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The Pathless
  • Composed by Austin Wintory
  • T-65b / 100m

From the makers of Abzu comes The Pathless, an action/adventure video game in which the player controls an archer whose task is to lift an ancient curse afflicting an island. It has received positive attention much like the studio’s previous effort (and several of the lead creative team had previously worked on Journey).

The composer for all three of the games is the great Austin Wintory – the previous two are amongst my favourite game music so he had a lot to live up to with this new score, which he worked on for three years. Journey and Abzu were such beautiful, contemplative works – quite transcendent listening experiences, both of them.

Austin Wintory

While certainly sharing some aural elements in common with them, The Pathless has a slightly different feel – there is a slightly greater focus on action this time, which impressively Wintory is able to add to the palette without sacrificing the plaintive beauty. There are some other additions to the mix too, including the Tuvan throat singing heard in the opening “None have returned” – which immediately presents the score’s earthy, at times almost medieval feel. The singing is courtesy of The Alash Ensemble, who also perform on traditional Tuvan instruments, and appear alongside a number of other soloists (many of whom also play exotic string and winds) and an orchestra

The brass and percussion when they come add what feels like an ancient energy – the sound has elements of the composer’s very popular The Banner Saga in certain ways, and it’s intriguing to hear him mixing the two up. There is frequently a really meditative quality to the score – “From the Antlers” a prime example, which essentially invites you to sit back and drift off somewhere in your imagination, as the best film (and indeed game) music does.

This is followed by the first big action track, “Cernos”, and while it features the sort of exciting string and brass writing you might expect from action music, alongside what sounds like an army of percussionists, it’s really quite striking how Wintory somehow manages to still make it sound so personal (as all of his best music is).

Interestingly, the composer uses a different main solo instrument for each of the different parts of the game world, each culminating in a big action sequence (the first being “Cernos”). With each of them coming from a different location in our real world, it brings a wonderful cultural mix to the sound, even as there are many other elements which are in common and therefore linking everything together.

I love the extremely intricate “Sauro”, with a double bass of all things (or perhaps its an exotic instrument I’m not clever enough to identify) providing a delicate, dance-like solo throughout, as all sorts of other forces rise and fall behind it including a great motif on the horns that also runs through the track. It ends with a calming passage for strings to bring closure to the sequence.

The strings also kick off the following piece, the very different “The Rain Infects All Waters”, which is shot through with a great sadness and again features some wonderful solos, this time winds. It’s such a beautiful piece. The sort of bucolic sound from earlier in the score makes its return in “The Plains”, but the piece soon becomes more expansive and features some wonderful string writing.

The well-assembled album continues much in this vein – rumination and contemplation leading up to big action set-pieces – until it nears its conclusion. The last minute or so of “Impetuous Beast” has a lovely feel like flowing water before the final action blowout comes in the lengthy “The Path to Salvation”, which has an epic feel especially when that now-familiar action motif from the horns takes the lead, but Wintory throws everything but the kitchen sink at it and it’s just great. Then comes a chance to wind down in the beautifully calm concluding song “A Land, which was Not My Own”.

Austin Wintory has written the finest video game music I’ve ever heard and The Pathless is another one to add into that category. It is remarkable how he has crafted something so broad in scope which remains so richly personal – emotionally deep, hugely evocative, exciting when it needs to be while remaining consistently beautiful. It’s absolutely as good as any film score I’ve heard in 2020, and without question is one of the albums of the year. Let’s hope the team is already working on their next game.

Rating: *****

Also see:
Journey Austin Wintory
Abzu Austin Wintory | |

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  1. Jack (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2020 at 21:30

    James (and anyone else reading this!), you should check out the additional album Austin released on his Bandcamp page called The Pathless: Meditations. Basically two hours of beautiful, introspective variations and explorations of the themes and motifs presented here (this album hits all the narrative beats in the story, but since it’s an open world game, there was a ton of exploration music that didn’t make the cut). Not quite as focused, but still incredible. Definitely well worth listening to — especially if you’re looking to relax.