After playing the opening hour of The Pathless, the next game from developer Giant Squid, what really struck a chord with me was how much it emphasized the importance of its setting. Like the developer's previous game, Abzu (an underwater narrative-adventure game), The Pathless focuses on communing with nature and freeing it from the grasp of an evil force. However, it incorporates that idea into an open-world framework, pushing the need to connect and explore its luscious setting.
Coming to PC, iOS (and Apple Arcade), PS4, and to PS5 as a launch title on November 12, The Pathless has you guiding a nameless hunter across vast stretches of forest and within lost ruins to free ancient gods who have been corrupted. While I had the chance to play the first hour of the game, I also got to check out a quick presentation from creative director Matt Nava to learn more about the team's thoughts on making a more subdued, but still enticing adventure set in a large open landscape.
Compared to the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Ghost of Tsushima, or Genshin Impact, The Pathless takes a more minimalist approach to its story and open-world gameplay. Taking cues from other pieces of fiction like Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke or the stories from Arthurian legend, The Pathless' main narrative is about the dichotomy of humanity and nature coming together. The core gameplay and premise of the lone hunter connecting with nature are the focus, and the mechanics surrounding that aims to highlight and elevate that narrative. Early on, the Hunter will partner up with an eagle who helps her reach high places, solve puzzles, and becomes a generally friendly companion on the journey. And yes, you can pet them at any time.
The main goals in The Pathless are to explore, uncover hidden troves to upgrade the Hunter and her eagle, and free the ancient gods from their corruption. But what makes The Pathless different from other games of its ilk is that it puts far less emphasis on combat, relegated to very specific moments, and more of a focus on exploration, puzzle-solving, and the traversal of the world. This design not only makes for a less stressful game, but it also highlights the need to connect and understand your place in the lush, vibrant world.
At times, this felt like the core of The Pathless was a bit one-note in its execution, but it eventually made me feel invested in the actual journey the character takes. One of my favorite aspects from the opening hour was the traversal mechanics. There's an impressive sense of momentum and speed, with your Hunter being able to sprint, fire her arrows, and glide across the landscape with ease. Scattered throughout the environment are light gems, which can be destroyed with shots from your bow. Doing so will transfer energy to the Hunter's sprint meter, allowing you to maintain speed during your mad dash across the map.
What's refreshing about movement in The Pathless is that most open-world games often treat traversal as just a necessary part of the exploration and getting to those hard-to-reach places, rather than a way for players to connect with the world itself. The Pathless adopts the latter approach, and it can be exhilarating to explore the vast world at such speeds--there's a grace in the movement and action that's somewhat rare to see in an open-world adventure game. In an interesting choice, The Pathless doesn't use a map or fast travel system of any kind. With the use of a special mask, you can highlight points of interest around the map, allowing you to make your way to them at great speeds.
During the developer presentation, creative director Matt Nava explained their intentions with the open-world design in The Pathless and how it emphasizes the player's need to explore and keep moving.
"We looked at other open world games like Far Cry and Breath of the Wild that are full of interesting ideas, but they're so big compared to the ability of the character to move, and they're often so dependent on you having an understanding of the world in a 2D way with the map," said Nava. "So we thought, what if we subverted the ideas of open-world games, and twisted it on its head. For instance, fast travel in other games is often a solution to the problem of [traversal] because the characters are so slow. The reason why they're so slow is that the game needs to load; you generally don't want characters to move too fast to trigger loading. So we decided to make a fast character, and as you go, you get faster. You get upgrades, your eagle flies higher, so it kind of lets you fast travel in a way. As you unlock more areas, you unlock more ways to traverse those areas, which creates this equilibrium in your ability to traverse the space, versus how big the space is."
The Hunter's main ally is her eagle, who is useful during puzzle sequences that involve carrying objects to open pathways and comes in clutch during general traversal. In addition to allowing the main character to glide, you can also upgrade the eagle to flap their wings, giving the Hunter extra lift. The eagle is a great complement to exploration and puzzle-solving, and it was nice to be able to bond with another character while on the move. While the focus on restoring the fallen gods is the backbone of the story, there's still optional areas and hidden secrets to find, which will help you unlock more abilities for your characters. According to the developers, it's possible to collect certain upgrades earlier than intended to reach places that you weren't supposed to in the opening hours--which they want players to take advantage of.
During the later levels, The Pathless will add in more of an element of danger as the corrupted gods make their presence known. While you can see the growing malevolent force in the distance, it will spread as time passes. Eventually, the force will begin to overtake the zone you're in, and once it reaches you, you'll come face to face with the area's fallen god who takes the shape of a giant, beastly animal. In a surprising stealth sequence, you'll need to reunite with your eagle while avoiding the gaze of the roaming god. They're surprisingly tense moments, and oftentimes they can show up when you least expect it. While you do have the time to explore at your leisure, taking too much time will have the game remind you what your true objectives are in dramatic fashion.
I was an admirer of Giant Squid's Abzu, and I was pleased that The Pathless is continuing on with that similar style and approach within the design of an open-world game. The opening hour offers an intriguing start to what appears to be a larger adventure, one that manages to keep a low-key vibe while exploring. There's something of a quiet beauty to exploring the world, which I felt was refreshing. Open-world games taking a minimalist design scheme is a rarity, and it looks like The Pathless will be taking that style further with the advancing story, while also making the actual moment-to-moment exploration fun to engage with.