There’s no map in The Pathless, no waypoint or fast-travel systems that might make navigating its daringly large fantasy forests and steppes a little easier. I didn’t miss that stuff. Not even for a second. These things were taken out, apparently, to ground the player in the world, to make them see these rain-darkened trees and murmuring grasslands as places to be understood and learned on foot rather than just empty stuff employed to space out the set-pieces. I can see that for sure. Beneath louring skies and surrounded by the halted spires of old temples, I did start to get my own bearings. But there’s something else, too. The Pathless is an absolute hymn to the pleasures of movement and speed. Forget the plot, the task at hand, the ancient legends and the destruction of the world that looms red and malignant on the horizon. These mythical landscapes are always in danger aren’t they? But few are as thrilling to get around in as this one.
More than any game I have played in a while, this one is all about the triggers. You are an archer, a tiny red and black and white figure in a world of greens and greys. The landscape is littered with hanging diamond shapes, luminous little targets that you can lock onto with the right trigger. Hold it down long enough and your arrow will sail straight into it when you release. Thwock! A burst of light rushes into your energy meter which you can then use to dash using the left trigger.
And then you do it again, chaining shot after shot as you pick up speed, moving from walking to running to sliding over the perfectly rolling grasslands. Hold the trigger down for the time it takes the reticule to turn fully red and you hit the target. Hold it down for half the time and you still hit the target – skill shot! Anything less is an entertaining miss, a stumble that you almost feel through the pad when the energy you’re expecting does not appear.
I could spend hours doing this. Coasting over the grass, taking a scattered network of nodes – the targets – and finding a way to turn them into smooth, arcing lines of movement. The sense of speed, of rushing wind, of a body moving perfectly over the ground, is just glorious. It’s a reminder that the team behind The Pathless painted the underwater slipstream currents of Abzu, and probably had a hand in that part of Journey where it suddenly turns into SSX, downhill over the sand and through the arches. The best part.
This works so well, I think, because the automation of the auto-targeting meshes nicely with the rhythmic work of the triggers, to target and then dash. Interesting here: you are not quite the archer yourself, her skill with the bow and with movement itself is entirely internalised. But you have the broad control: pick a point and she will get to it, surprising you, maybe, by hopping over a barrel or branch on her way there. And the triggers: there’s almost the feel of a heat engine to it, the transfer of energy from one side of the pad to the other and voila – a burst of speed! But The Pathless has another idea too. Alongside the bow your hunter has an eagle, and if the bow gives you the polished surface of the ground, the eagle opens up the sky.
It starts as a double-jump. You jump, and then jump again and the eagle grabs you and takes you into a gentle coast downwards, closing longish gaps and opening up new paths. Combine this with the bow and arrow and you can throw speed into the mix. But then there are “flaps”. Collect enough doodads and the eagle learns to flap once when you’re in the air, allowing you to reach higher land. Collect more doodads, and you earn more flaps. The Flap Economy is bustling, each addition changing your prospects.
So what are you up to here? The land is in danger, of course, and ancient fire beasts seem to stalk you, one for each of the vast territories you explore. In the part of the game I’ve played, I moved around the landscape, enjoying the speed and the fact that my eagle didn’t need much in the way of nannying, and solving simple puzzles to collect treasures which I then placed inside tall towers to trigger ancient mechanisms. The puzzles are of the pressure plate kind quite a lot of the time – maybe there’s a target to hit but a door stands in the way. Maybe there’s more than one pressure plate and the eagle can be coaxed into picking up a weight and dropping it in the right spot.
Better yet are the optional puzzles, which reward you with the doodads that power the Flap Economy. These encourage you to really think about the landscape – how would you light a chain of torches with a single arrow? How would you line up these statues with tantalising holes in them, and what then? Whenever you get lost you can put on a mask that highlights important parts of the landscape in bold colours. Not a map or a waypoint or fast travel, but a gentle nod, pushing you back into the world.
All of this makes The Pathless seem a gentle, ruminative thing, and that is certainly a large aspect of it. But on the map I’ve played, alongside the grass and the cliffs and the trees and the temples, there is a roving patch of angry red – a pocket world of flame and smoke and embers. If I get caught in there, my eagle disappears and I have to stalk through the burning grass, the trees suddenly veined with stinging light, to find it again, while avoiding the lamp-like gaze of the giant beast I am ultimately here to defeat. Not yet! More towers to discover before I can take them on – for now it’s a sudden burst of stealth.
When the eagle is found and cleaned, with a few movements of the thumbstick which it is impossible to perform as anything other than a pantomime of loving delicacy, the wall of fire is banished to another part of the map. Eventually, we will be ready to face that foe – to chase through the blinding smoke and to fire arrows and to manage speed and aggression as the calm landscape suddenly erupts. But for now, more towers, more doodads, more picking a direction, aiming, firing, and racing off into the grass.