In defiance of RPGs and shonen anime, The Pathless has created the perfect power system: flaps. That is to say, wingbeats, or the number of times your eagle can flap its wings before it needs a rest. The more flaps you have, the higher you can go in one burst of flight. The higher you go, the more you can see. And the more of it you see, the more you'll enjoy The Pathless, a serene open-world game that has brought the idea of taking the road less travelled to its greatest and most exhilarating extreme.
This year was filled with simple games that aren't actually that simple – Fall Guys and Among Us, for example – but The Pathless stands out to me as the best explanation for why I absolutely adore minimalist games built around a strong central mechanic. Because while it's technically about bringing light to a darkened land by purifying cursed spirits and ousting a power-crazed madman who insists that his vision is the only way forward – and doesn't that resonate right now – The Pathless is fundamentally a game about a huntress, her bow, and an eagle. These combine to form a movement system that turns every inch of the game's gorgeous landscape into a kinetic delight, and they establish a frame for puzzles that teach you to think in creative ways.
Don't think, feel
As the nameless huntress, you set out to cleanse four biome-like plateaus, each with their own now-corrupted spirit watching over them. Each plateau is filled with light stones that must be collected and deposited in three shrines. Once you activate all three shrines, the spirit for that area will be weakened and you can hunt it down to purify it. So far, so video game. We'll get to all that in a bit, though. We've got to talk about the in-between stuff first, because that's what really hooked me.
Release date: November 12, 2020
Platforms: PS4, PS5, PC
Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
The Pathless is one of those games that makes the simple act of moving through a space hugely engrossing. The huntress sprints, slides, and jumps with the grace of a gymnast, and everything feels as effortless as it looks. Using your bow, you can shoot down talismans that cover the plateaus in order to refill your sprint meter and gain a quick burst of speed. You automatically lock on to the nearest talisman in view, so all you have to do is time your shots. A fully charged shot is guaranteed to hit, but you can also release your arrow early at just the right time for a power shot that can save a precious fraction of a second while hastening your rhythm.
It's hard to overstate how good this feels. And The Pathless is not at all auto-pilot. Hitting power shots, breaking multiple talismans mid-air to chain jumps, and weaving in flaps and glides from your eagle adds a lot of variety and challenge to movement. I'd almost call it a skill gap, and I'm sure speedrunners will demonstrate that in the future. But movement is so natural and fun that it quickly turns you into an auto-pilot, and that's when the zen really hits.
I was a bit shaky and overly careful at first, meticulously aiming and timing shots while watching the target reticle, but within an hour or two I was ripping over hills and blitzing through forests without a care in the world. I stopped obsessing over the reticle and started focusing on what was ahead of me, comfortably landing power shots all the while. This is the video game version of runner's high, and in the eight or so hours it took me to clear the game, it never, ever got old. I have never wanted fast travel less in my life.
This is partly thanks to the raw beauty of the environments you're running through. Each plateau has a distinct aesthetic that evolves once you cleanse its guardian spirit, and every single one is breathtaking. Developer Giant Squid has taken the lush colors and clean lines of its previous game, Abzu, and somehow applied them to something much larger and more diverse without sacrificing any detail. Trees bend in the wind, tall grass parts with your every stride, and rivers snake through the plateaus almost as fluidly as the huntress herself. Paired with another Austin Wintory score that's both somber and electrifying, The Pathless is equal parts calming and arresting.
Puzzles and purification
But it's not just the movement that elevates The Pathless. There are also plenty of good reasons to stop. The world is filled with unassuming secrets that grant crystals which increase how many flaps your eagle can perform, and you'll quickly learn that there's something around every corner. Suspiciously unlit torches, misaligned rings crying out for a well-placed arrow, corrupted wildlife, short time trials – puzzles overlap a bit much for my liking, but The Pathless is overflowing with things to find, and the promise of more flaps makes them well worth finding. The same is true of the light stones found in each plateau. You only need a few to activate all three shrines, but if you find all of them, some Really Cool Stuff will happen. I won't spoil what, but please do yourself a favor and get all off the light stones. It's well worth it for the visual splendor alone, nevermind the awesome bonus abilities.
This speaks to one of the best parts of The Pathless. Nothing is marked for you on some map, so every discovery feels sweeter. It also nails the excitement of seeing a landmark in the distance and knowing that you can actually go over to it. My greatest "Wow!" moment came halfway through the second plateau. Unable to stop myself from exploring, I'd unlocked a few extra flaps by this point, so I was able to scale a mountain in search of high-altitude secrets. I kept sprinting, gliding, and chaining talismans, waiting to hit an out-of-bounds marker. But I never did. Instead, I found a temple buried in a random craggy peak, and inside was a light stone for a spirit whose plateau I hadn't reached. Without even realizing it, I'd pulled off a bit of sequence breaking, and I was positively giddy afterward. That tiny moment validated all the exploring I'd done to strengthen the eagle, and it confirmed once and for all that I could trust the game to reward my curiosity.
The largely hands-off storytelling is also enlivened through exploration. Scraps of lore are scattered around, each one a window into the life of a late warrior, scribe, or perhaps a previous hunter. The prominent light versus dark motif gains welcome nuance as you uncover the gradual erosion of a people's faith and the accompanying swell of impassioned madness. There's precious little dialogue in The Pathless – though enough to give the main cast some real character – so your understanding of the world will reflect your willingness to poke through it. The main story beats and spectacular finale can stand on their own, but an inquisitive eye will definitely improve your appreciation for what these spirits and their followers have gone through.
The zen of exploration ends there, though, because the tone and pace of the game flip dramatically when you actually confront the cursed spirits. If you run into them before they're weakened – rather, if you get caught up in the crimson storm around them – you enter a light stealth section that plays like red light, green light. The climactic spirit hunts are much more action-packed, always opening with a chase sequence but culminating in an arena-style duel. Spirits share several abilities, but each one has a few tricks that change the overall feel of the fight. Like the movement, these sections also feel a lot like a rhythm game, with a greater emphasis on timing than back-and-forth combat. And while they aren't terribly difficult, the spirit fights are presented so well that they always feel intense.
Incidentally, any contact with corruption of any kind will bring you back to one of the best mechanics in The Pathless, and indeed all of video games: petting your eagle. It gets dirtied when you get attacked by spirits, you see, so you've got to scratch, ruffle, and pet that corruption away in what may be the best minigame ever devised by man. I haven't cared about a virtual animal this much since Pokemon Let's Go Eevee. It's a small thing, but petting the eagle brought me joy every time. So did The Pathless, really. You could knock it out in one long binge – or a short binge, if you only focused on beating the spirits – but I finished it over a couple of days, and I constantly looked forward to playing more of it.