The Pathless — No One Way
The Pathless (2021) caught me off-guard when I finally got around to playing it. I was expecting something akin to Blue Isle Studio’s Valley (2016): move fast, make progress, have fun. But it became much more than that within the few evenings of play I’ve had with it. The Pathless is as much a simple game as it is an experience; a challenge, as much as it is forgiving; as philosophical and wandering as it is direct and focused. The short, short version is that The Pathless is beautiful. Anyone who can play it, should. Musing only does so much. Let me try to explain.
Players control a nameless Hunter, sent to a cursed island to thwart the powerful Godslayer, who intends to lead the world and its inhabitants into the next age, even if it destroys the world. Armed with a bow (and unlimited arrows), the Hunter quickly saves an Eagle companion, and together they barrel forward to purify the island, stop the Godslayer, and save the world.
Gameplay is simple: shoot floating, regenerating talismans to build up stamina, dash to use stamina, travel the island’s regions, find enough keys to purify towers, purify the region’s beast, rinse and repeat. But in the gameplay is rhythm and flow, not dictated by beats and measures, but by momentum. For the most part, the landscape is littered with talismans; with a little practice, players can easily string shots together to keep sprinting full-tilt. And here, the game demonstrates emotional peaks and valleys: when we go fast, it feels good, we maintain the momentum, we go, and go…and then we come to our destination, or a curious landmark. We slow down. We investigate, trying to uncover its secrets. In time, the secrets are unearthed, or we grow frustrated with the puzzle. So, we move on, finding our rhythm and flow between the talismans once more.
Accessibility-wise, the rhythm is as powerful as it is because the controls are so simple. The Pathless operates on full auto-aim, so as long as players are pulling back on the bowstring, the Hunter will fire at the nearest talisman without breaking stride. Whether at a standstill, a full sprint, a freefall, or a gentle float, the Hunter knows where to aim. Add in the optional Spirit Mask view, and players always have an idea of where to head next.
Additionally, it seems impossible for players to “die,” as they can in traditional video games. Can the Hunter be knocked aside and laid low by powerful enemies? Yes, but there’s never a sense of Game Over or defeat pervading that. She gets right back up, and players can try again. Bone-shattering falls result in a cool three-point landing (and an achievement, if you drop from high enough!), explosive meteors are an inconvenience, and the slashes of powerful, corrupted spirits do little more than set you back by a few seconds of effort. When you don’t have to insist the game restart from the last checkpoint, it helps maintain that moment-to-moment momentum.
By no means is it a cakewalk, though. Enemies will test reflexes and one’s ability to read their movements and telegraphed attacks. Puzzles will force you to stop and think of how best to tackle them. The island is a place of beauty, but beauty can be dangerous. Not deadly, nor insurmountable, but dangerous in its own way.
The sound design cinches the surface experience together beautifully. Austin Wintory, composer behind Journey and Abzû, lends his melodies to the island, be they serene and breathtaking, ominous and unnerving, or exciting and thumping. It just fits, and every note complements every moment of the experience, from the arrival to the island to the last measures. Coupled with the whistling of a loosed arrow, the gentle cawing of the friendly Eagle, and other background sounds of the island, the audible experience behind The Pathless helps to draw in and keep its visitors until the end of their trip.
Those are the game-elements of The Pathless. Again, it’s simple, but it’s beautiful. It’s a game that a great many people can pick up and play, no matter how experienced they are in gaming. Therein lies the beauty of The Pathless: it is, in its own way, for everyone.
Unlike many games, there are no waypoints, markers, or maps to tell players where to go to progress. The Spirit Mask only highlights points of interest; it doesn’t say “hey, you’ll find a key here.” This opens up the chance for players, in a way rarely emulated by games, to play their own way. Maybe they want to explore on their own terms, bobbing and weaving at full speed throughout the island, finding pockets of interest as landmarks jump out at them. Maybe they want to see the points of interest from a high-up tower and plot their next moves accordingly, pinballing around different areas. Maybe they just want to wander, vertically or horizontally, throughout the land, and very honestly stumble upon things. There’s no time limit, and the only detraction is a giant red cloud where the region guardian lurks; easy to see and avoid. You can play the game how you want, by your rules, on your own time.
There’s the freedom to do as much as you want. You only need so many keys to progress in each area, and there are more keys than there are required throughout. You can keep exploring to your heart’s content, or you can move on to whatever’s next. “Completion” is not required, nor explicitly encouraged, in the way that other titles might track how many things you’ve collected out of how many remain. You are not held back from a better, or different, ending because you didn’t max out the upgrade shards or collect all the keys. There are achievements aplenty for those who seek that kind of challenge, but for anyone else, you only have to do so much to progress. Your definition of momentum takes center stage. You’re not punished for making your own experience.
To that end, The Pathless is truly what you, the player, make of it. It can be art, aesthetically, audibly, and thematically. It can be philosophical, rallying against the harm that a “there is only one way” mentality and mindset perpetuates, or the inherent flaws of a messiah figure, or the fallibility of humanity in power. Or maybe it’s entertainment: pure, simple, and fun. Shoot arrows, go fast, beat bad guy. The Pathless is what you want it to be, whether you realize it running around the island, or as the final scene begins to play out.
It beckons you to run your own course in an open field. In the face of a pathless world, no one can define your path but you.