At the far edge of a cursed world, a pale Hunter — the last of her kind — sails to the island that bridges the human realm on earth with the spirit realm above. She arrives on the beaches of this nameless place determined to reach the magma-encrusted pyramid that juts down from the sky (a slash of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” in a game that otherwise sports a more rustic storybook vibe), and kill the three-eyed Godslayer who shadowed the land in darkness; the neglected skeletons she finds strewn about the grass suggest that our Hunter isn’t the first to try. None of the others came back, and the clues they’ve left behind with their dying breaths aren’t much help when it comes to navigating an open world that offers only one direction: up.
An enthralling mini-epic that unfolds like a combat-free cross between “Journey” and “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” Giant Squid and Annapurna Interactive’s “The Pathless” strives to make good on the promise of its title. From the moment players assume control of the Hunter, they’re left almost entirely to their own devices. Instructions are few and far between, and there’s no map overlay or mission objectives to help guide you to the next plateau (hit triangle and certain objects will glow yellow or red, but that’s about all the assistance you get).
Anyone who’s ever played a third-person adventure game before will instinctively jam on the L2 trigger to make the Hunter move run, only to find that each dash siphons away at a stamina gauge that can only be replenished by firing arrows at any of the thousands of eyeball targets that hover in the air around her. With the exception of some puzzle components and a handful of surprisingly intense bosses, these are the only things that “The Pathless” offers you to shoot; the Hunter’s bow is less of a weapon than a tool, but — when used in concert with the mystical (and mega-cute) eagle that players team up with in the opening minutes of this roughly seven-hour adventure — it’s all you’ll need to get to heaven.
Despite the apocalyptic threat that looms over its story, “The Pathless” eschews typical video game stakes in order to embrace the medium’s unique penchant for exploration. Not only are there no enemies in this eerily quiet world, but there’s also no death — aside from the eagle and a few others signs of wildlife, everything that can die in this place already has. That goes for the Hunter as well. Get hit three times by one of the flame demons that you have to fight in order to reach the next floor of the game’s deceptively sprawling five-tiered environment? You just get a quick breather at the edge of the arena before hopping back into battle. Fall 150 meters from the spire atop one of the giant obelisks the Hunter lights in order to light the way forward? You get a PlayStation trophy.
The only real threats here are getting lost and being sucked into the sentient “Red Storm” that slowly moves towards the Hunter at all times like a Jupiter-sized Nemesis (in which event you’re forced to deal with a clunky stealth sequence that breaks the game’s blissed out flow and steals a little currency from the player when they invariably mess it up, but otherwise carries no repercussions).
There’s no way of “losing” in this game, because the fun here is solely in the ways you find to win. Whereas even the most non-linear films are locked into their running times and always inexorably moving towards an ending of one kind or another, video games can lend themselves to the visceral thrill of discovery like no other contemporary art form, and even without its other charms “The Pathless” would be worth playing just for how potently it crystallizes that phenomenon.
Small enough that it’s also being released on iOS but also sweeping in a way that allows it to feel right at home on a PS5, this transportive weekend of a quest might lack the grandeur of other, costlier “go anywhere you see” games like it, but “The Pathless” stands apart for how it focuses on the act of getting from one place to another. Players will traverse most of the island’s forests, plains, and frigid mountains by holding on to their eagle’s feet as it flaps through the air (to answer the obvious question: Not only can you pet the bird, but you have to in order to heal it).
The Hunter’s only other means of transportation is her own two feet, and they’re mighty slow when she’s not running. At first it seems perverse that dashing is an expendable resource, but the more time you spend moving around the game world, the more you come to appreciate the feeling that creative director Matt Nava is trying to achieve. Constantly looking out for the targets you need to shoot at to replenish your stamina forces you to keep active watch of the world around you, but the only consequence of missing them is that you have to slow down for a second.
This low-risk mechanic leads to a meditative kind of runner’s high, as you instinctively guide the Hunter on instinct without fear of failure. Players feel empowered to go where they want, when they want, in what order they want, and the inevitability of victory has a way of clarifying the work required to achieve it; of lending the game’s story the same mythic feel of its painterly design, while also insisting that even fate doesn’t happen on its own.
It helps that stepping into the Hunter’s red suit is addictively fun, thanks to pitch-perfect controls that soon come to feel second-nature whether you’re flapping through the skies or sprinting across the ground below. There’s almost no aiming necessary — point the Hunter in the general direction of a target and she’ll lock on — so timing becomes key. If it sounds dull, it looks cool as hell; draw the bow while you’re running and the Hunter will slide to her knees like Legolas. Every arrow fired comes with a note-perfect thwip and whistle, and the outstanding sound design is complemented by Austin Wintory’s orchestral score, captures the restless heartbeat of a fantasy world as well as anything since “Game of Thrones.”
If only that world were able to make good on its mystery. Building upon the same beguiling style that he established with his art direction in “Journey,” Nava creates a lush and breathtaking environment that feels rich with a tragic history that always remains at arm’s length. Decaying stone towers beg you to shine a light in their corners, splendid waterfalls seduce you into seeing if there might be something behind them, and elevated pathways stretch above the grassy terrain in a way that forces you to stop what you’re doing and climb them; most of these vantage points offer a view of the Red Storm in the distance, which looks so beautiful whenever it’s not bearing down on you.
But the pleasure of looking is all that “The Pathless” is able to provide, as most areas contain only one of three things: A simple but satisfying puzzle of the “drop a weight on a button that opens a door” variety,” a few golden drops of flap energy, or — most likely — nothing but the memory of how great it felt to hope for more. The game’s dense atmosphere serves the mythic nature of its simple plot and vice-versa, but there’s a fine line between mysterious and vague, and “The Pathless” wavers on it in a way that its headstrong heroine never does (the Hunter’s reward will be years of cosplay in her honor). And while the verticality of the game’s environment helps players map the island in their mind and feel the full scope of this adventure, it’s vexing that a game about the need to find one’s own way in life should offer so few options; sure, you can light the obelisks on each tier in whatever order you like, but it’s clear that you’re being corralled up towards the sky.
That frustration, however, really only reveals itself once you’ve finished the game, as “The Pathless” locks you into the task at hand while you’re playing it. In a time that’s been long on helplessness and short on hope, video games have offered hands-on insight into human connection (“Death Stranding”), inescapable despair (“Hades”), and the value of a single human life (“The Last of Us Part II,” whose stars Troy Baker and Laura Bailey voice the Godslayer and the Hunter respectively).
“The Pathless” may not be able to stand toe-to-toe with such generation-defining achievements, but its poignantly illustrated tale of a fallen world finding its way manages to complement them all, and cinch Giant Squid’s latest as an essential PS5 launch title. You can’t die, but it’s not because the game is easy, it’s because the game knows there’s always a way forward so long as there are still people willing to look for one.
“The Pathless” will be available for iOS, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 on Thursday, November 12. This review was based on pre-release PlayStation 5 code provided by Annapurna Interactive.