Little by little, games continue to learn the lessons of Breath of the Wild’s game-changing open world design. The biggest surprises however have not been from AAA but rather from indies able to create a sense of scale and wonder with comparatively little, such as A Short Hike.
The Pathless is another such example, feeling familiar in its vast natural open world dotted with mysterious towers and puzzles embedded in ancient ruins as well as a plot that tasks you with taming four corrupted divine beasts in your journey to defeat the ‘godslayer’ who wishes for his own immortality to carve a ‘one true path’. Like Link, your nameless hunter also wields a cool bow, but here there’s no Master Sword to back it up.
More significantly, it would be incorrect to call it a weapon but rather a tool. Your sights are never trained on the odd wild boar or deer roaming the otherwise quiet plateaus, but instead on traversing, solving puzzles, or yes, a boss fight, though even here the context isn’t so much about defeating a foe so much as it is cleansing it of its curse.
But it’s the traversal that literally jumps out at you. The world is filled with talismans, nodes that work like momentum boosters, filling up your stamina gauge when you shoot one so you can continue dashing – which also has you sliding in a cool Vanquish sort of way while you’re drawing back your bowstring. Better yet, shoot a talisman as you jump and you’re propelled further into the air. As these nodes are plentiful, you can effectively bound across great distances this way. Once you’ve unlocked an eagle companion though it’s feasible to use them to glide everywhere without ever touching the ground, especially as you unlock flaps over time that allow your feathered friend to take you to new heights.
Auto-aim is what makes this alchemic brand of archery so effortless. You never have to slow down or awkwardly line anything up in your crosshairs so long as a node is within range. That kind of accessibility is what you might expect from the creators behind Abzu and Journey; minimal linear games that prioritise narrative experiences over skill-based gameplay.
The Pathless nonetheless veers towards more traditional gameplay in terms of clever puzzles and boss fights, though the emotion and atmosphere is once again left in the masterful hands of composer Austin Wintory. There are plenty of puzzles with gently discernible patterns that shouldn’t keep you scratching your head for long as you figure out how to open doors or light up torches with both your eagle companion and your bow. Most of these are also perfectly optional as you’ll quickly come up with the required number of emblems needed to activate the nearby towers, allowing you to move onto the cursed guardian residing inside.
The boss fights that ensue are a highlight, starting off as a thrilling chase before turning into arena showdowns. But these spectacles also eschew the punishing demands usually expected. Get hit and the worst that happens here is that you have to catch up or climb back up for another attempt. Damage is relative when there’s no health bar. There’s always a sense of danger and peril but you don’t have to worry about actually getting burned.
Before facing these cursed guardians, you have to weaken them by activating the surrounding towers, which in turn require emblems rewarded from completing the many puzzles scattered around (most of these are optional since you only need a couple emblems to activate any tower). Just the presence of these destructive biomes they occupy, appearing like a scorching mushroom cloud from a distance, leaves a haunting image especially at a time when forest fires have become all too much a reality in Australia and America.
Allow the flames to spread and engulf you if you’re too close however and you also have to endure the game’s weak point, as you’re transported to a danger zone with an uninspired stealth sequence. Robbed of your jump or quick movement, you try to recover your eagle while avoiding the hot glare of a fiery beast stalking the environment. It just kills the pace of a game that’s at its best when you or your arrows are flying in motion.
Ultimately, these moments are infrequent enough not to spoil the majesty of movement the rest of the time, where even the puzzles let you shoot arrows in unexpected ways. Living up to its title, there may be no map in The Pathless, but when you have ample opportunity to survey your surroundings in the air and can turn toggle spirit vision to denote unactivated towers or hot spots of interest, navigation is a clutterless breeze. This island feels expansive even if you’ll likely cover its ground in a few hours, but just like every arrow you loosen, it finds its mark.