Elevating a classic
I had tried several times in the past to play Pathologic. The game intrigued me ever since I saw a live stream of it being played by one of the YouTube personalities I follow. Finding a digital copy for the bargain price of 5$, I dove right in… Then ran straight out.
I really tried! Not once or twice but several times! I went so far as to resort to cheating and yet the game was so obtuse and clunky that I was forced to give up. After playing Pathologic 2 though, I can finally appreciate the story and ideas that the original attempted to convey.
Lets not mince words. Pathologic 2 is a remake of Pathologic. While the graphics had been greatly improved, the mechanics polished and the dialogues actually translated into English instead of being fed to a woodchipper this time around, it still follows the original game’s story.
Pathologic 2 doesn’t try to hide it either. The game revels in it! The game starts in a theater where you meet with the director who tells you just how much of a disaster the first show was. Yet against common sense he decides the play should have a second run in the hope things would go better this time. This is how the game drops you into the heart of things.
So what is Pathologic 2? On the surface its a survival horror game in which the player is thrust into the shoes of the Haruspex, a man looking to find his father’s killer. However, things quickly go awry when a mysterious and deadly disease grips the town, complicating his quest for revenge. Are the plague and his father’s death connected? What is the plague itself; just a terrible malady, the work of an ancient steppe deity or perhaps a being in its own right?
Well none of this matters because the entire game is a play, or perhaps it is real? Is the player character merely an actor fulfilling a role or a real person going through this hell? The game doesn’t give simple answers, instead constantly blurring the lines between the real and the surreal, and I love it all the more for that.
By now you, the reader, are utterly confused so let me set a few things straight. First and foremost, the game is a first person survival horror game as stated before. The player character is a local man sent to the capital city to study surgery before returning home on behest of his father only to find him murdered. The era and location are nebulous but seems to be turn of the 20th century Russian steppe.
Secondly, the game is truly horrifying in a good sense. The horror itself comes not from jump scares or hideous monsters but from the excellent atmosphere and the human condition. From the start the town feels wrong on several levels and as the plague ravages it, it only distorts further. Seeing cold streets turn moldy red and strewn with corpses where bandaged figures roam around begging for mercy amid clouds of disease carrying flies is enough to cause the bravest of persons to leg it.
The horror only deepens as the death toll rises and all modern medicine seem ineffective in the face of it all. It is this existential horror which the game conveys so well, the powerlessness when confronted by something so monstrous yet so mundane as a simple disease. Worst yet, seeing the town itself descend into bloodshed and chaos as services break down and the desperate survivors fight for what few crumbs of food can be found. Truly chilling.
Of course, the disease itself might not be so straightforward as a germ, but possibly has a mind, not to mention a voice, of its own! As the player tries to unravel the mystery of the plague while pursuing revenge, they may unravel the reality surrounding this strange town as well. I was drawn into the strangeness that is the world of Pathologic 2 in a way that very few horror games managed before (Dead Space and Silent Hill are the only comparisons that come to mind).
The second part of survival horror is well, survival. The player has certain stats they must maintain which affect various aspects of their character. Thirst, fatigue, stamina, hunger, health and immunity/infection. Most of this is pretty straightforward. You need to eat in intervals, sleep when too tired and drink to replenish thirst. Health is a given, if you are too sick or in combat you may lose health and need medical supplies and sleep to regain it. Stamina can be depleted in combat or by running and if your thirst is too high you will have less of it. Of course there are plenty of items that can affect one or several stats both positively and negatively so experimenting is always nice.
However in truth Pathologic 2 is not just a survival horror game, but a survival barter horror game. Yes, the major mechanic in the game is trade with non player characters. In fact, trading items is a whole complex economy of its own with various characters having unique items found on them. Each character will require different items in return and values differ between them. The entire system hinges on reputation and “favor” which is the “worth” of items being traded between a player and a non player character. A street urchin may have an egg that will cost you four favors but will only assign value to needles or beetles. While money does exist in the Pathologic 2 universe and there are official shops, not all items can be easily bought and cash is hard to come by. As the plague spreads through the town, shortages also occur, not to mention price increases. Thus bartering is the heart and soul of Pathologic 2 and you’ll be doing an awful lot of it in order to survive.
