Pathways, by Conniption Entertainment, hearkens back to the days when all puzzle games included an easy-access “Restart Level” button. Pathways’ designers probably played many of these, because their game has one too–and unless you’re a true idiot savant (or other mathematical genius), you’ll grow very well acquainted with it over the course of the adventure. If that doesn’t frighten you off, and you tend towards mental masochism, like us, you will find Pathways to be a very playable and even somewhat charming puzzle experience that will last for hours and hours.
Pathways tells the story of two middle school buddies who blunder onto a massive underground network of mazes. One of the chums is captured by the proprietor of this horror show, and it’s up to the other boy (your character) to make his way through the catacombs and save him. The story unfolds during short cut-scenes that periodically appear between levels. These are kind of amusing in a geeky sort of way, but they need an additional proofread or two, because we noticed several typos. It’s nice to have them to spell your brain for a bit between exertions, though.
Make no mistake: this game will have your frontal lobe on tilt by the first 15 levels, and that’s basically just the tutorial. Pathways’ premise is actually very simple. All you need to do is cross from a level’s entrance to the level exit, in a way that eliminates all of the level’s target tiles by the time you get there. You sink a basic tile by walking over it a single time, but there are other types of tiles that take multiple walkovers to sink. There are also moving platforms, portals, and other fun stuff for the level designers to muck around with. It’s amazing to witness the kinds of challenges they’ve produced with these basic ingredients. Before long, passing levels requires complex circumnavigation through forests of tiles, with frequent stops to double-check that you aren’t about to maroon yourself or cut off an island of sinkable tiles. In a moment of kindness, the developer arranged to have the Restart button flash red to inform you that you’ve screwed things up irreversibly.
Pathways is deceptively easy to play. You move your guy a single square by tapping once in the direction you’d like him to go. That’s it for the game’s controls. The presentation isn’t great, but it’s clear to us that the developer put some effort into it nonetheless. The game cycles through a number of weirdly catchy MIDI tunes during play. The sprites and backgrounds are rudimentary, but they do the job, and the animation is solid. Your hero even falls asleep if you spend too long pondering your next move.
We’re not sure exactly how much entertainment Pathways is good for, since we are closer to Alpha Centauri than we are to beating this game, but the 75 levels should keep you occupied for a long, long time–this is exactly the kind of game FAQs and walkthroughs were made for, and we hope Conniption provides one eventually. In the meantime, if you’re the kind of person who likes to attack a problem until you figure it out, you will be getting a lot for your $1.99.