I’m playing The Pathless, and am concerned about my eagle. It can lift heavy weights, such as its human companion (me), which, while cool and necessary to the game’s progression, seems rather dangerous. It seems unfair that my bird is doing literally all the heavy lifting, carting my character’s no-doubt heavy arse all across Creation. They deserve fresh meat snacks and pets whenever they like, and rest assured The Pathless ensures you can pet your eagle friend as often as you desire.
The Pathless opens with the last Hunter journeying to a mysterious island to stop a curse that’s blanketing their world in darkness. There, the Hunter and their freakishly strong eagle companion will fly, shoot, slide, and dash their way through a beautiful landscape of platform puzzles earning tokens to banish the darkness and save the Eagle Mother’s five animal children from the corruption of the Godslayer. Just havin’ a normal.
Moving through the expansive world of The Pathless is tricky, but rewarding once you get the hang of it. Your Hunter can walk and jump but is very slow, making progression through the wide-open landscapes tedious and time consuming. However, the land is dotted with targets you can shoot to fill up a dash gauge at the bottom of the screen. Pull the left trigger and the Hunter dashes at great speed, consuming your gauge even as you hurry to nail more targets to top it off. What results is fluid and fast movement not unlike the later Sonic games, where you can move at great speeds so long as you continuously pick up coins to keep your dash metre full.
Don’t worry, though, if you’re someone who’s bad at aiming (it’s me, I’m someone) the developers want the players to focus more on timing shots correctly than aiming them perfectly.
“We looked at how archery, shooting, and aiming are done in other third-person action-adventure games,” writes Matt Nava, creative director at Giant Squid. “Characters in these games are generally not very fast and many games put you in slow motion or on rails while shooting to help with control difficulty/accuracy.” The developers also noted that video game players’ aiming skills often failed to match those of supposedly legendary hunters. Aiming via today’s limited input methods is hard.
“We wanted to avoid these issues, so our archery prototype began with the concept ‘never miss a shot.’ he explains. “We created an auto-aim system based on a target’s distance and position relative to the centre of the screen. To shoot an arrow, you would hold the right shoulder button for a short time as if drawing a bow, and then release it. The arrow would never miss.”
While shooting and movement is an important mechanic, useful for covering gaps and long distances, central to the game is the Hunter’s eagle companion. You earn the eagle’s friendship after saving the Eagle Mother spirit from the curse darkening the land. At your command, your new pal can pick up and drop specially marked objects that look way heavier than what an eagle should be winging around — key for solving puzzles. It can also pick you up, giving you the ability to glide over long distances or reach higher ledges with a flap of its freakishly strong wings.
True to its title, The Pathless leaves you largely to your own devices to decide where to go and what to do next. Tutorials explain the movement and eagle mechanics, but that’s it: You’re then set loose upon the land to try and figure out how to beat back the darkness and restore the light.
Thankfully, a headpiece grants “spirit vision” that makes intuiting what to do and where to go simple. Toggle the spirit vision “on” and the world becomes cloaked in blue, with beacons in malignant red or golden yellow signifying points of interest. Towers are beacons spreading red corruption, cleansable only through golden animal-shaped tokens acquired from environmental puzzles you and your eagle must work together to solve. Solving puzzles can also grant you little yellow beads that fill up its own special bar. Fill a bar, and your eagle gains more “flap power” (my completely unscientific term) to lift you up higher.
The Pathless’ puzzles are short, relatively simple affairs that rely more on your ability to plot angles correctly than a mastery of the game’s platforming mechanics. For example, a number of puzzles involve lighting lanterns by shooting an arrow through a source of fire. You have to angle the position of the Hunter just right in order to loose your arrow in the right direction to carry the flame from a lit lantern to a darkened one.
The only enemies I’ve fought so far in The Pathless were the corrupted children of the Eagle Mother you’ve been tasked with saving. These take the form of traditional boss fights that test your ability to dash and shoot. Bright red targets light up across the boss’s body for short amounts of time, and you must fire quickly or lose your chance to weaken it. I’ve seen no health metre, and I haven’t yet “died”, but if you miss too many shots you’re blown out of the boss arena forcing you to get up, dust yourself off, and try again.
As you might suspect, the bird is the emotional heart of the game. It has a personality, it shows fear and affection and it’s darn cute. Knowing there’s a bird in the game immediately begs the question asked whenever there’s an animal companion in a game: “can I pet it?” I am happy to report that yes, you can pet the bird.
While I’m firmly in camp “let me pet all the things.” I love that in The Pathless, petting your eagle friend isn’t just an empty gesture of fanservice — it serves a mechanical purpose. After every encounter with a corrupted spirit child, you must pet your bird to restore its energy. Cleaning the bird feels like whenever I have to dust my dog off when he runs through a pile of leaves. You use the left thumbstick to wipe your hand over the bird clearing away accumulated corruption like so many thistle burrs picked out of corgi fur. And while petting serves a purpose, you don’t have to wait to encounter a spirit child to pet your bird, you can at any time. So make use of the dedicated “pet bird” button as often as you like.
The Pathless is a beautiful and simple game that scratches my puzzle platforming itch. So far I’ve only saved one of the five children so I’m looking forward to learning more about this world, saving the Eagle Mother and her children, and deepening the bond with my eagle, whom I’ve decided to name Flappy McSwole Wing. You can name your own eagle when The Pathless arrives on Playstation 4, Playstation 5, the Epic Game Store, and Apple Games November 12th.