The Pathless PS5 review – next gen bullseye

One of the best launch games for the PlayStation 5 is a mix between Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Sonic The Hedgehog, and an archery sim.

For a long time now, we’ve maintained that the bow and arrow is the coolest weapon in gaming. Forget your miniguns and your BFGs, there is nothing so satisfying as sniping an enemy from 50 yards out with nothing but a stick with a point on the end. It all feels so much more tactile and personal than using firearms and we always love to see it as an option in an action game’s armoury. So you can imagine how we feel about a game where your whole means of interacting with the game world is shooting arrows at it.

The Pathless is the new game from developer Giant Squid, creators of the pretty but flawed Abzû. The problem with Abzû is that it was very obviously trying to copy PlayStation classic Journey but ultimately missed the point of the original and managed to only replicate its surface features. The Pathless still shows plenty of influence from Journey but is thankfully much more its own game, an open world adventure where you have to save the world through the medium of arrows and eagles.

The opening, and generally melancholic atmosphere, also reminded us a little of Below, although this isn’t a roguelike or vindictively difficult. Instead, it’s a game all about movement and action. That’s not necessarily what you’d expect from the serious tone but there are few recent games where the act of simply moving and shooting has felt so consistently enjoyable. It’s also yet another game that is a better 3D Sonic The Hedgehog than any actual Sonic The Hedgehog game.

Exactly what is going on in the world of The Pathless is left purposefully vague at first. All you really know is that the world is suffering a curse and all because of something that’s happened on an island where the worlds of the living and the dead meet – one from which no-one has recently returned. You pitch up in your little sailboat and begin to investigate, quickly discovering that there’s been a battle between the mysterious Godslayer and a pantheon of animal gods led by an eagle deity.

This leads to you gaining an eagle companion who enables you to glide around for short distances and scope out the world below, a necessity given there’s not a proper map to help you. The rest of the time though you’re running around on your own, which uses up a quickly disappearing stamina bar, which in turn is refilled by shooting special targets that litter the island. We’re not sure that really makes much sense even when you’re dealing with magic but it’s perfect video game logic because of how much fun it makes merely moving around.

When you’re running and shooting at the same time your character skids along on her knees, and cartwheels in the air, in such a satisfying manner we still haven’t got tired of it all these hours later. At full pelt you move at a blisteringly fast pace and the open world map design means there’s plenty of space to just max out and enjoy the silky smooth movement. The graphics aren’t very detailed, and the limited colour palette of cursed areas does get a bit monotonous, but the sense of exploring an untamed wilderness comes across well and feels very cohesive.

It soon becomes clear that in order to set things right you’re going to have to have rescue all of the ‘Tall Ones’ by activating special shrines dotted around the four regions of the game map. Overall though, there’s not much narrative in The Pathless and, as you might gather from the name, it attempts to be as non-linear as possible. There’s some subtle signposting going on but the main intention is that you should explore essentially at random, using a sort of detective vision to spot puzzles you haven’t solved and check on the current location of the possessed Tall Ones.

Puzzles are reminiscent of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild in that while few are exactly the same they all come in one of a few basic categories, including trick shots to light multiple torches at once, climbing an edifice without the help of your eagle, or alternatively using it to ferry around weights for various switch-based puzzles. They’re all very satisfying to solve and the way you’re free to choose when and how you tackle them means they never feel too contrived.

The one weakness of the game is the Tall Ones themselves, which appear as giant animals. They will actively try to hunt you when you’re in their domain and this causes a storm that prevents you from flying and forces you to sneak away stealthily. That’s fine the first few times but after a while it begins to feel like an unwanted interruption.

Despite the whole hunting motif there’s surprisingly little combat in the game, although you inevitably have to fight each of the Tall Ones to release them – a process that is also mixed in with more stealth sequences and puzzle-solving. These pseudo-boss battles are a lot more entertaining than the more random encounters, especially the chase sequences, and help to punctuate your progress through the game.

The Pathless isn’t perfect; apart from the so-so combat we would’ve liked to see a little more variation in art design, but we don’t think we’ve enjoyed the act of simple traversal as much in any other video game this year. That’s an important achievement, as so many games fail to make the basic process of interacting with the world intrinsically interesting, but The Pathless nails it and elevates the whole experience as a result.

We do wish Giant Squid would stop relying on other games for inspiration quite as much, but this is a significant improvement on Abzû. And while the game only makes a limited use of the console’s special abilities (beyond the pleasing resistance on the trigger, when you nock an arrow and pull the bowstring), The Pathless is one of the best launch games available for the PlayStation 5 and one of the best indie games of the year in general.

The Pathless PS5 review summary

In Short: A hugely entertaining open world puzzler where simply getting from A to B is more entertaining than most games in their entirety.

Pros: Wonderful traversal system that makes it a joy simply to move and explore the intriguing open world island. Attractive, if one note, visual design and an interesting and varied range of puzzles.

Cons: The Tall Ones can often seem like an unwanted intrusion and the combat in general is surprisingly underplayed.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC, and iOS
Price: £29.99
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Giant Squid
Release Date: 12th November 2020
Age Rating: 12

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