Out of everything about to launch in this next, very intense week of gaming, The Pathless may well be the biggest surprise for me. Granted, I adored Abzû enough that I should have seen it coming but this is something far more significant than just a worthy follow-up. Giant Squid’s new exploratory indie adventure gave me the first Australia’s Got Talent guy moments I’ve had playing a video game in a while. And not all confined to the game itself, either.
In a world plunged into darkness, a mysterious hero journeys to a floating isle to confront an evil being called The Godslayer who has corrupted the Tall Ones, the land’s godly protectors. After encountering one of these gods the Hunter, as they’re known, learns they must cleanse each of the land’s realms of evil and gain the power to ascend to the floating isle and help them reclaim the world. Doing so requires collecting Lightstones to activate special towers within each area to bring the corrupted Tall Ones down long enough to challenge them and purify them. Over the course of the five-to-six hours it takes to tread the critical path (you could easily double that by working towards uncovering its deepest secrets), you’ll see dense woods, open plains and snowy tundras and all manner of enormous, imposing gods to cleanse, and every moment of it is glorious.
There are a couple of reasons why The Pathless is so successful as a video game, but the biggest thing is that it very quickly stops feeling like one. There’s a beautiful rhythm to both its gameplay and the structure of its world and narrative that is so entrancing and so compelling that it’s hard not to just fall into it.
Part of it comes from the Hunter’s moveset; a ballet of dashes and jumps fuelled by a bar that fills by shooting talismans dotted around the landscape with their bow. It’s a unique mechanic that I’ll admit took me a minute to get used to, but goes a long way to making the otherwise-banal task of traversing the landscape a game all its own. Luckily, there’s no aiming needed – holding the right trigger (or equivalent) locks onto the nearest talisman and fills a meter that registers a successful shot either at its centrepoint or at the end. The latter is safest but the former is faster but requires precise timing or the shot is missed, and it’s the one aspect that made me wish I was playing with a DualSense controller and its adaptive triggers.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a PlayStation 5 I’d urge you to play the game there. Even so, once you get the hang of the timing it’s a ridiculous thrill just zipping around the world, fanging off arrow after arrow until you’re running at a breakneck pace and leaping through the air.
Further to that, The Pathless benefits from an absolutely cracking sense of pace, in a world that climbs in scale, beauty and ferocity in equal timing with the player. Every new realm gets bigger and more complex, as do its former guardians, and the Hunter grows with them. With a mysterious eagle companion that joins in the journey’s early moments, their skillset increases. The eagle becomes invaluable, able to lift the Hunter and glide with them across the world as well as carry weights and move objects to help solve the game’s plethora of environmental puzzles.
There’s a very Breath of the Wild-esque quality to exploration and puzzles, in fact. Curious prodding of inconspicuous bits of the world often results in unexpected reward, and benign spaces have a tendency to reveal themselves to be clockwork-like machinations waiting to be unwound in a seamless world that turns along with them. These realms have rules, and patterns, and the key to unlocking their secrets is to master and unlock those rules and patterns.
There’s also a distinct artistry to the game that has to be fully experienced to be understood. Though the cultural influences in its painterly aesthetic, the structures in its landscapes and its score can’t be missed, it all comes together into something completely of its own. Whether in their twisted, dark and corrupted state or cleansed and bathed in sunlight, each of the Tall Ones’ domains is a wonder. The Pathless isn’t just a name, with no mini-map or waypoints to speak of, these places feel equal parts sprawling and claustrophobic. It’s just as easy to gaze in awe at the mountains in the distance and the land laid out before you, as it to flit through the hills hopped up on talisman juice and immediately lose track of where it is you’d set out to. The scale of the thing grows ever more enormous as you push forward across realms, but never unable to draw back inside itself should you enter a long-forgotten temple or unearth a mysterious sequence of caves.
All the while, the game’s astounding soundtrack punctuates the Hunter’s every action, ruminating on gentle plucked strings and rhythmic beats as they negotiate the land before exploding into a cacophony of horns and war drums when danger arrives. It’s a wholly enjoyable mix, made all the better by some surprising names in both the voice acting and scoring credits that had me choking on my own sense of hindsight. Giant Squid, Annapurna Interactive – bravo to you all for such completely unnecessary and somehow perfect casting.
By the time the game’s beautiful, rousing finale came around I’d lost all sense of the real world around me. The whole thing ramps up and up until it explodes into a crescendo the likes of which is rarely experienced in a game of independent origins. Every one of the game’s encounters with the Tall Ones is a nail-biting spectacle, but I’ve rarely felt as accomplished and powerful as I did in its visceral and cathartic final moments.
THE PS4 VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PRIMARILY PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
The Pathless is the next great indie adventure. Whether the joy you take from it is in its unique and super-slick traversal mechanics, or the arresting world and faultless artistry, there's no denying that Giant Squid has absolutely nailed it. If I could somehow travel back in time and get lost in this game all over again, I would. While I can't speak to the experience on Windows or Apple devices, I believe this is one for the PlayStation 5 players most of all. This world needs to be taken in at its most visually rich, and the unique properties of the DualSense heighten its gameplay even further. If you only pick one, non-AAA exclusive for your next-gen PlayStation, pick this one.
Gorgeous, painterly world full of secrets
Rousing soundtrack provides a perfect accompaniment
Narrative and world that go hands-in-hand
Engaging and engrossing thanks to on-point pacing
You can pet the eagle
Forced stealth sections are the sole interrupter to the game's flow