Blurring the Line: Pathologic – Staff Review

It has been rightly said that every book written represents the death of a perfect idea. This principle can easily be applied to video games, and perhaps none embody this like the obscure Russian first-person survival game Pathologic. With a haphazard English localization, a dated engine and very unforgiving gameplay, Pathologic lacks even the cult status to be salvaged from the bargain bin. The tragedy in this is that the game deserves a look by anyone who ever claimed to support the idea of video games as art, for few other games to date have been as bold, uncompromising and mature.

Set in an unspecified region of the Russian countryside, Pathologic tells the story of three visitors – a scientist, a surgeon and a spiritualist – to a nameless WWI-era town just prior to a plague outbreak. The infection forces a quarantine, trapping the three in the town. Though each has their own agenda, they are forced to confront the plague and contend with the town’s squabbling leaders, the growing number of infected, and even each other. After a short intro conversation between the three in a theater, in which they all petition the player to “untie their hands,” you have a choice of which character to play; the spiritualist (the Devotress) is locked until completion of either the scientist’s (the Bachelor) or surgeon’s (the Haruspicus) scenarios. The core plot and key events do not change from one character to another, but their scenarios cover very different points of view. You’ll get the gist of things from any one playthrough, but understanding who exactly did what and why may require more.

The game features a fairly straightforward FPS layout, with WASD and mouselook handling movement and aiming. Tab readies your weapon, number keys call up inventory (divided into four groups: equipment, food, medicine and miscellaneous), and various hotkeys bring up the map, status screen, objectives and letters you’ve received. You must survive twelve days in the town, and you have daily objectives which are delivered to you by letter. Some are necessary to advance the plot, develop a vaccine or save a key individual. Others are optional, netting extra supplies, weapons, and the like. Goals and destinations are helpfully tracked in your map and journal, and in general, it’s not difficult to figure out where you need to go and whom to talk to.

Bachelor, Haruspicus and Devotress; at odds, all vying for your favor.  Choose wisely, you'll be with them for a while.
Bachelor, Haruspicus and Devotress; at odds, all vying for your favor. Choose wisely, you’ll be with them for a while.

Where the game becomes challenging is the survival element. Staying healthy involves more than healing physical damage or using a tourniquet to stop bleeding. You have to eat periodically, you will require rest over time, and you’ll need medicine to help boost your immunity or, if you’re already infected, to keep the virus in check. You also have to maintain your reputation by treating the sick and fending off thieves and looters; if your reputation falls too low, shops won’t sell to you, quest givers will turn you away, and city guards may be ordered to take you down. Physical threats are rampant, with bandits and other hostile humans roaming the streets at night, while plague-ridden citizens will claw at you for help and diseased rats will slip by city cordons to spread the infection. Clouds of contaminant roam to and fro in sealed districts, and they appear to seek out the healthy within an infected house.

Scarce resources and the side effects of certain items can complicate matters. There are stores, but they won’t always carry everything you need, and money won’t exactly fall out of the sky. You can trade with others throughout town, but you won’t always have what they want. You may have to venture into an infected or abandoned home to do a bit of looting yourself, risking sickness or battling other thieves to acquire supplies. Healing items are rare, and if you’re not bleeding, the best way to heal is to take a sedative and get some solid rest. Immunity builders will weaken you, food and drink may tire you, and sleep robs you of precious time. You can always pound down some coffee to keep on your feet, or simply soldier on as your eyelids grow heavy, but your health and immunity will suffer as a result.

These mechanics work well enough, but it’s a complex system that is thrown at the player with no tutorial and little explanation. It’s very easy to find yourself sick, broke, and hungry if you’re not careful in managing your supplies. Equipment degrades fast and is expensive to repair. Commodity prices tend to shift wildly from day to day, depending on how bad things are in the streets. More annoying is combat on the whole, which is unpolished and less than responsive. Hit detection is poor; what might have been a clean headshot can sail right past an enemy. Bandits are annoyingly accurate with throwing knives, rats are hard to hit, and consider yourself in dire peril if two or more melee opponents get close enough to strike you.

Difficulty aside, the chief barrier to entry is a selectively shoddy English localization. Most characters are confusing at best in conversation, appearing to speak in a flowery, turn-of-the-century dialect that’s been crudely forced through Babelfish a few too many times. You can get a vague sense of what each speaker means and what they’re asking of you, but the majority of the game’s text – ranging from item descriptions to dialog to the very manual – borders on incomprehensible, with the occasional out-of-character contemporary slang sprinkled here or there. What makes this all the more strange is that some segments are translated properly. Certain characters get the point across just fine, map markers and objective summaries in the journal are perfectly legible, and the few bits of spoken dialog – such as the theater segments and the brief bits of speech from named NPCs – actually come off surprisingly well. Again the language is verbose and archaic, but in these cases, it suits the setting and requires little effort to understand. Most of the time however, the text comes off as superfluous and awkward.

Late in the game, the army shows up to restore order.  With violence.
Late in the game, the army shows up to restore order. With violence.

