Pathway is, more than a strategy game or an RPG, a run-based procedural adventure game. You lead a crew of up to four adventurers on a road trip across the desert, charting their path by moving their jeep from node to node on a large and relatively plain game-board-like map. Each node presents a flavorful text-based scenario that generally leads to a handful of options, like giving or taking resources, presenting a tactical choice, or combat (some of which is optional and some mandatory), which plays out in turn-based tactical battles on a grid.
This is where Pathway gets really interesting and starts to fall apart all at once.
This is where Pathway gets really interesting and starts to fall apart all at once. Almost every step of each journey is randomized to some degree. The tactical maps and the scenes they offer are procedurally generated; when you’re presented with a choice, such as whether to sneak into a Nazi campsite and steal supplies rather than just fight, the results are decided with a dice roll. The emphasis on randomization keeps each scenario exciting even if you’ve seen it before, as you can’t ever memorize how to handle them.
But that level of randomization goes a little too far, as it’s all too possible to run out of gas by virtue of a few bad dice rolls early on, through no fault of your own. Wisely, Pathway gives you a way to avoid this: In addition to the varying difficulties of each campaign, there are two difficulty sliders — one that makes enemies weaker, and a second that lets you start with more gas and ammo. While it takes a little bit of drama out of crossing the desert, I found that starting with extra resources offset the frustration that arose the few times fate left me high and dry.
To maximize its variability, Pathway’s story is broken up into smaller chunks that give you more options from run to run. You choose one of five campaigns at the outset, each of which has a setup that’s loosely based on popular movies set in the period. One is essentially a retread of Raiders of the Lost Ark; another sounds very similar to the 1999 action movie version of The Mummy. No matter what you do, the functional task is the same: Race the Nazis and/or an ancient, zombie-loving cult across the desert to save… something. The stories are basically inconsequential, as you only hear about the plot a few, very brief snippets.
While that tracks — most of my battles only lasted a few minutes — the fights don’t feel all that tactical. Each character gets a couple of special abilities based on their equipment and every weapon type and most armors confer a special combat action, which is powered by Bravery points you earn every time you use a standard attack. Many of those abilities give you more firepower — both shotguns and assault rifles have special attacks that let you shoot groups of enemies, for example — rather than a tactical advantage that will allow you change AI patterns and “control” the battle. Without many options for defense or deterring mobility, most fights really boil down to who can outflank the other and pull the trigger fastest.
Also, win or lose, any characters who die on your journey have to sit out your next run, unless you pay your persistent currency to expedite their recovery. That system has advantages and disadvantages: On the one hand, it deftly pushes you to use and build up all of your characters instead of focusing on a chosen few, especially in the early going when you only have a handful of choices. They differ enough that each starting pair has their own appeal. On the other, it sets a meandering pace, especially as you’re working through the campaigns for the first time. If you see one specific duo as your A-team, using other characters every other round feels like a waste of time.
Pathway is a small game with big ideas. Sometimes that makes for an excellent adventure, but in this case the two feel out of sync. There are a few outstanding big-picture ideas, like the concept of a procedural road trip with survival mechanics and the thought to blend roguelite elements with tactical-RPG combat: Those ideas really shine when you first start playing, but it becomes very clear over time that each of its core components needs more depth to be as replayable as the games it takes inspiration from. Like bubble gum that loses its flavor, you can keep chewing on Pathway as long as it makes you happy, but that rush you enjoyed when you first unwrapped it isn’t coming back no matter how hard you grind.
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