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Pathologic (PC) artwork

Pathologic (PC) review

"Pathologic is gloriously ambitious and intentionally abhorrent, but in pushing the boundaries of game design, it manages to cross them to often disastrous effect. It realises the best and worst of the medium's potential and, while I'm mightily impressed by its flair, I'd find it difficult to actually recommend to anyone. If you're prepared to overlook its problems - and there are a lot of them - you could well find yourself completely swept away."

Ah, my pet subject: games as art. As much as I argue for the medium's potential in this area, there are depressingly few exemplary titles to back up my case. Videogames remain a juvenile form, stuck in a comfort zone that values pure entertainment over any real emotional or philosophical substance. Considering the opportunity for an entirely new branch of conceptual narrative, games embracing this school of thought are a little thin on the ground.

Interestingly, it always seems to be the Russians that take the first progressive stances at such times. The film industry had Vertov's 'Man With a Movie Camera', an evocative and highly creative snapshot of early 20th Century Soviet life. In videogames, one of the most intriguing advances is Pathologic.

It's a brave, unsettling, counter-intuitive and clunky piece of software: an experiment in the application of creative visionary to new media. It admirably sidesteps a whole host of conventions to conjure up a fascinating display of ideas and concepts that no other developer has really approached. Wild, unnerving and often overwhelming, it deserves praise for its ambition alone. There's simply nothing else like it.

So what is Pathologic? Damn - I've been putting that off for a few paragraphs now. Letís have a go.

It's an interactive documentary on the decay of society in the outer reaches of Eastern Europe. But, beneath its snapshot approach, it also has the courage to stylise its universe in a number of absolutely insane ways. It's a game to get people thinking, building its narrative on a foundation of mythology, folklore and human negligence of the planet Earth. It drives science and spirituality together in a horrific collision of... no, actually, let's start again.

Imagine Oblivion, but strip it of all its basic mechanics and confine its environment to one large town. Take its lush landscapes and contort them into something twisted and intimidating. Start mysteriously killing off the population, one by one, until there's barely anyone or anything left. Forget about the laws of Newtonian physics. Make it less about the superficial story, and more about what the player is meant to take from the experience. Do away with... no, this isn't working either.

The truth is there's no immediate reference point for Pathologic, so defining it in basic terms is extremely difficult. It feels like an RPG, but there are no stats or levelling systems. It plays like an FPS, but there's only minimal combat. It reads like an adventure game, but the only puzzle is unravelling the enigmatic 'bigger picture'. It has the gloom and desperation of a survival horror title, but the only monster is a deadly plague. In essence, you do a lot of walking, a lot of talking, and a lot of observing. Gradually, day by day, your investigations start to amount to some sort of 'truth' - but even that concept itself is blurred.

It's still not quite making sense, is it? Okay, how about this new genre title: survival-philosophy. That's as near as weíre going to get, I'm afraid.

What's so strange is that, despite how long it's taken to describe what playing Pathologic is actually like, its mechanics, when stripped down, are very simple. The game is split into twelve days, each functioning as an independent unit that contributes to the journey's whole. Each day, you must complete a particular task without dying or becoming ill. All of this adds up to a group of characters, initially unrelated but forced to work together, attempting to solve one big question: why is this town dying, and how can we make sure we don't die with it?

On the first day, you arrive to meet someone who has some relevance to your profession, depending on which character you've picked. But once you're there, the town is put under quarantine due to a deadly and mysterious virus that has swept the population. No one is allowed to enter or leave, but staying there is suicide. It just so happens that you might have the means to save everyone - but, more importantly, yourself.

Still with me? Good - that's the simple part. It gets a bit more complicated here.

In order to do this you need to ensure a few things. Firstly, most obviously, you can't die. To stay healthy, you must avoid the infection (difficult when you're trying to research it), eat well and rest well. Secondly, if you let vital characters become ill, they'll bite the dust too, meaning your overall job becomes that little bit harder. There's no 'Game Over' screen if someone meets their demise; you just have to find your information elsewhere. Thirdly, people won't co-operate unless they like you. This means spending a lot of time finding pain relief for those in need, as well as ensuring to stick within the community's rigid moral and ethical beliefs. There are times when one of these aspects must be sacrificed in order to save another. The whole game is very precariously balanced, and monstrously unforgiving as a result.

You're specifically given twelve days. Right from the start, you're told that, at the end of this time, the very nature of this town's existence will dramatically alter. No one will tell you how, exactly, but you're repeatedly assured of its accuracy. The story that plays out in this period is disturbing and fascinating beyond anything else I've seen in a videogame, but detailing just a tiny bit would spoil the whole charade. It taps more deeply into the human psyche and the nature of existence than some hardened metaphysical literature. It's baffling, lateral and always, always chilling.

