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'The Pathless' screenshots courtesy of Annapurna
Games

'Pathless' Books a Spiritual Retreat for the Open World Action Genre

High-speed, archery-assisted movement obscures woolly worldbuilding.
November 17, 2020, 2:18pm

I have just felled a gigantic flame-headed beast, only for it to transform into an elegant deer. The creature gives me a magical arrow which I shoot upwards up to the sky; as it perforates the atmosphere, the darkness which shrouds the vast forest I'm in lifts. Color rushes back through it—blues, greens, yellows, and pinks—and I rush, too, unleashing a flurry of arrows into strange hanging orbs which slingshot me through the vegetation. Despite exploring this place for an hour already, I feel like I’m only just seeing it for the first time; I drink in the blur of shrubbery and wildlife, high off the vibrancy of it all. 

These are the moments which make The Pathless worth playing, released last week on PlayStation 4 and 5, PC, and Apple devices. Wondrous and nature-filled, just like Giant Squid’s 2016 aquamarine ABZÛ, the premise of the studio’s latest was presumably dreamed up with these big blossoming reveals in mind. A mystical island made up of four plateaus has been corrupted by an evil force; playing as a fleet-footed archer, I must ascend through the shadowed environments and cleanse them of this affliction. It’s a set-up as old as stories themselves, albeit with a clear video game parallel in 2006’s Okami, a third-person adventure game which also makes a big and beautiful deal out of healing the earth. Where Clover Studio’s wolfen epic is an infamously unhurried trek through a world engulfed by foul spirits, The Pathless is a hop, skip, and a jump; a breezy six hour jaunt elevated by a traversal system of rare momentum. 

This is needed to navigate its vast open world which eschews both fast travel and a map. Glowing red towers stand in each of the four major areas as clear waypoints. I’m tasked with transforming them into beacons of light with ancient stones found in slowly crumbling buildings. These double as environmental puzzles; I’ll hit multiple targets with a single arrow, or light torches with a blazing tip. It’s straightforward and satisfying, but mostly feels like a filler until I venture back into the sylvan scenery—accelerating through the undergrowth in a haze.

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Squeezing the right trigger fires an arrow into the diamond shapes scattered throughout the environment—and this fills a meter which I use to run using the left trigger. With each successive shot, I get an additional, momentary boost. It sounds mechanical yet The Pathless is fluid, helping me lock onto the next target a split second after I’ve hit the previous one. In another title, this would be gamified with a combo meter, but thankfully there’s no high score; the pleasure of movement is enough. As traversal becomes second nature, it assumes a zen-like quality, not dissimilar to the mountainous hiking in Death Stranding. My mind quickly fills with simply maintaining a slaloming course along the generously curved contours of the game’s landscapes; movement becomes a form of meditation. 

Actual meditation played a part in Giant Squid’s previous title ABZÛ. At specific locations, pressing a button caused the avatar to assume the lotus position and quietly observe the teeming underwater beings, an act creative director Matt Nava said was designed to foster “connection.” This was a natural progression for Nava who art directed two similarly well-meaning and relaxing titles prior to forming Giant Squid. 2009’s Flower was a game about controlling the wind and sustaining life in a world under threat from modernization; 2012’s Journey was a philosophical meditation on the various stages of life, culminating in a breathtaking mountain ascension.

The quasi-spiritualism and broad environmental perspectives of these titles had a whiff of the new age about them—there were nods to deepness but it often felt a little facile. Jenova Chen, director of Journey and founder of Annapurna, publisher of The Pathless, said his 2013 title was inspired by an assemblage of alternative outlooks: Buddhism, Japanese Shintoism, and Native American spirituality. Similar influences appear to course through Nava’s latest; I develop bonds with animal deities—including an eagle who I nurse back to health—and I read notes from deceased islanders offering heartfelt thanks to nature. This is mostly fine but the fuzzy tone grows increasingly grating. At the end of The Pathless, I discover its title doesn’t just refer to free-roaming exploration: “Each person must find their own way,” says the archer. “The truth is a pathless land.” The vagueness is infuriating; it sounds more like marketing copy for an ayahuasca retreat rather than the climax of a totemic battle.

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The world itself appears, if not vague, then unspecific. Ruinous architecture cribbed from a variety of ancient cultures lacks cohesion, while visible corpses suggest a more recent struggle without ever resonating emotionally. I never sense the same weight of history which roots the Fumito Ueda games Nava clearly draws influence from. With each new snaking valley, I see an echo of those titles, from the fluttering ivy which hugs vertiginous walls to the gigantic skeletons which suggest unknowable prehistoric life. The human element of the game’s mystical island, that which can make a place ache even in its absence, is never as convincing as its sparkling greenery. Really, The Pathless feels unmoored, gesturing towards many mythologies without ever truly possessing its own. 

Except, that is, in the game’s most dramatic moments. Once the towers have been lit, the game shifts into a different gear as the extended boss-fights begin. Each of these opens with the same jaw-dropping sequence; I jump from the obelisk-like structure and glide straight into a swirling red maelstrom, wind and lighting licking at my body. It looks like the eerie orange photos of Californian wildfires—once alien and now depressingly common—and as I land, a thrilling chase between me and the giant animal ensues. The soothing quality of traversal is replaced with a fraught tension; I dodge magma rocks and flaming trees, twirling in the air as I unleash a series of arrows into each of the targets on its torso. At this point, the battle relocates to a more traditional arena—instantly less interesting—but in the opening few minutes of each bruising encounter, the game forges its own identity, fleetingly but forcefully and with a confidence lacking elsewhere. 

With the wind rushing by and the archer almost exuberantly tumbling over herself, The Pathless in full tilt genuinely sings. This speed is more than a fun gameplay hook; it transforms my surroundings, from the forest floor which becomes an expressionistic smear to the woolly worldbuilding now barely visible in my periphery. As soon as I stop, however, the latter suddenly snaps back into focus; the trick is to keep moving.