If you add up all the games that Matt Nava has worked on, Flower, Journey, Abzû, and now The Pathless, what do you have? By my count, over 13 hours of fire, water, wind, earth, birth, death, and God. That’s less time than it takes to complete Marvel’s Avengers. Not bad for a career. Nava’s games (he was the art director for the first two, and creative director for the others) are united, as are we all, by the threat of ecological disaster. What stops them from staling into sermons is that, rather than bore, they soar. They grant us powers of movement and magic. They are steeped in myth. They let us save the world. Like Marvel’s Avengers.
In The Pathless, you control a lone woman—credited as “Hunter”—who boats through the gathering gloom to an “isle on the edge of the world,” where, we are told, “the realm of man and the realm of spirits intersect.” This seems the perfect place for her, given that she appears to belong somewhere in between. She has dark-blue hair, as if dipped in ink, and her skin is spectre-pale. She wears a veil the hue of blood—as though she were trying to shock us, or herself, with a reminder of life. The camera, during play, is pulled back, filling the frame with sky, trees, and rock. This same trick was used, long ago, in God of War, the suggestion being that our labours are furled within legend—the kind of tale that’s held aloft and passed down—in which the deeds of heroes belong to the land. Nava uses it, here as in Journey, to douse the flickering figure at the heart of the screen with doubt, and daunt their quest with scale.
What is that quest? “The last Hunter makes the journey to reclaim the light that has been stolen from the world,” read the subtitles. In other words, this is one of those games in thrall to symbolism, in which the story (written by Steve Lerner and Kelsey Beachum) is thin, the better to thread together the images. These are of black towers and beacons flaring in the half-light; swards of sweeping green and shattered temples, racked with rain. These sights are, more often than not, brushed with the haze of speed, as you pelt through the surrounds with your head pitched forward, like the prow of a ship. The terrain is strewn with drifting diamonds—a surreal, video game touch that somehow manages not to intrude on the fiction. When shot with your bow (a simple hold-and-release of the right trigger, no aiming required), they burst, filling your energy bar and gusting you onwards at a bracing lick.
I would prescribe The Pathless to anyone feeling numbed and locked by our days of inanition; it’s perfect if you feel your home becoming an isle on the edge of the world. Not because it bustles with social cheer—the only company you have is an Eagle, who, while great at gliding you over long distances, isn’t much of a conversationalist—but because it sets you free. Like Flower, which had us play as a petal-infused breeze, the game brims with the thrill of effortless movement: an emission-free joyride. What’s more, it hangs and dwells on motion. As you lock onto a target, for instance, the Hunter slides over the soil, crouching, and draws back her bow—a hiatus of poise and withheld power—before loosing an arrow, with a high and light whistle, through the air.
Unlike Abzû, which released you into the chambers of the sea and saw no reason to crash the pleasant waves of your exploration with obstacles, you will find both puzzles and bosses here. Indeed, the jump from that game—which a friend of mine tactfully described as a screensaver—to this is considerable. If Giant Squid Studio continues in this vein, it may well squirt out an MMORPG next. The puzzles are peaceful, and present no great challenge. They consist of firing arrows through flames, thus igniting them mid-flight, in order to light torches; elsewhere, your beaky companion will, when instructed, fetch weights and drop them onto pressure pads—opening doors, raising platforms, etc. Their completion rewards you with a thinglet, which, when slotted into the crest of a tower, will blow away the smog and bring health blooming back into the vales.
Though, I have to say, I wonder if this is what Nava really needs. His style craves calamity: bright, cel-shaded tones that burn cleanly, without the enamelling of context. Think of all that coffee-coloured decay, in Journey; those wavering ruins, in Abzû, glinting with golden hieroglyphs—these places are wrought and defined by their fall, never touched by the dirt of daily life. The message of Flower was muddled by the fact that its idea of pastoral bliss—the rolling meadows of grass backed by a fake blue sky—bore a depressing resemblance to the default wallpaper for Windows XP. The irony of Nava’s games is that they are at their most striking when mired in destruction; though they rage with the need for tranquility, the last thing they need is to be tranquilised.
Hence the beasts that roam the isles—corrupted gods in the forms of animals, dripping with darkness. As you approach, you are met with a swelling sphere of red, orange, and purple, with lightning playing across the surface, like a suppurating wound. It brings to mind the awful pictures of the California wildfires, where the hills and highways glowed with the light of a forge. It’s also one of the most beautiful sights in games this year. The debt, for these encounters, is to Disney—specifically, to The Firebird sequence in Fantasia 2000. That passage, about a healing woodland sprite, glittered with detail—the steamed breath of an elk, the etchings of time on an oak—and when the villain loomed over the valley, accompanied by the violent strains of Stravinski, it harked back to the Mephisto of Murnau’s Faust, encircling a town in the foul spread of his wings. You wanted the sprite to win, and you welcomed the explosion of spring. By contrast, the creatures of The pathless put up a good fight, but, once you’ve felled them, and the shadows leak away, you almost wish they would rage against the dawning of the light.
Developer: Giant Squid Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], PlayStation 5, PC, iOS
Release Date: November 12, 2020
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