Pathologic's atmosphere is near-unrivalled, despite the fundamental ugliness of its appearance. We're dealing with a graphics engine that looks like it's from the 90s, and sound effects that seem to have been recorded in someone's garage, but the heavily thematic narrative and astonishing art design shine through regardless. This design stems from the unsettling characters (look out in particular for The Masks), right into the environments themselves, and the surrealist architecture even connects with a major plot twist late on. Why is the abattoir shaped like a heart? How does the Polyhedron, that inverted skyscraper in the distance, stand on its spike? This structure is particularly incredible, astonishingly crafted out of its own paper blueprints. Art in the design: a fitting metaphor for Pathologic's wonderful core.

Its visual horror falls in line with something like Silent Hill, but with its own distinctive take on the style. Pathologic looks nightmarish and impossibly otherworldly. It also acknowledges superbly that, for whatever reason, expressionless masks and dolls without eyes are inherently terrifying - and it uses these tactics in abundance. The sight of the children, orphans who dwell in the aforementioned Polyhedron, aimlessly wandering the streets is heartbreaking. All they can do is trade to survive. The opening sequence features a group of them burying a ragdoll in a grave, mimicking the many funeral services that have overwhelmed the town. Powerful stuff. It's one of the most desolate, bleak, nerve-wracking and upsetting games I've ever played.

One thing I absolutely love about Pathologic is that it makes no qualms whatsoever about being a computer game, but utilises this in some really clever ways. Like the character selection process, in which you sit in the audience at the theatre, watching the three playable characters act out a performance about their relative strengths, weaknesses and approaches. Or its methods of closing areas of the game to you. Three important locations are inaccessible until right at the end, but in making these the most delectably exciting places in the game, it drives you onwards. More impressively, the confines of the game world aren't just marked by invisible walls or steep hills. They're often blocked by the masked guards, silently shaking their heads at you. On being told you've reached the outer limits of the game, your reaction isn't to bang your head against the desk out of frustration. It's to turn around and, very quickly, return the way you came.

Pathologic feels like the sort of game this industry should be developing. The sort of game that makes me constantly rabbit on about how games can and will be considered a viable art form in the future. The sort of game that, presumably for no other reason than it being financially risky, barely anyone even attempts to make.

Unspeakable genius, then? Very much so. Six out of ten. Goodnight.

*rustles notes*

What? Oh, right. About that.

Pathologic as a concept is incredible. It's insanely ambitious, commendably courageous and consistently captivating. Which would be brilliant, if you could actually play the damn thing with any real ease.

Because, for all its creative genius, it's not actually a very strong game. The learning curve is far too steep, the repeated necessity to go home to eat or sleep is infuriating, and the combat system and AI are absolutely awful. On top of this, it's far, far too difficult, and it takes a good few in-game days to work out exactly what you're supposed to be doing in this place. The incessant time limits for tasks become dreary, and there's far too much on-foot to-ing and fro-ing, between locations that are spread way to far apart in the badly planned play area. Give Pathologic's blueprints to a more adept development house and the art may have suffered; but the core playability would have skyrocketed.

And I love this artistic drive, I really do, but certain areas feel a little contrived. The theatre concept in particular seems somewhat gratuitous. Each day, you can watch a play depicting your actions, but it's hard to establish what the point is. The plays are nicely conceived, but one does sense that Pathologic is shouting "Look Ė this is art!" from the rooftops a little too much.

And, finally, if someone could tell me what the following means, I'd be hugely appreciative.

"Just the same cause, which they gave, when didn't recommend you dissect bodies."

This script has been butchered in its transition to English. Lord knows who's responsible, but they shouldn't be in business. There are undergraduate language students who would do a far better job, and work for free for the publicity. Why they didn't approach Pathologic's UK release with this mindset, I'll never know, but it's inexcusable. There were times when I found myself returning to the same characters three, four or five times, just to establish what the hell they were getting at. I'm still not sure I pieced it all together properly.

What makes it even more tragic is that, when the translation works, it becomes very clear that this is one of the best scripts ever written for a videogame. Evoking memories of Planescape: Torment, it's well-read, insightful and poetic in equal measures. Half the time, it's genuinely beautiful. The other half, it's babbling, garbled nonsense.

With that in mind, if you speak Russian and can get hold of the original release, you can safely assume to add a couple of marks to the score. The rest, particularly those used to the high-octane pacing of most modern releases, will struggle immensely.

So Pathologic finds itself in an odd predicament. It's one of the most interesting, creative and evocative games I've ever played, but it's a constant battle to work with. Without the fabulous narrative and astonishing atmosphere, it'd be a two out of ten at best. With better translation and mechanics that actually worked, it'd be the easiest ten I've ever given.

It's gloriously ambitious and intentionally abhorrent, but in pushing the boundaries of game design, it manages to cross them to often disastrous effect. It realises the best and worst of the medium's potential and, while I'm mightily impressed by its flair, I'd find it difficult to actually recommend to anyone. If you're prepared to overlook its problems - and there are a lot of them - you could well find yourself completely swept away.

But, bloody hell, you'll need the patience of a saint.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (November 29, 2008)

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