Hidden among the action-packed games highlighting the holidays of 2020 is a little gem called The Pathless. As the follow-up to 2016’s Abzu, my expectations for Giant Squid‘s second game were high, and they were met in the most important areas. Ditching the underwater depths of Abzu, The Pathless has moved to large, open fields and mountains. As the name implies, the linear nature of Abzu has been replaced with a more open-ended structure, although one that is not truly without rails to keep things going.
Aside from changing locations, The Pathless adds two core elements to distance itself from Abzu. First, is the inclusion of the bow and arrow as a tool. I was concerned that this would give the game an action focus, which would be a sharp departure from Abzu. Fortunately, the bow is used almost exclusively for traversal and only comes into play as a weapon during boss encounters. Second is text narration for both the story and for lore objects found around the world. Both Abzu and Journey before it — which was made by a different company, but had many of the same development members — relied heavily on pictograms and character actions to tell their stories. On the one hand, this provided a zen-like experience where the player was left to immerse themselves in the worlds and come up with their own interpretations of the story. But, on the other hand, it also left things ambiguous and could leave players confused if they missed some of the hidden lore locations. For myself, I consider the text descriptions on the lore objects to be useful, but the game’s overall narration describing the current plot to be intrusive and unnecessary.
The gameplay in The Pathless is as fast or sedate as you want it to be. Using your bow you can shoot targets placed liberally throughout the area for speed and jump boosts. The game is generous in its lock-on mechanics so player skill rarely factors into hitting targets, and instead comes into play with learning how to chain the targets to maintain your speed effectively. Not mastering how to speed across the ground rarely impedes your ability to progress in the game, and instead only blocks you from further exploring some areas until you are better skilled. Additionally, for each area, you enter you have to achieve a set number of tasks to continue, but there are more tasks available than needed. So if you get stuck in a puzzle you can often just jump to a different puzzle instead and still progress.
Where the gameplay falters a bit is in the giant red dome of death that inhabits each area you explore. The dome starts far from you, and moves towards you the longer you say in the area. At first, it moves slowly, but eventually, it moves fast and is almost unavoidable. When the dome catches you it begins a stealth mission where you must avoid the local boss. If you are caught you are flung away and lose some of your power-ups, while succeeding simply returns you to the map safely. These stealth missions quickly wear out their welcome and are more tedious than anything else. By contrast, the actual boss fights themselves when you complete an area are fantastic. I am most reminded of Shadows of the Colossus in this regard, although the fight mechanics are vastly different. Each fight is multi-part, and each part has you learning different mechanics. Even the first boss fight feels epic, and it only ramps up from there.
In terms of presentation, The Pathless really shines with its art direction and musical score. The actual technical aspects of the graphics probably won’t impress, and even if you get the PlayStation 5 version of the game it won’t be your go-to for showing off your new console. However, the decision to go minimalist is intentional, and it plays to the team’s strengths. Like the games before it, there is a reliance on bold, simple shapes that stand out against the sweeping backdrops. The texturing never looks dull, despite an intentional lack of details. The Hunter and her bird emote well, even though you can only see a small part of her face and you have little to go on. Part of this does come from the beautiful score from Austin Wintory, who worked on Abzu and Journey, as well as The Banner Saga. The Pathless is a beautiful game both visually and musically.
The Pathless Review Final Thoughts:
The Pathless is a worthy successor to Abzu and is a game I can easily recommend. We’re in the season of big-budget blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the newest Call of Duty, but sometimes it’s good to take a step back and play a game that doesn’t overload your senses or present you with a map covered in pins. The Pathless provides that mental break while still giving you an engaging story and fun game mechanics. There are times when it can provide a pretty intense experience, too, but for the most part, you’ll spend your time jumping around the areas hunting for clues, and enjoying the world for what it is. It’s a significantly longer game than Abzu, so there’s a lot more meat to it if you were disappointed in the two-ish hour runtime of its predecessor. Even with the extra length, though, I know I will be returning to The Pathless again in the future since it is one of those games that just feels good to play, like reading a favorite book.