There's something really rather satisfying about a video game that allows you to systematically cleanse the world of evil appearing at the tail-end of 2020.
It's been a rough year, no doubt about that, but The Pathless - the latest effort from Abzû studio Giant Squid - is a game built on optimism. Combining all the finest elements of classics like The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Journey, and even Shadow Of The Colossus, it's an open-world adventure that comes with a timely reminder: no matter how bad things get, there is always hope.
In The Pathless, that hope is provided by the Hunter, a mysterious archer that arrives on a cursed island with the intention of restoring it to its former glory and bringing down its self-appointed - and dangerously destructive - ruler in the process. Nope, no real-world parallels there.
Joined by an eagle companion (the real star of the game), the Hunter must traverse a series of open-world areas, solving a variety of puzzles hidden throughout to collect tokens, which can then be taken to the three towers in each area and restore the light. Doing this gives you the chance to take down the boss of each land, which then opens up access to the next plateau. Your ultimate goal? To reach the very top of the island and battle the Godslayer, making sure to stop and give your eagle plenty of tummy rubs along the way, obviously.
The general formula is simple enough, of course. Collecting A B and C before you can do X is hardly something anyone who's played a video game will be amazed by. But it's the freedom Giant Squid offers in approaching victory that really makes it stand out, to say nothing of the relationship you form with your feathered companion and the bosses you encounter along the way.
First and foremost, there's no map, which feels appropriate for a game called The Pathless. With the press of a button, you can simply see a red mist fall over any area containing a potentially useful item, although it's also worth noting that the world and its landmarks are designed in such a way that you don't even really need to use this feature. It's pretty clear nine times out of ten where you'll find something important.
The Hunter herself dashes and glides through the world with all the grace of an olympic ice skater. In fact, simply moving the character around the world is a joy in itself, as you guide her, firing off arrow after arrow to hit the plentiful talismans scattered everywhere to gain temporary speed boosts and keep your momentum going. Getting into a rhythm is a tremendous feeling as you combine arrow shots with well-timed jumps to speed across the land as the beautiful orchestral score swells in the background.
Everything in The Pathless, from the puzzles you solve to the monsters you fight, is entirely seamless. The whole adventure takes place in one massive world with zero loading screens, creating an experience that effortlessly combines exploration with combat and puzzle solving. I should also point out that while you do run into danger frequently, you can't actually die, which helps to make this a surprisingly relaxing game... for the most part.
The bosses, rather than being threats that only appear once you've met certain requirements, are clear and ever-present dangers to you and your eagle chum. Arriving in each new area, you'll be greeted by a brief cutscene that shows these monstrous apparitions on the prowl, and from that moment onwards you'll find yourself hunted.
As you work to explore and complete the towers in each area, you're pretty much constantly on the run from a fearsome miasmic cloud of pure malice thundering on the horizon. Get caught in this storm, and you're separated from your eagle and dragged into a stealth section in which the boss roams through the area searching for you.
During these sections, you need to make it to your eagle without moving in the monster's line of sight to escape. Get caught, and you're violently blasted away, losing precious energy in the process.
These stealth sections are far and away the weakest part of The Pathless, if only because the storm containing the boss can show up at the worst times and pull you in. On more than one occasion I was just about to finish a puzzle when the swirling storm appeared and sucked me away from it. Win or lose it'll dump you out right where you were before, but it's still a pain in the butt.
Fortunately it's fairly rare that you'll actually have to deal with the monsters in this capacity, as the storm moves so slowly that you can usually keep one step ahead of it. Even when the boss appears to be standing between you and a specific location you wanted to explore, the world is big enough that you find your way around it or simply go and find another puzzle to solve somewhere a safe distance from the beast.
Like Breath Of The Wild, The Pathless doesn't lock you into doing things in a specific order. Yes, there are towers that require you to first find tokens to activate, but these tokens are plentiful, and can be tracked down in any order.
If there's a puzzle you feel you can't do and you don't want to look up a guide, you can simply explore the world a little more to find another puzzle somewhere else that's easier to solve. The tasks required to earn these tokens range from seriously involved environmental puzzles to simple platforming or navigational challenges, but each one requires you to pay careful attention to your surroundings. You'll be using your bow and arrow for the most part to activate switches in certain orders or light torches, but the eagle can also lend a hand (or wing) in a number of fun and unexpected ways.
To once again use terms Zelda fans will understand, some of them feel more like simple Korok challenges, while others feel like they could be rooms lifted straight from a dungeon. In all instances, they're accompanied by a deeply satisfying eureka moment, and you'll likely want to find them all regardless of whether you need to or not.
But to explore an area free from the threat of predatory bosses, you'll first need to activate the three towers they patrol. Once you do this, the boss becomes vulnerable and you go from hunted to hunter in a delicious turning of the tables. Activating the final tower in each area before gliding down into the storm you were previously so keen to avoid is a fantastic feeling, and the chase sequences and boss battles that follow are truly epic. Yes, they essentially boil down to learning attack patterns and firing arrows at the right time, but that does little to detract from the satisfaction of standing to fight the very thing you'd had no choice but to run from moments before.
Take down the beasties and it's on to the next area where you'll basically be doing the same thing again. Fortunately, there's more than enough variety in terms of the puzzles, locations, and bosses that the formula never feels stale. You'll explore rain-soaked forests, lush open fields, craggy snow-dappled mountains, and more over the course of the six-to-seven-hour adventure.
Oh, and you will want to re-explore every area thoroughly once you've beaten the bosses that preside over them. Not just because the locations feel markedly different and more colourful after a boss has been vanquished, but because you'll be able to mop up any more of the remaining challenges, and check out fascinating optional lore without fear of being swept up by one of those dreaded storms.
Through all of this, you'll find you develop an unbreakable bond with your eagle companion. More than being a simple tool that you use to glide through the air, you'll come to think of it as a genuine friend - something which is helped no end by the fact you can stop and rub its tummy at any time with the press of a button. It's rare that you actually need to do this, but the feature is so incredibly endearing that I found myself stopping to do it every ten minutes or so, out of sheer joy.
In a year that has already provided its fair share of surprises, The Pathless might just be the best one yet. I knew this was a game I'd enjoy after seeing its debut trailer, but the way it manages to twist the well-worn open-world formula into something new and genuinely intimate is one of the most unexpected delights of 2020. I truly believe this is one game everybody needs to check out at their earliest convenience.
Pros: A gorgeous open world filled with ingenious puzzles, fearsome boss battles, pet the eagle whenever you want
Cons: Stealth sections can feel a little clunky, some audio glitches later in the game kind of ruined some of the more cinematic moments
For fans of: Journey, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Shadow Of The Colossus
The Pathless was tested on PlayStation 4 with code supplied by the publisher. The game is released on November 12th on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC, and iOS. Read a guide to our review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Giant Squid, Annapurna Interactive
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