Russian Oddities (updated)
November 27, 2008

Has anyone played Pathologic?

EDIT: You probably haven't, so let's talk about it.

Pathologic is a 2005 Russian genre-breaker, developed by Ice-Pick Lodge (who?), presumably as a very intentional reaction to the next-generation empty stylisation of the Western videogame movement. Initially, it seems to sit somewhere in between Bethesda's big RPGs and a traditional adventure game, with the occasional shooty bits thrown in for good measure. Only there are no RPG elements, no puzzles, and barely any action. Interactive biological mystery fiction.

It's antagonistic, confusing, incredibly difficult and often horribly counter-intuitive. Its engine looks at least five years older than it is, and the version released a year later in the UK is a horribly-translated and bug-ridden mess. It's slow, frustrating and occasionally tedius.

It's also one of the most interesting, atmospheric, creative and thoroughly disturbing videogames I've ever played.

Telling the tale of an isolated Russian village overcome by a terrible plague, Pathologic places you in the life of one of three 'healers' called to the area for a twelve-day period to try to halt the epidemic. The village is under quarantine: no one may enter or leave. Yet you're told, right from the start, that you absolutely only have twelve days there. Curiously and deliberately, nobody will tell you why. That alone is intriguing beyond most set-ups.

My initial response to its clunkiness and amateurish feel was to think "wow - this would be incredible if it were made by one of the role-playing giants" - but actually, it probably wouldn't. It's distinctly eastern in its approach. It's enriched in Russian folklore and mythology, drenched with the undertones of Soviet bleakness. Aspects of the story make absolutely no sense on first play-through, requiring attempts as different characters for certain loose ends to be tied; but once you do unravel the game's mysteries, they're completely, unthinkably brilliant in their offbeat absurdity.

Every second spent in this village seems more horrifying than the last. Each day, more areas become infected, and more important characters succumb to this unfathomable death. The town becomes emptier. Frustration turns to desparation turns to absolute terror. There's something about Pathologic's chilling tragedy that taps beautifully into the human psyche of fear. In a way that nothing else I can think of even touches upon, Pathologic drills an unrelenting sensation of hopeless loneliness straight into the mind of the player. For that alone, it should be highly commended.

It also features an unthinkably terrifying character who wears a raven mask and effectively 'governs' the outer limits of the game - ie. what you're not allowed to do. I love this sort of thing: an acknowledgment that there will be linearity involved in any game, and a conscious decision to work this into the story. When attempting to stray too far away from the town centre, and finding the raven-man blocking your path, silently shaking his head, your reaction isn't to be disappointed by the relatively small scale; it's to turn round, and very quickly return the way you came.

It also does visual horror better than, well, probably anything other than Silent Hill. It's possibly better in its understated vision. The aforementioned raven-man, for example, looks like this:

The whole thing feels like a crazy dream, where not enough distinctly scary stuff happens for you to call it a nightmare, but one that feels totally uncomfortable for its entire duration.

The game itself sort of fails as a result of its own nature: the whole thing is played against this constant time limit, and any quest not completed in time results in a major character's death, which can be infuriating when you just want to explore a bit; and having to return home every now and then to eat and sleep strikes me as something that just isn't remotely necessary or enjoyable in this medium.

But desipte all this... I'm captivated. I really am. Even with the translation issues ("Now, oinon, what do you think they intended meaning by such accusation?"), and even if you don't speak Russian, you can tell the script is fiendishly well written. It just has that poetic quality shining through. I love it.

As a full-price title, I probably wouldn't be able to recommend it. But you can get it for a fiver second-hand on the internet now. Even if you hate it - which a great many will - it's worth such a small investment just to experience one of the most surreal things I've ever played.

Most recent blog posts from Lewis Denby...

bluberry bluberry - November 27, 2008 (05:18 PM)
honestly, I saw why people liked it, but I couldn't get into that game at all. maybe if it weren't so buggy and the English translation wasn't such an abortion.
zippdementia zippdementia - November 27, 2008 (06:09 PM)
Sounds like an amazing failure. Sounds utterly frustrating, like you'd want it to be good but it would just keep refusing.
zippdementia zippdementia - November 27, 2008 (06:26 PM)
You know, I remember feeling this way about Indigo Prophecy. I loved the idea, I loved the gameplay, the unique approach to an adventure game, and yet the story just falls desperately apart. It was one I can only shake my head over and replay the fond memories in my head to wash out the bad.

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