Reputation is important in Pathologic 2. There are plenty of ways to earn and lose it. The importance of reputation is for the barter system and ease of movement. Trade things more favorably with characters, heal or at least treat the sick and fix water pumps will all gain you reputation which means people will trade with you more readily. Kill the sick, commit burglary or go too far in combat and you lose reputation which will cause people to flee from you or attack you outright. Reputation is often localized and you can see how good (or bad) it is on the map. Its quite easy to believe you’d play a benevolent role until plague infected victims rush you or you are out of food and money and that house down the road probably has both…
There is combat in Pathologic 2, which is not surprising considering it was a feature in its predecessor. This time though, it feels a lot better and less frustrating than in the original. Its still a basic system of click to punch, hold for stronger punch/guard break, right click to guard yourself and regenerate stamina which is needed for attacks. Hit detection is far better than the original and I can say that its functional and easy to master. Of course you may be tempted to just sod it and use firearms. That said, guns require aiming, are slow to reload and may jam as their condition deteriorates with usage. Switching from guns to melee isn’t the smoothest either and most enemies in the game are melee focused.
The real enemy in the game though, is time. The player has only 12 in-game days, 11 considering the last day serves as an epilogue. Many events are specific to certain dates and hours and if missed will affect the overall story. Worse yet, as the game progresses, time seems to speed up, meaning you have even less of it than before to complete certain tasks. This makes managing your time an important factor of gameplay. In fact you’d often be presented with a choice since you can’t be at all places at once and navigating the town takes more time. What do you prioritizeL Finding your father’s killer? Devoting time to the hospital? Working on the cure? Each choice carries its own rewards and pitfalls, yet all further the story along.
Speaking of the story, the player will be locked in a struggle with the plague in order to complete it. Major characters can contract the plague and die of it, meaning you can fail the game if the disease kills important characters. That said if you save enough characters, or certain characters, the story can proceed. As before, time management and choice are everything in Pathologic 2, including who to save.
I want to talk more about the setting. As stated before, the game takes place in what looks like turn of the 20th century Russian town in the steppe. The town itself is a mix of modernity and tradition. The major export of the town is meat, in particular beef which also plays a part in the beliefs and traditions of the locals. The town itself is divided between the more modern, forward looking city folk and the steppe people who favor tradition. All of this has significant meaning in the game.
The game doesn’t just copy pastes buildings for no reason. While there are a few landmarks with unique appearances, much of the town looks the same. In most games its just to give a sense of scale for the player. Pathologic 2 actually gives an in-universe reason for it. This is a game of meta narratives, and the town’s size and shape is another part in the puzzle. After all, the town and its inhabitants are intrinsically (a word I always wanted to use) connected.
Without trying to sound pretentious, a major theme of the game is a clash between ideas. Between the modern town folk and the traditional steppe people. Between superstition and reason, belief and logic and so forth. The player character exemplifies this as well by being a person of two cultures. Born in the town but educated in the ways of the steppe people. Sent to the capital city to study surgery but still learned in the ways of herbal medicine and steppe faith.
This is of course, a huge lie. You are not the Haruspex, you are an actor and you are playing a part in a play. Because the second, and I’d say major, theme of the game is agency and choice. Is the Haruspex really choosing or are you the one making the choices? Is the Haruspex a master of his own fate or just a puppet, a mask worn by a performer and the entire game a play put for the benefit of an audience of one?
This is hardly a spoiler since as written before, the game boldfacedly tells you at the start that this is a theatrical production… Or perhaps not? What is true, what is false, who can say!? Indeed Pathologic 2 constantly makes you question the reality it presents to you, again in a good way. In fact, the theatrical motifs are present throughout the game. The theater lies at the center of town and every in-game night performs a piece that foreshadows future events or presents current ones in a different light. Mask wearing individuals can be seen and interacted with throughout the town, and all major characters seem to have one or more representing their inner selfs. Once the plague hits, the theater becomes a hospital and a morgue, the player encouraged to spend time there to earn rewards. The less said about the scary beak masked orderlies, the better…
Indeed, I could talk for days about the merits of Pathologic 2 and I wouldn’t get bored of it. That said, am certain the reader would by now so all you need to know is that Pathologic 2 is really really good and I recommend it even to people who are not that into horror.
The only complaint I heard and thought was somewhat justified was the fact this is basically just one of the three original stories from the previous game. That said it was long enough (took me nearly 40 hours to finish, though a more competent player would probably be done in around 20 hours) and the developers did state they will bring the other two stories perhaps in the form of downloadable content.
For players of the original, a few minor things worth mentioning. A fast travel system has been added, but it does cost time and items. The Haruspex can upgrade his wardrobe with items to increase carrying capacity, not to mention the ability to fix weapons and instruments by yourself. A whole system of diagnosing and treating the sick had been added. Sound design has been improved but still retains much of the original. As for the soundtrack, it is different but similar enough to the first game that it took me a while to realize the change. It is still pretty good.
Regardless, I came into the game with high expectations and was not disappointed. My game of the year. Its done, can’t be topped. 10/10.