Every now and then, you play one of those games that just feels a little bit too late. It’s not that a game in this category is bad or doesn’t have good ideas, but sometimes it’s just a victim of the current gaming landscape. How many Metroidvanias have you played by now? What about roguelites or 2D platformers? There’s of course always room for ‘one more good one’, but the explosion of indie game development over the last decade has certainly raised the bar for what a game needs to do to stand out. Unfortunately, Pathway feels like a casualty of this concept. It’s a decent game, but it’s more of an ‘also-ran’ kind of game than something that feels distinct.
Pathway follows the story of intrepid Indiana Jones-esque adventurers who fight Nazis, explore ancient ruins, and narrowly survive hair-raising conflicts with supernatural creatures, all while pursuing a quest for glory and loot. These adventures are spread out across five different episodes, each of which consist of randomly generated events that shift with each subsequent run. The basic flow of an episode sees you starting on a big map of interconnected nodes and tasks you with driving to a goal one node at a time. The path you take to get there is up to you, and most of the nodes are unmarked, but each one will have some scenario that necessitates a decision from you.
For example, one scenario saw our team getting the drop on a Nazi squad trying to gain access to a black pyramid half-buried in the sand, and we were given the option to wait and see what happens or to ambush them. We opted to wait it out, which led to the Nazis getting into the pyramid. Had we ambushed them, there likely would’ve been a battle and if we prevailed, our adventurers probably would’ve gotten whatever was inside. This highlights the constant risks you’re taking while playing through Pathway – you can never have certainty over what consequences a decision might bring. For all we know, that pyramid could’ve been full of zombies that immediately devastated the Nazi ranks.
It’d be easy to get decision paralysis in a game such as this, which is why the overarching design constantly pushes you out of your comfort zone. For example, characters that die on one run are unavailable to play for the next run while they ‘recover’, forcing you to pick a different team composition. Every time you move to another node on the map, you lose one more tank of fuel for your Jeep. Every bullet you fire is one less in your rapidly dwindling supply of ammo for future battles. Scarcity is the name of the game here; you will never have enough of anything to feel absolutely confident that you can take on whatever comes your way next time.
When you get into fights, combat takes the shape of an XCOM-lite strategy game. Each character has a limited move range and set of attacks or skills they can use, and the success rates of most attacks are rarely one hundred percent. Each character has different skills, such as a ‘sprint’ that adds more move range or a cover maneuver that guarantees that character will evade the next attack, and these skills are governed by a Bravery meter that refills a little bit each turn. Nobody feels over or underpowered, which lends the action a nice sense of balance as you figure out how to best use your team together.
The problem with this combat, however, is that it becomes overly simplistic after a few hours. There’s not a huge amount of enemy variety and maps are all pretty much the same on a mechanical level, which can make things feel homogenous over time. It’s understandable to an extent, as this is a randomly generated game and the developers therefore have no direct control over what order you encounter different events. Still, that does nothing to make Pathway more interesting. This is the kind of game that shows its hand very early and doesn’t have much more to offer beyond that in terms of mechanics – it feels a little thin on ideas.
A big part of this is found in the overall repetitive nature of the gameplay design. Yes, there are a litany of different scenarios to unfold, but they all fundamentally end with a much narrower range of possible outcomes. You get into a lot of fights, but there are only a few types of enemies or stage elements that can show up. Even when it comes to selecting characters at the outset of an episode, the magic is soon lost when you recognize that skills aren’t tied to the characters themselves, but to the limited kinds of equipment that they can initially use. You could, of course, play for dozens of hours to unlock all the characters, but why would you do that when only a few of them bring something new to the gameplay? To put it simply, Pathway often feels more like a haphazard pot of a few ideas that are just shuffled around, rather than a well-thought out experience that endeavors to deliver a specific kind of gameplay. It’s so focused on being expansive that it forgets to make that expansiveness meaningful.
At least Pathway manages to stick the landing with its presentation, even if the art style isn’t particularly inspired. The pixel art is all well-drawn and the animations look nice, although there isn’t anything here that stands out as exceptional among the swathe of other well-drawn pixel art indie games out there. Then there are the obvious gaffs that perhaps indicate a rush job with the porting work. For example, one of the tooltips for a skill you can use informs you that you ‘rotate the mousewheel’ to change the angle of the attack. Little misses like this don’t really take away from the experience, but it doesn’t exactly help Pathway feel like a quality game that’s worth your time or money on Switch.
Perhaps that’s the most damning characteristic of Pathway. It’s decent, but is 'decent' worth your attention in a marketplace rife with excellent games waiting to be played? There’s nothing in Pathway that feels broken or outright negative, but it’s the sort of thing where you keep waiting for the ‘hook’ that never comes. At its heart, this is a rather basic game that finds ways to stretch that basic premise over potentially dozens of hours without adding anything meaningful in the process.
Sometimes that’s enough. Not every game needs to swing for the fences. But those of you looking for something attention-grabbing will be left wanting.
Pathway is a competent game. Just competent. Definitely not great, maybe not even good, but certainly competent. It’s blend of randomized storytelling and XCOM-style combat is well done, but it doesn’t prove to remain consistently entertaining in the long run. Those of you who are absolutely starved for this kind of game may want to cautiously investigate. Otherwise, just pick up the XCOM 2 Collection or Mario + Rabbids for a much more enjoyable take on the genre.