The Pathless review – speed and scale and a game with an odd kind of charm

Vast maps bring out the best in this sparse yet memorable adventure.

It’s the sheer size of The Pathless that I love. And I mean size in a very specific sense. You can race through this whole adventure and be done in four hours, probably less. But when you’re on the ground or in the air the game often feels endless: clear and spacious, slopes and contours and steppes in every direction. Such echoing realms of grass and rock. Such volumes of cold air. It’s thrilling.

Yesterday I climbed a blasted cliff of ice and ancient stone to find a small temple at the top, built along a narrow ridge. I went inside and did some video game stuff, but mainly I just enjoyed the fact of where I was, the roof of the world, the wind billowing through tiled windows and the place I’d come from a dizzying sprawl far below me. I would have wandered up here for no reason at all. It was great. And when I emerged again, the red storm that stalks you across these huge maps was waiting right outside, right below me, a boiling angry Jupiter, threads of toxic cloud churning within it. A bright scarlet blot on a cold blue landscape. And inside? You know, the Pathless is alright.

It’s simple stuff at heart. The world is in danger and the ancient gods have fallen. Haven’t they always? You play a lone archer in this vast wilderness tasked with putting things back together again. You have to purify a bunch of corrupted guardians who take the form of mega-animals, and then tackle the baddy who’s behind all this, travelling upwards from one huge stretch of land to the next as you go. Standard video game fare, but The Pathless manages to be sparse and winningly odd all the same.

Movement lies at the heart of it. I have never played a game quite like it. Scattered around the world are little diamond shapes hovering in the air. They’re targets for your bow. Lock-on is generous to the point at which it becomes clear that this is not a game about aiming. You squeeze the right trigger to select a target and a square around it starts to turn from white to red. When it’s all red – less than a second – you can release and hit the target. In truth, when it’s half-red you can release and hit the target. Skill shot!

This stuff takes time to write down and explain, but in the game it is instantaneous – fleeting yet easy to parse, no gap needed for understanding. More: hitting the target gives you boost juice that allows you to run, which you do with the left trigger. So basically you’re a kind of heat engine, taking energy in with the right trigger and transferring it to the left trigger where it turns into speed. I’ve made it sound complicated again. I also don’t really understand heat engines, so the analogy was one big mistake. Anyway, that’s the rhythm of the game, aim, fire, boost. Right to left.

The thing is, you do this at speed, as you’re already boosting, rushing over the landscape, the grass a wet blur beneath you, the lines of the earth becoming ramps and channels. This is the Pathless. This is why the landscapes are so big, and why there’s no fast travel and no pause menu map to help orient you. Instead you have a special mask you can wear that stains the world blue and makes your objectives glow red. Pick your own route and run! The world is your luge track, twisting and swooping through canyon and forest. Shoot and run!

And fly. Alongside the bow you also have an eagle, who can hold you aloft when you jump, and can be upgraded by collecting gems, to flap its wings taking you higher. Upgrading the eagle’s flapping wings until you can boost yourself high into the sky is a key appeal here: an upgrade that really means something. When you’re in the air you can still target diamonds on the ground and hovering in the sky, and you can still move at speed. The landscape breaks obligingly into steppes at times, so a game about running is also a game about climbing.

So yes, for the most part, movement is where it is at in The Pathless. And it’s all justified by some pleasant saving-the-world stuff to do. In each level, you tackle the goddish mega-animal who’s stalking you. You do this by triggering three towers, which each need to be filled with special stones. The stones you collect at other sites, often tumbledown temples or mazes, or once, very memorably, the top of a giant tree. These require very simple puzzles to unlock.

Say you need to fire an arrow through a flame to light a burner, but the only flame is some distance away. What do you do? You work your way around, coaxing the flame from one unlit torch to the next. It can feel a bit like pulling off trick shots in Snooker.