The final major issue is that the whole thing just looks and feels older than it actually is. NPC models repeat often, with only the occasional palette-swap to mix things up. The graphics are serviceable, but just barely; you can tell there is a skilled designer at work, but on its face the town and its inhabitants simply appear flat and monotonous. The limited draw distance even on a clear day speaks to the game’s true age. The HUD is respectably muted, with no ammo counter and health indicators which only appear when damage is taken. Animation is sparse, clipping issues are commonplace, the sound work is largely forgettable – though the music can be oddly memorable, with drawn-out, foreboding tones accompanied by industrial background noise and rhythmic bass effects – and the only technical saving grace is that the package is relatively stable and bug-free.

That’s a lot of ugly to just set aside for the sake of art, but to the game’s credit, the art is almost worth it.

The plot and atmosphere are unceasingly bleak, but what keeps them from becoming stale is a genuinely unique design aesthetic; a setting unlike any other in gaming history. The town just feels abnormal from day one; from the mysterious meat industry on which it is based, to the butchers that run it being locked in the abattoir (slaughterhouse), to the presence of creatures that are assuredly not human, to the architecturally impossible structure known as the Polyhedron which looms over town. Children roam the streets unsupervised, and some have formed their own little gangs and factions to protect themselves. Some such children may trade what they find in exchange for jewelry and other junk, while more aggressive ones want favors from you before they’ll even talk to you. One such group goes as far as wearing stuffed dog heads to intimidate their foes. And yet somehow the town tolerates this strangeness, and in time, so do you.

In more conventional concerns, the situation grows tangibly more desperate with each passing day. City guards lock down infected districts, while the cries of those too sick to stand fill the air. Even the buildings seem to look sick, growing disgusting red sores on solid brick. Masked marauders loot abandoned homes, while vigilantes armed with molotovs take to the streets to kill the infected themselves. Eventually the army arrives, perching a massive rail cannon near the train station, taking over city hall, and positioning sharpshooters and men armed with flamethrowers throughout the town. A simple trip across town leads one through a veritable war zone as guards and soldiers battle criminals, arsonists, and the infected. The town’s three major families constantly vie for authority, trying to sell you on their particular angle while playing their own cards close to the vest. All the while, the bird-masked Executors watch the proceedings, seeming to act in concert with the authorities without explicitly working for them.

Get back, I have nothing for you!  I said stay the hell away from me!
Get back, I have nothing for you! I said stay the hell away from me!

The player characters themselves become intriguing, along with the people important to their stories. For instance, Daniel (the Bachelor) arrives in town to speak with one Simon Kain, the head of one of the three ruling families and reportedly of an impossibly old age. Daniel’s goal is no less than the subjugation of death itself, and he sees Kain as an important part of this. Unfortunately – and predictably – Simon is killed before Daniel can meet him. The family effectively fetishizes the body, viewing it as an object of worship. At the same time, Artemiy (the Haruspicus) is on the trail of another surgeon, an associate of his father, Isador. Not coincidentally, Isador was the last man to see Simon alive, and would become patient zero in the plague outbreak. Artemiy enlists the aid of this surgeon to perform an illegal autopsy on Simon’s body to determine the actual cause of death. All this as the industrialist Vlad Olgimsky orders the abattoir locked in an attempt to contain the disease, effectively condemning the slaughterhouse workers to death. Meanwhile, the militant Alexander Saburov deputizes every able-bodied man he can find to serve with the city guard, and bolster his own position in the town.

Each of the three differs in abilities and allies. Daniel starts with a decent supply of medicine and food, and has the easiest access to better firearms. Artemiy can scavenge herbs called twyre and harvest organs from dead plague victims to create various herbal concoctions, though he’ll be on the wrong side of the law at times and will be forced to turn to the gangs of children for aid. Klara, the Devotress, has supernatural abilities that allow her to heal and harm without the use of medical supplies or weapons. It is for this reason that she is suspected of being a plaguebearer, and thus, her reputation steadily decreases over time. Futhermore, she cannot use the more powerful weapons. Their paths will cross no matter whom you choose, though what they have to say to each other is up to you.

More than anything, however, this is a game about survival. The threat of death is never too far away, as none of the three healers is particularly strong. Anything goes, though not without consequence. Killing the innocent, even defending yourself against the infected, will cost your reputation, though it may be necessary. When you’re running a high fever, out of money, and that snot-nosed little punk demands a watch or razor for a booster pill he found, all bets are off. That nice, safe household with the family of four may hold the food you need to keep going, if you’ve got a lockpick and are willing to risk a fight with the occupants. You can spend a bullet to drop a thief as he struggles with a guard, or wait until the thief kills the guard, then quietly stab him in the back and loot both bodies. You can be a savior, taking pills and garbing yourself in protective clothing to approach and heal the sick, and no one will ever know what you had to do to get the medicine.

Make no mistake, this is not a sunny game, though it does have ‘good’ endings if you’re strong enough to reach them. This is also not a good game. There are numerous technical flaws and glitches, the overall gameplay is unimpressive at best and frustrating at worst, the dialog is borderline gibberish, there’s a distinct lack of polish, and the game’s accessibility is somewhere near zero. Even still, it would not require much to turn this all around. The fundamentals are solid, the emphasis on survival works, the consistently grey and bleak atmosphere works to the game’s favor, and it boasts so much ingenuity and artistic flair that it feels an honest waste to see this game go almost completely unnoticed. The characters are interesting, it’s one of the creepiest games to grace the platform in years, and the story is unlike anything in any video game since pretty much ever.

It’s not pretty, and it’s not very fun. But in its own, weird little way, Pathologic is important.

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