Initial release: April 11, 2019
Platform: PC, Switch
Strategy games have had a lot of themes over the years. Everything from alien invasions to zombie apocalypses, with historical warfare and civilization-building in between. But a two-fisted-tales style game in the vein of Indiana Jones? That’s new. From the German outfit behind the adorably pixelated sci-fi RPG Halfway, Pathway is a continuation of the style that Halfway gave us, a delightfully chunky look that evokes jRPGs of the SNES era while being of higher fidelity.
The plot is pretty whatever — across the course of the game you’ll be trekking across the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, facing off against Nazis and cultists as you try to uncover archaeological secrets before they do. Gameplay is an interesting mix of FTL and XCOM, mixing the map and randomized events of FTL with a turn-based, grid-based strategy layer for combat sequences. It’s a unique combo, and one that I’d like to see more of, especially since I tend to like FTL in theory more than in practice.
The game ships with five adventures, though when you start, only one is available, each one unlocking in turn. Selecting an adventure and difficulty brings you to the adventurer’s roster, where you pick three adventurers (you can get a 4th one during the adventure.) Most adventurers are locked, limiting you to a small initial selection such as a direct Indiana Jones knockoff, a Russian scientist and a Spanish anti-fascist. Others can be unlocked through certain actions, like a Vatican sniper is unlocked when you kill enough zombies.
While it quite frankly would be awesome if you could build a larger party to make better use of some of these characters, with the three-character limit (and a randomized 4th out of those you have unlocked) you’re forced to make some hard choices. It helps that in general, the five adventures that ship with the game are fairly predictable in what you’ll face; Nazis make up most of the early enemies, whereas they begin to be replaced by cultists and zombies, so if you know which adventure focuses on what you can plan ahead.
Most of the game is made up of hard choices, really: what route to take, what action to take during an event, placing your characters in combat. It’s not brutally unfair, usually, but making bad choices could ruin a run, putting your characters out of commission for a while. It’s honestly not a terribly long game either; you can get through most of the adventures in an hour or so if you avoid combat. Sometimes combat is unavoidable, however, and you’re always at a slight disadvantage when that happens. Unfortunately it’s not terribly robust, either. With only two enemy factions it starts to get boring after a while; while there’s lots of randomized events, many of them are similar, and you’ll sometimes see the same battlefield twice.
Combat is surprisingly simplistic in some ways, in other ways it feels like the game doesn’t do enough to explain the mechanics. A big one is how cover works; with three levels of cover, each one lowers the percentage of a chance of hitting the target in cover. You can of course flank them, but it’s not always clear where their flank actually is. the game attempts to remedy this when moving a character by showing you the to-hit-chance of hitting an enemy from whatever spot you highlight, but it still seems weirdly arbitrary. The “bravery” system is also fairly poorly explained, in part because so many different abilities require bravery and some of them are tied to items you wear, such as “low profile” being only available to those wearing light or medium armor. In practice, “bravery” functions as a sort of extremely limited magic points, where you can spend bravery for specific skills, such as using a pistol to shoot two targets at once, or firing an energy weapon to hit all targets in a straight line.
The fact that there’s only five campaigns and they’re all so short, plus the extremely limited party size, means that if you want to make the most of this game, you’ll wind up grinding away at the same shit over and over with different characters. That’s kind of the core issue of the game: a decently solid combat layer isn’t really enough to justify a frustratingly anemic exploration layer. Locking characters behind achievements is also a frustrating decision that makes the prospect of replaying seem not worth it.
The most I can say this game has going for it is the soundtrack is absolutely spot on; it’s the most John Williams thing since John Williams, and the main theme is almost like an alternate universe version of the Indiana Jones theme. It’s masterful, and I love it.
Don’t get me wrong, there is fun to be had in this game, but like many games that build on principles of roguelike game design, it’s best experienced in short bursts, something to pass the time while you’re waiting for something better to do.