I’m always keeping my ears open for interesting Apple Arcade games, and I’d recently gotten an Apple TV, which made me more curious about console-style Apple Arcade games in particular. And I saw some positive mentions of The Pathless on Twitter and in podcasts, and at least some of the people involved in it had a thatgamecompany background; some of the mentions also mentioned that the game took inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus, which is certainly a plus for me. So I gave it a try.

And I’m glad I gave it a try; I spent a pleasant six or eight hours with the game. But also: while I can see where comparisons with Journey or Shadow of the Colossus come from, The Pathless doesn’t come particularly close to reaching the (very high!) bar that those two games set. And actually it turned me off of Apple Arcade as well; I’ll write a separate post about that one, and it mostly wasn’t the fault of The Pathless, it’s more that I’d been wondering for a while whether to cancel that subscription, and The Pathless didn’t convince me I shouldn’t.


(There will be light mechanical spoilers below for the first hour or so of the game. Nothing to worry about unless you’re super sensitive to spoilers, though.)

The environments in The Pathless are pretty good, I think? But they’re not great, and I can’t entirely figure out why I didn’t feel more positive about them. They’re laid out in a way that feels relatively natural (as in inspired by nature) to me, which I’m normally drawn to. And the environment is dotted with ruins, which are well done, I feel like I should enjoy that too?

It’s possible that the textures are a little flat for me. Having said that, Journey largely takes place in a desert, so clearly I don’t demand too much in the way of texture in my games? Maybe the actual issue is more of the opposite, that the environment is, in some sense, a little busy. There are these floating arrow targets all over the place in your environment; their main function is to provide a boost mechanic, enabling you to zip through the environments pretty quickly if you keep on shooting them. Which is fine, I guess, but I think at some level those targets made the world feel kind of busy to me.

And the ruins made the world feel slightly busy to me as well, I think. Because a ruin isn’t just a ruin (in The Pathless or in most video games): it’s generally a signpost for a secret. So, when seeing them, my brain doesn’t just say “oh, neat ruin”: instead, it says “where’s the secret in this ruin?” And, fairly soon, it moves on to “do I actually want to spend the time on getting the secret in this ruin?” Frequently the answer was yes, but sometimes (and increasingly frequently as I spent more time wit the game) the answer was no.

So, in both cases, the environment felt a little instrumentalized to me, in ways that created a barrier to my just enjoying the experience of being present in the world. Which is quite standard in video games, of course, this just felt like the kind of game that might have the potential to step back a little bit more than it actually does?


That “shoot targets to dash” mechanism is actually a little odd. Like, on one level, it turns out to be a pretty neat mechanism: dashing is fun, and it turns out that the mechanism can also be used to keep you in the air while you’re jumping, so once you get good at it, you can cover pretty large gaps in space as long as there are enough targets between where you start and where you land. And the game adds in some variants later on to make the mechanism more versatile, in particular a version that launches you vertically, so you can climb up quite a bit in places where there are chains of those.

The thing is, though: at the end of the introductory level of the game, you get a bird friend. And the bird friend can carry you while it flies! So there’s this other mechanism that lets you cross large horizontal gaps, and to climb vertically as well. And using the bird to cross gaps is an awful lot easier than chaining your arrow shots. (I feel like it was within reach for me to learn how to use the arrow mechanism reliably, but why should I bother to put in that effort?) It feels pretty weird to me to have two different mechanisms that solve the same problem; the game puts in a few puzzles where you’re not allowed to use the bird to cross gaps and climb, but that feels like retroactive justification to me.

That leaves the dash justification for the arrow targets; and dashing is fun. But still, why not let people just dash all of the time, if that’s what you want? It feels odd to litter the landscape with something that’s there to enable pervasive dashing, when you could just, you know, enable pervasive dashing. And what I actually want to do much of the time is to be flying over the landscape instead of dashing through it, but flying is slower; this leaves me with a tradeoff that I’m not sure brings me much value?

Honestly, it almost feels to me like the whole shooting-as-travel mechanism would work best as a speedrunning affordance. I feel like you could navigate most of the situations where I used my bird by dashing / arrow jumping instead, and that dashing / arrow jumping would be faster for people who are good at it. But, again, that’s a pretty weird affordance to stick into the game so pervasively.


That’s the arrow targets. Then there are the environmental puzzles: tasks that you (with the help of your bird friend) have to figure out and accomplish in order to get keys that let you light towers that are necessary to progress. Except that there are quite a bit more keys than that; if you gather all of them on one level, it looks like something should happen, but I don’t know what, and I wasn’t quite enjoying the game enough to go back to one of the earlier levels and get all the keys. (It didn’t help that there’s no fast travel between levels and that finishing the final boss and going through credits puts you at the start screen instead of leaving you in world.)

So the upshot is that there are a lot of puzzles to solve; and there are also puzzles that don’t involve the keys that are useful for powering up your bird friend. Each individual puzzle was pleasant enough, but halfway through the game, I kind of hit puzzle overload. I still mostly kept on solving them, so even on the final level I had more keys than were necessary just to get to the towers. But it was also the case that, for the last couple of levels, I was feeling like I might have been making the wrong choice by doing that. The puzzles just aren’t different enough from each other, and don’t particularly grow from level to level, so once I’ve seen each puzzle archetype four or five times, I’ve more or less gotten what I’m going to get out of that puzzle.

Again, though, none of this is unusual for video games! Games will ask me to defeat a given kind of enemy in combat a thousand times without batting an eye; but here I’m wondering whether I want to solve the puzzles that are similar but not identical ten times? I don’t know quite what it is about The Pathless that has me questioning that aspect of the game play, and I actually think that my questioning is mostly pointing at something positive about The Pathless, because most games don’t deserve that sort of interrogation. But, also, there are lots of games out there that keep me poking at them in fairly repetitive ways for two or three dozen hours without grumbling too much…


There are also boss battles at the end of each section. They’re fine, nothing to write home about? I do appreciate that there’s no fail state in them: if you run out of health, it just knocks you back again, you pick yourself up, and start over at the start of the current phase. But, in general, the different bosses are pretty similar, nothing special there; and, for whatever reason, one of the bosses for some reason had huge performance problems on the Apple TV, making that particular boss battle feel like a slide show.

I think the game wanted the boss creatures to be something more, to make you care about them via a “giant majestic beast” vibe. It didn’t work for me; I’m not entirely sure why. Actually, thinking about it a bit more, one of their other design choices might have worked against that: the bosses are wandering around the level while you’re gathering keys and lighting up towers, and if you get too close to them, you get put into a stealth puzzle mode where you have to avoid their gaze. So that meant that I was actively discouraged from appreciating their majesty in the run-up to the boss battle: I wanted to stay away from them, and even when I got close, I still wanted to avoid them. And the boss battles themselves took place at a fast enough pace to discourage me from drinking in the beasts’ potential majesty there as well.


Anyways, to sum it up: The Pathless is okay, a pleasant way to spend 5–10 hours. And there are things in its design that I enjoyed thinking about. But I can’t say that I’d actively recommend it.

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