Pathway – Review
10 May, 2019
In Pathway, you brave the desert and its mysteries to put an end to Nazis and cultists. Does this belong in a museum? Here’s what we think.
In my first game of Pathway, a Brazilian sailor and an Arab prince bonded over killing Nazis and travelling the Moroccan desert. Battered by conflict, they approached their goal—a Nazi outpost where they may rescue their captured friend. And then their jeep ran out of fuel.
I decided they will walk the rest of the way. However, the sailor died, succumbing to his poor health. The prince found himself a new companion in a dog named Donut, and the two took on the Nazis at their base. In the final battle, with emotions charged, the bloodied prince and his faithful mutt put up a valiant fight, but were soundly defeated.
Turns out, this was just the first of the many stories I would end up building in the game.
Pathway sets up a simple scaffolding for its lovably pulpy narrative. It’s the 1930s and the deserts of the Arab world are being terrorised by Nazis and necromantic cultists. Only a band of international adventurers (and their trusty jeep) can save everyone from catastrophe.
You start by picking your starting pair of heroes and loading them up with the equipment they’ll need in the desert, such as fuel and bandages (and you know, a prototype disintegrator gun). After that, you’re placed on a board game-esque map, where your adventure is procedurally generated.
Take a trip down to the next encounter area, and you might uncover a mysterious obelisk, or a Nazi excavation party, or an oasis to rest in, or a horde of murderous zombies, or a helpful trader, amongst many other possibilities.
In translating Indiana Jones to a mash-up of XCOM and The Binding of Isaac, developer Robotality has captured the essence of what Spielberg’s pulp adventure films were really all about. It’s risk.
The Nazis and cultists are risking playing with powers beyond their understanding, while the heroes are risking their lives trying to stop them. But in Pathway, it goes deeper. The game’s moment-to-moment gameplay is filled with constant risk.
Should you explore the forbidding pyramid, or leave it well off alone? Should you engage a group of Nazis rounding up villagers for execution, or would it be more prudent to make off while they’re distracted? Should you make a quick run for your goal, or should you take the long way around to find a trader or a helpful comrade?
And I haven’t even mentioned the risky turn-based battles. There, every action you take, be it taking cover behind a wall, or knifing an attack dog, or choosing who to spend your precious bullet on; risk abounds.
Pathway being a roguelike game, you stand to lose your progress if you fail. The game’s five adventures each last about a couple hours (except the first, which is shorter), so you don’t lose a lot of time. Just enough to make you regret it.
It’s not all in vain, though—the items and loot you picked up stay in your jeep, ready to use for the next band of heroes. Characters also retain their gained experience and upgrades, so you’re always making progress even if your adventure fails. You can also unlock new characters in The Binding of Isaac style, by completing specific achievements over the course of the game.
It’s the nature of a roguelike to dish out good runs and bad runs, but Pathway ensures that even when a good run turns sour, you’ll always have something to show for it.
This mix of constantly having both tangible gains and losses made Pathway an alluring play that kept me coming back for more. Not unlike Civilization, I couldn’t resist the ‘one more turn’ appeal of progressing from one area to the next, just to find out what’s in store. No matter whether you’ve just started a session or have been playing for hours, your goal always feels tantalisingly close.
Even the battles are designed to be played in one go, and they’re so brief that even the exceptionally lengthy encounters don’t last more than 10 minutes.
The tightly designed combat of Pathway will be intuitive to veterans of games like XCOM. You place your adventurers behind various levels of cover, and you make use of movement and attack ranges to outmanoeuvre and outflank your enemies.
It’s simple enough that the game doesn’t need to spell out things with a tutorial, and yet the game offers a balanced sense of challenge that favours thought-out positioning. Even if the enemies of Pathway may not stand a chance against you in a duel, they intelligently flank around you and retreat when prudent.
Convincingly enough for a game that’s trying to emulate pulp adventures, you must balance your cocky, impulse-driven decisions with more nuanced strategy. The game succeeds in making you feel so powerful that even when vastly outnumbered, you would chalk up your defeats to poor strategy, rather than poor odds.
Furthermore, your characters have special abilities that they gain based on the equipment they have on (and not, interestingly, on their character upgrades).
These special abilities are crucial to making the game what it is, seeing as they’re the element responsible for turning your pawns into heroes. My personal favourite? The Russian doctor Natalya, who started out as a weak healer, but with steady upgrades and a powerful weapon, became my default protagonist, so to speak.
Revelling in the emergent storytelling of a turn-based battle is one of my favourite things in video games, and Pathway does not disappoint in that respect. Even though the characters have barely any dialogue (and most of it is functional anyway), I quickly attributed traits and personalities to them based on how I’d used them in battle.
Natalya became my cool-headed protagonist, the ‘big sister’ of the team who used her Double Shot ability to pick off strong enemies in an instant. American scientist Bellamy started off as a bumbling professor, but by the end of the game, he was a madly powerful and seasoned sniper. Arab prince Omar was my gregarious jack-of-all-trades, lobbing grenades, blasting away with his shotgun, and making risky attacks that others wouldn’t.
Pathway’s difficulty is unpredictable, which is a by-product of its roguelike design. A couple of campaigns were easy enough that I beat them in one go each. On the other hand, two other campaigns required me to try several times over.
The final campaign proved to be a particular pain, as by this point, I’d juiced out most of what the game had to offer. Ultimately, I settled on changing the difficulty to favour me (and it still took me a couple of tries).
Losing in Pathway is never devastating or frustrating, though. There is rarely a single reason why your run will be trashed—it could be poor tactical choices, or poor luck on the story decisions, or maybe you ran out of fuel or ammo. Because there was no one thing to blame, I found myself convinced that I was going to clinch it in the next run.
Before closing this review, I’ll concede that Pathway can get dull if you play it as a ‘main course’ game. What I mean is, it doesn’t strike me as the sort of game you should start and then stick to until it wraps up. Instead, it’s more of a delightfully crispy snack that’s best played with liberal breaks.
Whether it’s the allure of recruiting a new teammate or uncovering lost treasures in ancient tombs, there’s always something to expect when you play Pathway. It’s this irresistible allure that makes the game quite akin to the exotic treasures it revolves around. Whether it ends celebration or disappointment, you’re in for a heck of an adventure.
Country of Origin: Germany
Release Date: 11 April 2019 (PC, Mac, Linux)
This review of Pathway is based on a copy provided by the publisher.
For more information on Pathway, have a look at our coverage of the game.