The Pathless is a supernatural forest adventure from Abzû developer Giant Squid that tells the story of the Hunter, an archer who travels to a mystical island in order to rid it of a curse cast by a dark being known as the Godslayer. It's a more goal-oriented game than Abzû, but the influence of that aquatic adventure really shines through in The Pathless' focus on movement, observation, and exploration in a lushly beautiful magical world.
It's apparent from the very start that the world of The Pathless is big, and you, the Hunter, are very small. There's also no fast travel in the game, nor is there a map, so if you want to get somewhere you'll have to get there the old-fashioned way. The Hunter doesn't run terribly quickly on her own, but she can "dash" at very high speeds by shooting floating targets that are found floating throughout each of the game's levels. Aiming is automatic and it's impossible to miss as long as you don't release the trigger too quickly, so the goal is to string shots together in a way that keeps you in a constant state of boost.
Effective movement is all about timing and rhythm: As long as you keep shooting targets, your boost meter will stay charged and you'll be able to move very quickly. I sometimes find the shoot-to-sprint system a little distracting because I start to feel like I'm focusing more on the floating targets than the world around me. But I'm also not very good at it yet and I suspect that, kind of like bunny-hopping in Quake, it'll become second-nature fairly quickly.
"Those design choices are to keep you immersed in the space, and make it so that navigation is really tied to exploration and your actual position in the world," creative director Matt Nava said during a presentation in October. "I think it makes the game feel even more like you're in a myth, which is one of our design goals."
The other part of the mobility equation is your eagle companion, who can carry you aloft and across wide gulfs with a sort of jump-and-glide move. The eagle (and you) gain height by flapping his wings: He's able to flap just once at the start of the game, but discovering hidden crystals will enable additional flaps, and the more the eagle can flap, the higher you can go and the more of the game world you'll be able to access and explore. The eagle will also play a large role in solving many of the game's puzzles, such as by picking up and dropping weights onto pressure plates.
One of the major obstacles you'll encounter in The Pathless is the "Red Storm," which is essentially a vortex of unpleasantness that can overtake you while you're exploring. If you're caught up in it, you'll be separated from the eagle, which you must recover in order to escape. It's a simplified stealth sequence that doesn't look too punishing: As long as you're outside the cone of view of the boss at the center of the storm you can move about freely, and if you're spotted you'll be unseen as long as you stay still. But the storm can also be avoided entirely by simply staying away from it, which is probably the better option if you want to actually get things done.
Your overall goal of The Pathless is to discover "Lightstones" that are used to cleanse corrupted obelisks, which will eventually draw out the levels' mystical guardians, who must be battled and cleansed themselves. This is the only sort of direct conflict in the game: Reticules on the creature must be shot—and its defenses avoided—in a running battle that eventually leads to a showdown inside an arena.
It's a fairly conventional boss fight—dodge the incoming attacks, shoot the vulnerable spots, rinse and repeat until it's over—which, all cards on the table here, I do not care for. But, like the stealth bits inside the storm, the big fights seem fairly forgiving: Aiming is automatic here, just as it is out in the overworld, so the real challenge is to keep moving and stay out of the way of counter-attacks. And, importantly, it's not an instant loss if you do get hit: Instead, you'll lose some of the crystals you've collected.
"If you take a hit … you actually get ringed out. The design is, you have three hits, and the third one will launch you out of the arena, and you'll have to re-enter it, and the boss will regain some health," Nava explained. "It's interesting because it's not a game over, where we fade to black, 'You died,' but it functions very similarly without taking you out of the game. It's very much like sumo wrestling, where you get knocked out and lose a point, and then you continue the boss fight by jumping back in—or you can run away and keep exploring … It's all designed so that we never have to reset the game's timeline."
For me, the game world itself is the real attraction. It's lushly beautiful, and filled with all sorts of interesting architecture, secrets, and surprises. Some of them can be seen through a magical mask that highlights areas of interest in a glowing, sinister red, so you'll always know where you need to go, but others are completely unmarked, and you'll either stumble on them or you won't.
I get a slight sense of Hob out of it (which I also adored), not through the gameplay, but in the sense of discovering this sprawling, ancient world that's fallen prey to an alien malevolence. It's a place I want to just rattle around in for awhile without worrying about what I'm actually supposed to be doing, and Nava suggested that The Pathless will really turn on that sense of wonder, rather than simply the drive toward the end.
"What happens when you're playing The Pathless is, you'll have that goal—like, 'Oh, I'm just going to go toward that next obelisk.' And then you'll be running there, and you'll get distracted by something you discover, and all of a sudden you're now exploring a new thing," he said. "There's a whole lot to see."
I think it looks brilliant, and I can't wait to play more of it. The Pathless is set to come out on November 12 on the Epic Games Store.