There's a narrative reason for why this game is called The Pathless, but the name is also a reference to how it's supposed to be played. It's an open-world puzzle game with emphases on exploration and skilled traversal, and you are meant to wander and experience its world as you find it, rather than as a series of checklist objectives. The Pathless' vast, puzzle-filled nature creates a nice, quiet space for running through the woods, lining up some tricky shots with your bow, and losing yourself in the moment.
In The Pathless, you are a woman simply known as the Hunter. You've come to liberate a ruined land, empty of all human life save for a masked villain called the Godslayer. The land's protector deities, known as The Tall Ones, have transformed into villainous beasts that roam the wilderness. With the help of your eagle, an avatar of the eldest god, you must free the spirits and save the land. The plot is limited--aside from a few sparring exchanges between the Hunter and The Godslayer, the general tenor is simply, "keep going."
To free the Tall Ones, you must collect their seals and reactivate monuments scattered around their domains. Each of the four regions is a beautiful, sprawling wilderness, with sweeping plains, peaceful rivers, and high rocky peaks. Hills and valleys are sparsely dotted with signs of life, past and present--friendly animals, ruins, and giant skeletons. There are just enough setpieces in each area so that there's always a new objective on the horizon, without making the world feel crowded or even populated. When you're running from place to place, you feel like you're in nature--not a wasteland or a ruin, but somewhere untouched. It feels quite serene to run through.
Despite having very little plot, the world feels rich and textured, thanks to a highly specific architectural style and descriptive notes you'll find with insight into the land's history, as well as the Godslayer's. That specificity makes the world feel more cohesive and lived-in, which in turn makes it more interesting to explore.
You don't have to scour aimlessly, though: You have a headband, which gives you a special vision mode that highlights areas of interest as well as puzzles you've already solved. Even without it, signs of civilization generally lead to some kind of activity. With or without the vision mode, chasing after the glowing red puzzle spots still feels like a sort of directed wandering; you never know what puzzles you'll stumble across along the way, nor do you know whether a puzzle will reward you with a seal or something else.
And sometimes, your wandering gets interrupted. As you search for seals to save the Tall Ones, they're hunting you down. A giant red cloud roves around the map, more or less randomly. If you’re caught up in it, you're forced into a stealth sequence where you must avoid the corrupted god and reach your downed eagle, which is injured by the storm. While it's a good idea, in theory, to create some conflict, these sequences are more of a nuisance than anything. I always went in impatient, and found that I just wanted to return to exploring or figuring out the puzzle I was on.
Despite her title, the Hunter never kills anyone, and there's barely any combat in The Pathless. The Hunter has a bow, but it's mostly used as a traversal and puzzle-solving tool. All around the world, there are floating eye icons, which you can shoot to partially refill your stamina meter and boost your momentum. If you find a rhythm with running, sliding, jumping, and timing your shots well, you can sprint across the world with superhuman speed. It's an intuitive system, though it takes time to learn how to pick targets and time shots so that you can keep running indefinitely. But, when you do, it almost feels like flying.
Your other means of conveyance is your eagle friend. After a jump, you can press jump again to have the eagle grab your arm and help you glide across large gaps. If you press jump again, the eagle has a flap ability that will launch you straight into the air, extending your glide. When they don't lead to seals, most puzzles reward you with golden orbs, which eventually power up the flap to give you additional jumps. A skilled player can basically fly; if you jump from a high point on the map, time your flaps well, and shoot eye symbols to build momentum, you can cover an incredible distance. And surveying the massive world from the air is breathtaking.
When you arrive at a puzzle, the bow and eagle also become your primary puzzle-solving tools. Though there are dozens of puzzles in each zone, they all fall into a few categories. There are a few kinds of trick-shot puzzles. Sometimes you need to line up an arrow to go through a flame to light a set of torches; in others, you need to line up a series of stone rings so you can shoot through them and hit a target. There are switch puzzles, which mostly involve using the eagle to pick up stone weights from afar and placing them as needed. Sometimes you'll enter an area where a dark aura incapacitates your eagle, forcing you to scale a building without gliding or flapping. Though there are a limited number of puzzle archetypes, they consistently require you to be mindful, which makes them interesting to solve. And there's something very satisfying about quickly firing off a shot that bounces across five torches, even though there isn't much skill to it on your part.
And yes, on occasion, you do have to use the bow to fight. Each area gets capped off with a multi-phase boss battle with a glowing, red corrupted beast-god. Though you dodge projectiles and shoot weak points, they feel more like puzzles than boss encounters from more combat-heavy games. Not all the phases play out as combat--one has multiple hide-and-seek sections where you need to stay in cover to avoid getting burnt by fire breath--and the ones that do are pure pattern recognition.
These fights hit some incredible highs and some sore lows. Each one opens with a chase sequence where you have to chain symbol shots to run, catch up with your prey, and then shoot its weak points. Imbuing the traversal with more purpose than merely moving fast really elevates those mechanics, showing how graceful you can be and how fluidly the traversal flows.
On the other hand, the closer the game comes to offering a traditional combat scenario, the more toothless the encounter becomes. You can't really lose--when you get hit, you lose some stamina and the phase silently resets--so those phases lack teeth. You can make it halfway through one of these sequences four or five times and it just feels like you're in limbo.
There are only a handful of those moments in the game, though. Most of The Pathless plays to its mechanical strengths, free-form exploration, satisfying movement, and methodical puzzle-solving. At times, that lowers the stakes a little too much, but it maximizes the kind of gameplay the game is named for. For a player like me, who bee-lines for an objective every time, it's refreshing to simply take things as they come. The Pathless is the rare game that gives you more by not asking too much, and that makes it special.