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Full disclosure, I’m not the biggest fan of indie games. I’ll take a AAA game from one of the big studios over what are usually obnoxious, self indulgent games that smack you in the face with pretentiousness any day of the week. They’re either needlessly difficult or lack any kind of decent gameplay. Obviously that’s a bit hyperbolic, but you know what I’m talking about. Every once in a while though, a game will sneak in the mix and blow me away. What Remains of Edith Finch, A Plague Tale: Innocence, and Sayonara Wild Hearts all come to mind. Funny enough, all of these games were published by Annapurna Interactive. Well, that hot streak continues with their latest release from Giant Squid Studios, The Pathless.
You take the role of The Hunter, an archer with incredible aim who’s very quick on her feet. A curse has taken over the world, centered on an island away from civilization. Your job is to lift that curse, and restore light to the world. Sounds simple enough. The Godslayer, essentially the big bad and source of the curse, has corrupted the spirits of the four giant beasts. Each one must be released to reach the final area and take on the Godslayer. While not overly complicated, it’s the way the story unfolds, combined with excellent mechanics and a score that will make your knees weak, that make this game exceptional.
As an archer, your main mechanic is shooting talismans which fill a meter to let you glide around the open world effortlessly. It’s so well done, I found myself just running around the world doing absolutely nothing. Instead of having to upgrade your weapon, as you progress different talismans are unlocked, producing different results when shot. Some give you an extra boost and some launch you high into the air. Early on you also gain access to an eagle (who I affectionately referred to as “Bird” during my playthrough) that lets you glide over long distances, and can also give you a boost reach ledges. You’re able to upgrade your bird by collecting yellow gems scattered throughout the world, usually hidden by a puzzle. Each time you level it up, you get an extra “flap” that will let you reach higher areas. Nothing ever felt forced though. The game provides different options to reach your destinations. There’s no fast travel system, but honestly it would take away from arguably one of the best parts of the game, namely the traversal. Generally speaking, I’m not super coordinated. Chalk it up to old age. There were very few times I felt obstructed or out of control while playing The Pathless. It’s a relatively simple loop, but expertly implemented. Seriously, hats off to Giant Squid for making this old man feel like he was still in his twenties.
Each area contains a boss represented in the form of a different animal. Each time you reach a new area, a storm forms where the boss resides. It teleports from place to place searching for The Hunter. You can’t miss it as it’s huge, red, and menacing. I say you can’t miss it, which is true, but it can sneak up on you with little warning. You need to activate three towers in each area before you can enter it and take down the level boss. Should you get caught up in it prior, you’ll have to sneak around and find your eagle without being seen by said boss. It’s not overly difficult, but nerve-racking nonetheless. To activate the towers, you need to seek out medallions scattered throughout the level which are locked behind various puzzles. The puzzles aren’t incredibly difficult either and honestly, that’s super refreshing. I tend to avoid games like this because of these ridiculous things.
With that being said, the sheer volume of puzzles won’t overcome their simplicity. If you’re someone that loves problem solving and wants to be challenged, look elsewhere. Most involve moving a block onto a pressure plate, lighting different torches from different angles, or using your bow to shoot through different obstacles. Sometimes it’s a combination of the three. Some people will say they’re too easy, to that I say, spend a day in my head and you might change your mind. The difficulty really is the Achilles heel of the experience. Your mileage will vary obviously but again, for somebody like me, it was fantastic not to spend an inordinate amount of time on these. The boss battles are more or less the same. While super fun and engaging, they aren’t overly complicated or difficult. You can’t really die in the traditional sense. You’re basically knocked out of the arena and have to start that sequence over. It’s great for old Dan, but some people may wish for a greater challenge.
I don’t usually appreciate the score of a game. Usually it’s just there. Coming from a guy with thirty different headsets, you wouldn’t think that would be the case. That’s on me though and I don’t want to disparage the work these composers do. There are only a handful of games that I can name off the top of my head where the music really resonated with me. There are always those moments where a perfectly timed and appropriate song plays, and it stops you in your tracks. What Austin Wintory has done here is as close to perfection as you can get. It is incredible, full stop. It starts so subtle at the beginning of the game, and grows with every encounter. Gliding through some of these areas with the perfect score playing in your ear provided some of the best moments of my playthrough. You get a sense of urgency when you’re chasing down a boss, and a sense of exhilaration when flying through the air to your next objective. It always felt purposeful and meaningful. It’s the cherry on top of an already beautiful experience.
As with the other aspects, the art style of the game is wonderful. Again, it’s not complicated, just gorgeous. The world always feels alive with the bright colors of the open areas and animals racing along side of you. During the boss battles, the scenery switches to more of a menacing red, which is fitting given the situation. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears. The score and the design go hand in hand to bring you a world you don’t want to ever leave. It’s a phenomenal job on all fronts.
The game clocks in at around 10 hours if you want to power through, and a little longer to unlock everything and finish all the puzzles. At $40, you could question the value due to the length of the game. I’m not even going to mince my words here, you’d be wrong. The only reason you could make that argument is because you just want more of a good thing. I didn’t want the game to end and there is little doubt that I’ll soon have the platinum trophy. It’s not going to be for everyone. Hell, I didn’t think it would be for me honestly. What Giant Squid did here was nothing short of incredible. They’ve changed the way I look at indie games going forward, and given me different levels of appreciation for the things these small developers can do. They opened an old man’s eyes and let his enjoyment soar on eagle wings. Alright, I’m getting emotional, just go buy the damn game!