When was the last time you put on your fedora and leather jacket? A long time ago, I’ll bet. Archeological adventures have become so rare that we are stuck to a few very well known names. The most famous of all is Indiana Jones, of course. In the gaming world, he’s quickly followed by Lara Croft and Nathan Drake. And… that’s it. So it’s a refreshing welcome when a developer tries a new approach to this particular genre. This is what Robotality set out to do.
Pathway greets you in a grandiose style with an image reminiscent of the kind of adventure Jones would be up to: a couple of intrepid travellers looking on across the desert at some ruins, and a cadaverous cloud above warning of the perils ahead. The music builds up with rhythmic violins and a powerful brass section providing an optimistic and confident melody in the face of adversity. Gavin Harrison has made an excellent job of capturing that thrill-seeking music that archeologists (and gamers!) long for.
The Pathway logo descends, coloured in those memorable reddish yellow tones that fill “Indiana Jones” on movie posters, with a cleverly designed “H” illuminating a silhouette gazing back at it, wondering what incredible discoveries lie beyond. The year is 1936. Nazis are searching for powerful artifacts in the Middle East in an effort to draw on their mystical powers to take over Europe. The year is also 2019. Robotality tries to draw on the legendary work of mythical archeologists to create thrilling adventures. Can Pathway live up to Dr. Jones’ or Miss Crofts’ legacies? Or is it destined to crumble to dust, forgotten amongst the ruins of failed games?
To find out, we open a notebook where we can select a mission and team. On your adventures, you manage a team of up to four people, each with their specific skill-sets. Some are snipers, others mechanics with a twitchy finger, doctors to patch you up, and even a rogue scientist type who zaps Nazis with energy rifles! Once a team and its gear are set, you fly out to your starting point, with a red line tracing its way to your destination - very reminiscent of Indy’s own travels.
You move around through a series of connected nodes on a map, mainly on a jeep - unless you run out of fuel! At every stop, you find yourself faced with a random event. These can be as benign as coming across a lonely palm tree in the middle of the desert, to being ambushed by Mauser totting Germans with a Nazi temperament. Sometimes you’ll find a trading or resting camp, and these are very welcome changes of pace from the dangers of the desert, allowing you to replenish resources, recover health and repair armour. I find myself always looking out for these and plan my moves around these peaceful oases in case things go sour.
Sometimes things do go wrong. You may even accidentally raise the undead from their long forgotten tombs! In fact you will have to fight your way out of situations, and this is where the 4X strategy view comes in. You have a limited space in which to deploy your gang. This is followed by ducking behind old ruins, shooting enemies, reloading rifles, occasionally stabbing them, and healing wounds.
As your journey progresses, the RPG elements of the game come through as you choose which skills each team member will gain. These are usually related to the characters’ core traits. For example, Miguel uses grenades, and has the option to upgrade his pineapple-tossing skills at levels three and six. Likewise, you find increasingly better armour or weapons as the missions get harder. With some careful planning, you can create some powerful combination of gear and talents for your teams.
In reality, Pathway is a cross between an adventure, an RPG, and a 4X strategy, set in an Indiana Jonesesque world. This is an ambitious attempt, especially from a small indie studio like Robotality. There are many parts that need to connect to make all of these themes work together. The concept is good, but unfortunately they don’t quite seem to pull it off.
The main area where every player would want to show off their adventurer skills is in the 4X strategy view. But this has a few problems of it’s own. Apart from a rare bug where foes get replicated, fighting is effectively restricted to taking cover and firing shots. Grenades and knives have occasional uses, but mechanics from other games in the genre would make the action more dynamic. Skills like Overwatch (from XCOM) alone would offer a greater range of options. The same goes for the weapons themselves. Despite there being guns, rifles, and energy weapons, their differences are only measured in range and damage output. As it is, you’ll find yourself mostly moving towards the enemy behind cover and opening fire. It would also have been great to have a rotating camera to get a clearer view of the terrain.
The difficulty levels don’t really add much except more life and armour to enemies. Once you figure out a strategy on how to deal with them, it’ll work every time. On the other hand you will find it harder to manage resources, as fuel and ammunition will be harder to find.
The other major problem I have with Pathway is it’s bland characters. As an RPG with an adventure flavour, you’d expect them to have real personality traits. They don’t interact with each other, nor picking one over the other impact the story in any way. As such, players won’t have any emotional connection to the characters and will merely see them as names on a sheet with some skills.
For all its flaws, it does have some nice changes to the traditional RNG aspect. The ability to adjust difficulty levels and persistence of items and characters brings a level of security that rewards taking risks while also holding the player accountable to bad planning. Where aesthetics are concerned, the music and graphic styles fit the game perfectly. Robotality has done innovative work with Magic Voxel to render 16-bit pixel art with realistic lighting and dynamic shadows we haven’t seen before in 3D pixel games.
In all, it’s an enjoyable game that leaves you longing for a bit more depth and complexity. I find they invested too much on Indiana Jones references and not enough on perfecting gameplay. So while it may feel like it’s a missed opportunity at a great concept, it may yet turn out to be a real gem as Robotality has stated it will continue to update and expand on Pathway. With a bit of luck, it won’t end up a long forgotten relic, lost in a dark corner of the gaming world.
Pathway (Reviewed on Windows)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
An enjoyable game that leaves you longing for a bit more depth and complexity. While it may feel like it’s a missed opportunity at a great concept, it may yet turn out to be a real gem.