Pathway review: Pulp fiction
- 02 May, 2019 09:23
For better or worse, I Initially couldn’t help but see the Robotality-developed Pathway as less of a follow-up to Halfway and more of encore to Wargroove. Maybe that's a little unfair. The latter is a tough act to follow.
Still, Both Pathway and Wargroove are published by Chucklefish. Both are top-down, 2D tactics games with visually rich themes and snappy gameplay loops. The similarities and symmetries are readily apparent.
However, after a few runs, it became clear to me that Pathway is as interested in the minutiae of tactics and strategy as it is critiquing the tropes of the archeological adventures it's trying to riff on - which is to say, not very.
Closer to a roguelike than Advance Wars, Pathway is a 2D tactics game that sprawls across genres and geographies but ultimately opts for the path of least resistance rather than forge one of its own.
Set in a pulpified vision of 1930s, each ‘adventure’ (akin to a run in something Spelunky) in Pathway sees you field a squad of plucky adventurers tasked with making their way from one end of the overworld map to the other. Along the way, you’ll fight nazis, encounter supernatural threats, raid tombs and become heroes to the local populace.
Each node on the overworld in Pathway represents an encounter. Sometimes these encounters involve combat - which can either be avoided or tackled head-on). Sometimes they’re an oasis - at which you can rest and heal your party. Sometimes they’re a skill check - either decided by your party’s stats or chance outright. Sometimes they’re a new party member - who you can recruit to your cause, assuming you have the required cash. And sometimes they’re a merchant you can trade with.
Robotality boast that the game has over 400 different encounters but, most of the time, the next node on your journey is gonna fit into one of these four broadly familiar archetypes.
And there is an art to how you navigate the overworld in Pathway. Each run sees you working with limited fuel, so going the completionist route and investigating every node on the map can be a dicey way to go. Generally, it’s about taking the opportunities that come your way and rolling the dice where it makes sense.
Regardless, I often found this aspect of the game a little hit or miss. Some runs I’d get a good mix of encounters. Others I’d hit a seemingly unending string of nodes without additional fuel - and go from a perfectly-good run to an irreparably doomed one in moments for no reason but poor luck.
It doesn’t help that Pathway is in dire need of better tutorialisation. The game is unafraid to dump you in the deep end and then waits for you to become frustrated enough to read through reams of rulebooks available via the in-game codex.
This Belongs In A Museum
Still, once you understand the way Pathway wants you to play, everything becomes a bit easier. Maybe too much so. It’s very stop-starty and often-times vertigo-inducing in terms of overall balance. Most maps are either way too easy - and they feel barely worth the loading screen you go through to get to them. Other times, you’ll get a combat encounter that feels startlingly and unfairly difficult.
And there are lots of little touches and minor conveniences that you’d find in games like Wargroove or X-COM that I found I conspicuously missing in Pathway. The game lacks any form of confirmation before committing, so I often accidentally made moves when I didn’t mean to. During combat, the game displays the range of enemy fire based on their current position - but doesn’t account for the fact that they can move, rendering the info more-or-less worthless. Win a battle and the game will prompt you to manually reload your party’s arsenal - something that should be automated.
There are lots of strange decisions here and Pathway often veers towards making things more complicated than they probably need to be whilst also oversimplifying the areas where it ought desire depth.
The combat loop in Pathway isn’t terrible - but it’s not great either. There’s a little bit of baseline diversity in how each character plays - but it never goes far enough. Characters can gain experience and leveling up does persist into subsequent adventures - but it’s always restricted to passive bonuses like a little bit of extra health or movement.
Of course, as fun as the pulpy adventure-ridden trappings of Pathway can be - it’s sometimes hard to reconcile that with the way it handles its source material. The thrilling daytime adventure of action archeologists like Indiana Jones and ilk don’t quite play as well these days as they used to - and, even if you are fighting Nazis every step of the way, the subtext that comes saddled to the theme in a way that sometimes undercuts the appeal. The way that Pathway handles this cultural baggage veers closer to revisionism than subversion - and while that's not an unforgivable sin, it's definitely a disappointment.
Still, Pathway does do some nifty things with regard to accessibility. You can toggle the difficulty of the enemies and the generosity of fuel if either aspect proves particularly frustrating than challenging - which is genuinely, really neat. Wargroove did the same and I wish more games would follow suit.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, I’m in two minds about Pathway.
There’s definitely some fun to be had here - or at least novelty in short bursts. However, the overall effect and appeal of Pathway ends up undercut at every-other turn. There’s always something to gripe about in this turn-based, procedurally-generated, node-to-node, adventure.
It feels like, no matter your tactical capabilities or accrued experience, Pathway works to pulls victory out from under you in a way that often feels unfair. I suspect the reason why is that while Pathway does a good job of linking its various aspects together, no individual component of the game ever as compelling as it ought to be - and the game knows that. It's the roguelike equivalent of an airport novel. Pulp fiction.
Live, die, try again - but don’t think about it too hard.
Pathway is available now on PC and Mac.