Giant Squid Studios’ debut title ABZÛ was a stunning debut for the studio founded by former thatgamecompany art director Matt Nava. Given how great that debut title was, surpassing it was never going to be an easy task. However, the team – with the help of one of the best publishers in the business, Annapurna – has not only pulled it off, but has done so with flying colours.
The Pathless sees you controlling a huntress, setting out in hopes of lifting a curse from a sacred land. With the help of some benevolent deities intimately intertwined with nature, it’s up to you to stop The Godslayer, a warrior of unspeakable power, as he corrupts and twists the spirits of the land to his will. To do this, you are equipped with a bow, and shortly after starting the game, an eagle companion.
Not only does the eagle allow you to jump higher, fly further, and solve more complex puzzles, but the relationship between you and this bird evolves and grows as the game goes along. The bond is established instantly, as you help the bird nurse a wound, brushing the “curse” – which looks akin to fire and soot – off of their wings shortly before he nuzzles you affectionately. And that’s when we decided our heart belonged to this eagle. The relationship only grows stronger as the game progresses and you help one another achieve more and more. It’s an aspect of the title we had no real expectations for, but it’s one of the standouts.
Not to be outdone by your feathered friend, the gameplay exceeds expectations as well. An open world with virtually no handholding, the title drops you in and just lets you stumble your way into figuring everything out. We found it pretty overwhelming at first, and honestly, we’d have welcomed a little more guidance in the prologue. Once the rules of the game start to coalesce, however, it becomes a wondrous, freeing experience.
You have to find locations around different “plateaus” to unlock totems. By collecting these totems, you can then purify the towers which help to pinpoint the corrupted deity for you to cleanse. Upon locating them, you engage in multi-stage boss encounters that are all fantastic. Barring one segment, the boss fights are exhilarating and interesting, particularly the first stage, which delivers an intense chase sequence through a fire-ravaged wooded area. All four – technically five – sections of the game adhere to this formula, but it never gets stale. Even more interesting is the fact these boss fights are the only combat in the game.
The rest of the game is focused around myriad puzzles and archery at the most basic level. The world and the manner in which you interact with it evoke similar feelings to that of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Shadow of the Colossus. You have a vision pulse that shows where you need to go, marking key points in red, but beyond that, there’s no map, and you have to find anything of note yourself. You use your bow to shoot totems that are absolutely everywhere, which allow you to run faster. Shooting these provides energy to recharge stamina, as well as speed boosts, increased elevation, and so on.
While we were puzzled by this design decision initially, it's actually extremely fun. You don’t have to stop to shoot, and the auto-aim is incredibly generous, especially when you fully charge a shot. If you chain these totems properly, you can spend entire minutes without touching the ground. While the controls aren’t perfect – jumping doesn’t feel great – it’s moments like this which offer the greatest reward.
That is largely due to just how brilliant the world is. The Pathless is one of the best uses of HDR we have seen a game take advantage of to date. The use of highly contrasting colours help to make the world look absolutely stunning. Of particular note is the way HDR allows the art team to use different shades of the same colour on screen all at once. It has more nuance to it than we’ve experienced previously, and the results are downright stunning.
Each of the plateaus – each new “level” sees you climbing a little higher up the land – are distinct, too. The first two are different interpretations of forested areas, with wildly differing geography, while the third is a wide-open plain with rolling fields, and sparse foliage, before transitioning into a stark wintry city nestled in the mountains, long since abandoned. It’s not just the use of colour or the nature on display that sells the game on its look, though. There are hints of civilization all over, sometimes so subtle you could easily miss them, but there are many labyrinthine areas, completely devoid of life, and hints of ancient settlements.
The world-building is another asset to the game, as there are lore tidbits all throughout the land and even more spots that look as though they have interesting stories, though the game leaves it up to the imagination to decide what those stories may be. The lore even serves a dual purpose in-game, both fleshing out the world, and serving as clues to puzzles that lead to in game-rewards. Many of the collectibles are connected to puzzles that aid you in your travels, offering larger stamina bars, and added “flaps” allowing the eagle to soar higher. Investing the time to get the points is highly recommended. Having done some moderate exploring for that very reason, the game’s six hour run time just whizzed by, but trying to see and do everything could easily top out past 10 hours.
Spending more time with the title isn’t exactly a bad thing either, as just being in the world and hearing it is magical. Giant Squid has teamed up once again with composer Austin Wintory, someone we’ve never been shy about championing. And that trend is going to continue here, as not only has Wintory delivered a knockout score for what seems like the thousandth time, it’s one of his very best. With a much greater emphasis on percussion, and most uniquely, throat singing, it's another stunning addition to the composer's catalogue. The score serves as the perfect soundscape for this title.
The Pathless is an incredible experience, and easily one of the best launch titles available on the PS5 in what is already an excellent selection. A wondrous, beautiful open world with innumerable locations and secrets to uncover is placed alongside a moving narrative further heightened by an unexpectedly tender relationship between player and bird. And that’s to say nothing of the game’s exquisite use of colour, or the beautiful and wickedly unique soundtrack. The Pathless excels on all fronts.