The Pathless is the game of exploration and escape that I needed in 2021

Staff Picks

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2021, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We’ll post new staff picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

Technically, The Pathless came out in late 2020. But it didn’t arrive on Steam until November 2021. While I have nothing at all against Epic Store exclusives, I’m going to use that as an out to select it as my personal pick for the year, because it’s just that good.

The Pathless is the tale of the Hunter, summoned to a mystical island realm to free the children of an ancient god from the thrall of powerful Godslayer, who has turned them against their true natures and shattered the realm they once protected. It’s a wide-open fantasy world of forest, plains, and tundra, and the Hunter is very small by comparison. But she can move rapidly across the great spaces by shooting floating targets with her bow, which grant brief, stacking bursts of speed with each one she hits. The Hunter’s travelling companion, an eagle, can also carry her aloft and over great distances.

Mechanically, defeating evil and restoring the glory of the Tall Ones is perfectly straightforward: Explore four distinct realms set on adjoining plateaus, solve some simple puzzles, and handle a few boss fights. But for all the focus on action, The Pathless is one of the most remarkably relaxing games I’ve ever played. 

Everything about it is designed to flow smoothly, gracefully, and without undue obstruction. The Hunter aims automatically at the targets that grant her blistering speed, so there’s no need to even look at what you’re shooting at—building speed as you race across the plains and steppes is a matter of cadence, not accuracy. There are no enemies in the world to interrupt exploration save for the prowling Tall Ones themselves, who are easily avoided—and if you do get caught, it’s easy to escape their sight via a simple stealth mechanic. Even if you blow it, there’s virtually no penalty.

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(Image credit: Giant Squid)

Even the boss fights are constructed aerodynamically. Taking an ass-kicking carries no penalty aside from a small slice of progress within the fight itself: I get knocked down, I get up, and I leap immediately back into the brawl. I loathe boss fights, to the point that I will almost immediately start looking for cheat codes when I encounter one, but The Pathless invited me to engage by eliminating the frustration of loss. It’s an excellent balance of difficulty and forgiveness, and it works brilliantly. The intensity of the fight and exhilaration of victory—without the usual videogame bullshit and progression-blocking guffola—feels great. These are the boss fights for boss fight haters.

What I love most about The Pathless, though, is the world it builds. The use of bright primary colors is striking—blue, green, and yellow everywhere, standing in stark contrast to the burning red of the raging Tall Ones—and the great, wide-open spaces that give the game such a powerful sense of scale are punctuated by secrets and tiny tableaus. Navigation is done solely by landmark and best guess—there’s no minimap, compass, or any other external ‘aids’ to detract from the immersion—and rather like The Elder Scrolls, if you can see it, you can get to it. One of my favorite moments came when I spotted a citadel perched atop a mountain, tiny and easy to miss in the distance. It looked more like skybox decor than a place to visit, but with some effort I made it, and it was absolutely worth the journey.

(Image credit: Giant Squid)

There’s a practical value to exploring because discovering hidden gems can greatly empower your eagle friend, but the real value for me is the feeling of history it creates across ancient battlefields, ruined encampments, ornate, crumbling ruins, and the final memories of long-dead pilgrims, soldiers, and usurpers. Those dying thoughts can be read by the Hunter, and they’re often very somber: Some followers of the Tall Ones remain devoted to the end, but others met their end in the grip of fear, abandonment, anger, and broken faith. The fallen fanatics of the Godslayer have final memories of their own, and some of them paint a more sympathetic picture than you might expect. I felt a real sense of standing in the aftermath of something real and powerful, that impacted lives far beyond my own.

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Small touches bring it all together. Deer ran at my side as I raced across the plains, and stroking my eagle’s feathers occasionally brought snuggles. On the side of a mountain that I wasn’t meant to climb, I found the skeletons of two fallen soldiers of Sauro—one of the Tall Ones—near the bones of a giant cyclops of some sort, clearly the aftermath of some small but deadly battle. When did it happen? What was it about? The game doesn’t say. Like so much of the rest of The Pathless, I was left to wonder.

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