Links between worlds: How The Pathless learns the right lessons from Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild hit the gaming landscape like a meteor when it launched with the Nintendo Switch and Wii U in 2017. An unprecedented and ambitious open-world adventure, it completely upended a genre which had grown increasingly stagnant since they heyday of early Assassin’s Creed, and with cultural impact only rivalled in recent years by Besthesda’s behemoth, the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and perhaps CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher III. Nintendo’s expertly crafted, open-ended approach led players to uncover hidden shrines and bustling towns through subtle environmental design, rather than a map covered in markers and waypoints.

A world ripe for exploration in Nintendo’s unparalleled 2017 adventure, the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

When attempting to reach an interesting quirk of Hyrule’s geography that sticks out in the landscape, the curiosity of the player is respected and almost always rewarded; as long as you can manage your stamina and use your simple but flexible suite of tools to overcome any obstacles in your path, you were sure to find something to reward your efforts. This minimalist approach exploration has been spoken and written about ever since the game first launched, and as the importance of the game’s release began to be fully realised, speculation as to how the genre, and the industry as whole, would be impacted moving forward began. When would we see the first batch of clearly-inspired titles from other publishers? Would the BOTW-like (Breath-like? Wild-like?) become its own subgenre, or had Nintendo created something so unexpected and unique as to be irreproducible.

Conspicuous geographical features and glowing shrines on the horizon catch the eye and subtly guide the player in Breath of the Wild

We’ve seen nods to shifts in open-world philosophy since 2017. Turning on exploration mode in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, from prolific AAA open-world powerhouse, Ubisoft, necessitates a perfunctory level of environmental clue-finding to reach your goal, rather than providing an immediate waypoint to follow. While this adds a more thoughtful layer to the exploration, it does little to emulate the surprise and delight of unearthing a shrine or korok seed behind an unusually-shaped hill or oddly positioned tree. Any impact this mode might have had is drowned out among an otherwise incredibly dense and busy open-world epic, the map forever littered with markers and waypoints.

2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey takes small steps towards Zelda’s approach to exploration through environmental design.

Adam Robinson-Yu’s charming 2019 indie A Short Hike, while a far briefer affair, does a much better job of capturing the joy of movement and discovery that are so integral to Breath of the Wild, while also having distinctive presentation and mood; some combination of Zelda, Animal Crossing and Celeste, all filtered through a half-broken CRT. It’s this smart use of Zelda’s stronger elements- taking a core element of what makes it work and implementing it in new ways and settings, rather than making cursory tweaks to existing mechanics- that gives clues as to how the influence of Breath of the Wild could most positively impact game design going forward.

Joyous movement across a lovingly-crafted island in a Short Hike

Here in the waning weeks of 2020, it seems the days of the big-budget BOTW-like have finally arrived. Immortals: Fenyx-Rising, developed by the same team as AC:Odyssey (and impressively released just two years later) is a clear attempt to translate many of the key elements from Breath of the Wild into a Greek mythological setting. The freedom of exploration and movement, the contained puzzle vaults littering the landscape, the four main chunks of the map to conquer in whichever order you like — even down to art style and animation, are at times strikingly familiar to those who have spent dozens of hours exploring 2017’s BOTW (these similarities are even more blatant when viewed side-by-side.) This does not inherently detract from the game, and by all accounts, Immortals provides a fun open-world adventure with solid combat, in a much more digestible form than the gritty and expansive Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which launched just a few weeks earlier. It does, however, all feel somewhat uninspired- more like a cover band than a successor.

Immortals Fenyx Rising takes many direct cues from Breath of the Wild, at the expense of offering more novel evolutions to the formula.

The other big release this year which takes a slightly more divergent branch from BOTW’s Deku Tree, is September’s Genshin Impact. The expansive open-ended world, freedom of exploration and bright, painterly art style are all there, but this time wrapped in the trappings of a gacha free-to-play mobile game. While many are often suspicious and cynical of this business model, it’s helped Genshin Impact to carve a unique enough path in the industry as to escape the label of a simple rip-off, and the overwhelming success of the game speaks to how such approaches may be the way forward in appealing to a post-BOTW audience.

