When I first got into PC gaming I was in the midst of a “games are art” hype and had long kept my eyes on the Belgian horror game The Path. It was a game that fascinated me deeply and was one of the first purchases I made on Steam. However, I also recall not actually playing it much. Today marked the first time I reinstalled the game since first buying it, and I quickly figured out why I left it to gather dust to begin with.
Destined to die
The game is a strange spin on the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood. Players are asked to pick between one of six girls, each differing in age and personality. That girl is tasked with delivering some goods to grandma, who lives in a little house out in the forest. You are dropped off by car and given the very simple instruction to not stray from the path. Of course, that is exactly what you do.
The story of the game develops as you wander the woods and find various items, which prompt commentary from your character. Not every sister can take every item and, to be honest, it is interesting to see what every girl will do out in the woods. One, for example, can spray paint on a random wall, whereas another girl will find a syringe out in the woods and take it along, believing it to be medicine for a sick person. It’s interesting, yet kind of ruined by the pseudo-poetic writing. Finding certain places and interacting with these items will give you a mysterious paragraph of text, which often just sounds meaningless or entirely out-of-character. The actions speak louder than words and some of the comments aren’t as bad, but it often feels like somebody on the team was desperate to cram in some “wisdom” to make it feel more special.
The story of each girl can conclude in various ways depending on how you finish it. If you follow the rules and just go to grandma’s house or if you go there after playing around in the woods for a bit, the ending is pretty tame and you are booted back to the character select to repeat your process. If you discover “the wolf” out in the woods, the location and form of which varies depending on the character, you get a whole different ending and that character is then lost.
There is a lot of symbolism going on here and players are largely allowed to draw their own conclusions. I just find it bemusing to imagine a mother just repeatedly sending her children out into the woods no matter how many of them turn up dead. The groceries must be delivered!
Story score: 6.5/10
Here? Here? Maybe here?
The Path is largely exploration-driven, as players are set free to wander the forest and go to grandmother’s house whenever they please. A girl in white is often seen looking around and she can guide those who get lost back to the path. However, if you are stubborn, her help can be declined and you can continue to wander in search of items or the wolf.
Because that is the key objective. Simply going to grandmother’s house feels like a game over, as you are kicked back to the start without making any apparent progress. Finding the wolf and (presumably) getting killed changes the game and leads to a final event that acts as a conclusion. The problem is that the game is a little too good at making you feel lost in a spooky forest.
Everything quickly starts to kind of look the same and places that can act as landmarks are few and far between. Even when I thought I was doing well, I’d sometimes find that my exploration had me looping in on myself and arriving back at the road. The game claims to have a map that should show when pressing Ctrl, but that does nothing. It does sometimes pop-up a graphic on the sides of the screen, which can lead you back to landmarks you have previously found, but that’s it.
The lack of a map is actually quite a bother, however, as it makes finding all the objects an absolute chore. Every once in a while, a map will suddenly appear for a moment showing how you moved across the forest. This is a set event and not something you can call up anytime you actually need it. The game also desperately wants you to take your time and walk around slowly. If you choose to run, the camera will pan upwards and the screen will darken, which is incredibly frustrating. Many times I would finally spot something on the horizon, start running towards it, only to have lost it when I had to stop for a moment to snap the camera back behind my character.
Depending on how you luck out, you might find the wolf inside 10 minutes or it might take literal hours. The game is the most fun when it takes a bit of time and you find some of the items along the way, but since you don’t have a map and the camera is this obnoxious, there is no guarantee that you’ll find this middle ground.
Gameplay score: 5/10
Headache, eyestrain, music
The Path looks like utter rubbish and that is an awkward problem to have for an art game. The character models look bad and occupy an uncomfortable spot in the uncanny valley, which isn’t helped by the game’s tendency to superimpose pictures of their faces across the screen whenever you find an item belonging to another girl. The animations aren’t bad and the forest actually looks amazing. I love wandering around this place and the music score is fantastic. I used to listen to the OST all the time while working, it’s so darn good.
On top of the models not being the nicest, I can never seem to play the game for a long amount of time. It throws a lot of filters, bloom, and superimposed images at you, and the general dark, misty nature of the forest already forces you to focus your eyes a lot. It’s a busy game and every time I finished one chapter, I just had to take a break because my head and eyes would hurt.
Presentation score: 4/10
The game can be completed by finishing each girl’s chapter by finding their respective wolf instead of visiting grandmother normally. This kicks off a final event to conclude the game.
As for extras, the game does encourage you to find every possible encounter and item, which it also grades you on after reaching grandmother’s house. Since you lose a girl after finishing the story with a wolf encounter, this is a one-time opportunity unless you restart the game. There are also 144 flowers to collect spread across the forest, except these don’t really do anything. Meanwhile, finding those elusive items actually extends the ending sequences of each girl by opening up additional rooms in grandmother’s house, making them worth seeking out.
Extras score: 6/10
I have to admit that The Path is an art game in the worst way possible. Games are art, such is a fact, but this is one that seeks to prove its artistic status with obtuse game-design, mysterious writing that often feels meaningless, and fancy imagery that causes eyestrain during prolonged play. It has its value, but few people should feel forced to rush out and get it.
- A cool, spooky forest to explore.
- The music is darn good.
- It’s fun to see what you can find in the forest and what each girl does with it.
- The busy visuals cause eyestrain.
- It’s possible that you wind up lost for hours.
- The camera behaves poorly.
- The writing comes of as pretentious.