A game like The Path refuses to be easily reviewed. It scoffs at all the conventions and benchmarks most games are measured by, and goes completely against the grain of everything you would expect from a game. It’s a game that intentionally breaks all of the rules, and has to be entirely considered on its own terms. This leads to a rather insecure review, because almost every one of the game’s fault seem less like unwise mistakes and more like intentional, reasoned design choices, that maybe all those criticisms you plan to level against the game are actually features the developers implemented to make an artistic statement. And it’s nearly impossible to give it any sort of numerical score because it is almost two different games: a frustrating, bland test of patience on the one hand, and a brilliant, beautiful and unnerving interactive experience on the other. You really can’t dislike it too much, because underneath all of those criticisms and irritations you know that The Path is doing something wildly different, and even if it doesn’t always work, it shows you a potential in games you never knew existed.
The Path, released earlier this year from Belgian auteurs Tale of Tales, is a “short horror game” based on early versions of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s worth mentioning that, like those early stories, this game is rated M, and really should be kept away from the little ones. The set-up is rather simple: when the game loads, we see an apartment of six girls. They vary in age (nine through nineteen) and personality (Goth, youthful, come-hither) and all have names keying off the color red (Ruby, Robin, Carmen). You select a girl, and then after two long loading screens, we see the chosen girl deposited in the middle of a forest, where the street dissolves into dirt trail. As we take control of her, we are told by big yellow letters to “Go to Grandmother’s House. And Stay On the Path!”
However, if you go straight to grandmother’s house, you’re treated to a results screen which tells you that you’ve failed, and are sent back to the apartment to try again. Really, the game wants you to leave the trail and enter the surrounding forest, to wander around, gathering items you find before ultimately encountering a “wolf,” a representation of… something or other. After encountering the wolf, the girl is deposited back on the path, with the environment much changed, and they hobble into grandmother’s house, where they are now treated to some of the most unnerving, frightening and heartbreaking nightmare trips you have ever played. This cannot be stressed enough: each girl’s wolf encounter and journey through grandmother’s house are some of the most remarkable pieces of game storytelling you’ve never played, and all of game’s other faults are worth suffering through just to experience some of them.
The problem with The Path is that it does have flaws and, artistic statements or not, they can make the game incredibly un-fun to play. Getting to the its high points is a long, dull, uphill slog through boring areas and regrettable design choices, and most people will probably decide it’s simply not worth the effort and power the game down just before they find what makes it really special and worthwhile.
You really don’t have to wait much time to encounter the game’s biggest flaw, as it waits for you the second you leave the path: the forest itself. While it looks atmospheric and interesting from the outside, when you actually enter it you quickly realize that it is all the exact same five-foot-square clump of trees and foliage tiled on to infinity; as soon as you hit one edge of the map you simply loop back around to the opposite side, Pac-Man style. On paper, this sounds like a clever way to provide a real sense of space to the game, and it would be a great mechanic, so long as the forest was easy to navigate and/or filled to the brink with striking, imaginative set-pieces. Neither of these conditions are met: the immense forest has only eight recognizable areas in a sea of a murk and doom-gloom, six of which are already used for wolf encounters. When set against the massive expanse of trees, all of the items stranded in the middle of nowhere (which really are worth picking up) are remarkably small and uninteresting, being both easy to miss and, on the whole, not particularly interesting when they are found.
The issue of missing items and, by association, getting lost in a patch of woods with nothing to do, is most easily linked to what may be the game’s second-biggest design mistake: its running mechanic. Each of the girls walk at about the rate snails dissolve, and thus you’ll probably want to hurry up and cover some ground after a few minutes of fruitless wandering. However, as soon as you start to run, the camera tilts up to almost high-noon above your character, at an angle commonly used for desperate chases and the like, and while it would be great if you were ever chased by anything, you never are. Instead, what is at first striking soon becomes frustrating: your visibility is so restricted it becomes impossible to see anything unless you run smack into it. As an added bonus, it often leaves you wandering in circles before the game’s only form of map (an un-landmarked trail that appears every 100 meters showing your progress) pulls up to show you how stupid you’ve been for the past fifteen minutes.
To its credit, the game does try to help you along with a variety of symbols that flicker onto your screen, but because it’s all so cryptic and obscure you’re never certain how much of it is there to be helpful and how much of it is just to look artsy. Allegedly, a more detailed map unlocks when you go through the game a second time, but it still won’t pull up for me no matter what I press. And really, once a player figures what all the scratches and symbols mean after hours of playtime (or after they check a FAQ), doesn’t that mean they’re already a fan, or at least someone dead-set on getting their money’s worth out of the game? Rather than sucking people in, it seems to set an almost confrontational tone that will drive most people away. Put simply, it’s an unnecessary hurdle to leap, and the game would have been remarkably better if the forest had only been shrunk or made easier to navigate.
A few other quibbles: the graphics fail to inspire during the majority of the game; after a while you start to realize that all the post-process frills and muddy gloom are just covering up jaggy models, and the game’s Killer 7-esque art direction could have been interesting, but it rarely to shows much imagination. It doesn’t take long before you get the uncomfortable feeling that all the developer’s time and creativity went into making the last few minutes of playtime as striking as possible, but when it came time to fill up the hour or two beforehand, the idea barrel was down to the dregs.
There are other issues that could deserve a mention (like the game’s occasionally-buggy programming, and its unshakable feeling of “aren’t we special” pretention that underlies some of its most frustrating design choices) but it all starts to miss the point. Everything comes down to is this: no matter how frustrating it can be to play, The Path is still worth every penny, just for the sheer uniqueness of it all. While it lacks polish, and it’s rarely anything like fun, it is something that fearlessly goes where most other games have never even considered treading; experimental games like this are so thin on the ground they’re worth supporting every time they pop up, just to see what the next one will be like. If you don’t like The Path, then you only spent ten dollars. And if you do like it, then it could well be one of your favorite games of the year.