Zelda-like exploration in a free-to-play wrapper in 2020’s Genshin Impact

But the release this year that to me represents the most promising interpretation of BOTW’s design philosophy is Giant Squid’s The Pathless. Giant Squid’s previous game, the ‘Journey-except-you’re-a-scuba-diver’ Abzu, showcased their ability to make a beautiful, serene world, which imparts an effective sense of wonder as you drift through its shimmering coral reefs and dark abyssal depths, though within a more constrained, linear route than a true open world game. The Pathless washes you and your boat onto the shore of a mysterious uninhabited island and sets you going, without much guidance, to piece together why you’re there. The land is (initially) bleak, desolate, and empty, save for a smattering of wildlife. Through listening to the dying thoughts of corpses littering the island’s myriad troves and temples, it transpires that a bloody insurrection against the island’s religious orthodoxy by a powerful usurper named the Godkiller has wiped out the local populace, and transformed the island’s protector gods into corrupted versions of their former selves. This might be starting to sound familiar to those that have played Breath of the Wild — roaming the ruins of a once beautiful land in order to overthrow the corrupter and cleanse the spirits of… divine beasts. And while the sparse narrative is strong, it does hew a little closely to Zelda’s to truly stand out. It turns out, however, that setting your game in a post-apocalyptic version of an idyllic country is a surefire way to instil a sense of empty, quiet beauty into your world. It worked wonders in Hyrule, and it works here too. The mood is not that of high adventure, nor even of a desperate struggle, as the battle is already long lost. Instead there is just a slow and quiet resolve to salvage something of what once was, as you bear witness to the last thoughts and moments of a world that died long before you arrived.

Bleak beauty in the world of The Pathless.

The main selling point of the Pathless, the trick that catches your eye in the trailer, is the movement. The whole island is strewn with floating talismans, which when shot, fill up a momentum gauge and boost you forward as you run. Sprinting through the fields and leaping off hills while maintaining this momentum never gets old, and feels fantastic through to the end of the game (especially when playing with the PS5’s Dualsense controller, which translates the tension of the bowstring to the adaptive trigger, helping you to release your arrow at the perfect moment). Early in the game, you are given an eagle companion, who allows you to seamlessly go from running to gliding and eventually flying upward as you traverse the landscape. While some areas of the world are gated until you’re able to cleanse an area of the Godkiller’s influence, the movement always feels truly unlimited. This balletic, rhythmic sprint is functionally nothing like Zelda’s mix of climbing, gliding and swimming. However, scaling a mountain to reach an isolated ruin by being smart about your route and maintaining your momentum gives the same feeling of satisfaction as navigating Link up an impossibly tall cliff, through economical use of stamina and potions.

The acrobatic, energetic movement of The Pathless never wears out its welcome.

Exploration is only interrupted when you fall into the swirling red maelstrom that surrounds each corrupted god, as they wander across the land with unstoppable menace. When this happens, you’re forced into a short stealth encounter in which you must avoid the gaze of the fearsome beast while trying to reach your fallen eagle. While you can’t die in these encounters, and will at worst lose a little upgrade currency, they add a dynamism to the world and stop it from feeling void of activity, in a manner which effectively mirrors the creeping tension of Zelda’s blood moons, in mood if not in mechanics.

Taking on a corrupted spirit of the island in one the The Pathless’ encounters

While soaring above the island or zooming along its plains, you’ll notice clearings in the trees, ruined settlements in hidden valleys and skeletal remains of long-dead beasts. Much like BOTW, investigating these eye-catching points on the horizon will almost always reward you with a quick environmental puzzle for upgrade currency, or one of the more involved puzzle rooms littered throughout, which will either help to increase the eagle’s flying ability, or provide a lightstone to get you closer to pinning down each area’s corrupted god into a ‘boss battle’ (there is no real combat outside of these encounters— a brilliant choice and one which only adds to the game’s quiet beauty.) The puzzles themselves are simple but enjoyable, never too frustrating, and feel distinct enough from Zelda’s shrines as to avoid feeling overfamiliar.

Solving a puzzle with your eagle companion in The Pathless

Where this game departs from most open worlds, and I would argue takes the minimalist guidance of Breath of the Wild to its ultimate conclusion, is to remove the map entirely. Some have found this decision unnecessary and frustrating, but I think it’s incredibly effective in making you feel like a true explorer, and in forcing you to get to know the land you’re trying to save. You’re given a ‘detective vision’, which highlights any corners of the island where there’s still something to uncover in a vivid red mist. The joyous movement system means that it’s never a chore to zip over to the other side of a valley, or fly upward to see what you’ve missed. I worked through every puzzle in the game, and there was only one instance where I struggled to find the last puzzle in the area, as it was obscured within some cliffside structures. The land is expansive, but compact and dense enough to learn the basic layout as you play, often without even realising it. By the end of the game, I was surprised to realise that I never missed the map, and that Giant Squid’s gamble had paid off.

Navigating The Pathless’ ruined island — who needs maps when you have a birds-eye view?

The Pathless is on its face a very different game to Breath of the Wild — it’s much shorter (about 10–15 hours if you want to see everything), contains no crafting or combat, no shops or new gear to collect. But its uniqueness only goes to show how the best influences of the most important game of the last 10 years might be felt in the next generation. Not through mimicking exactly what we did on our journey across Hyrule, but to understand why we loved doing it in the first place.

Link in Breath of the Wild, and The Pathless — a worthy successor and hopefully a sign of things to come.