"In Soviet Russia, Game plays YOU!" I know this is an old joke, but after playing this abomination, I have to say it fits. I picked this game up a few months after finishing Amnesia: The Dark Descent. At the time, I began to feel the itch for something else that would leave me in that perfect state of dreading what might come next, but needing to see it and loving every second of the conundrum. It was around this time, I found this game on sale on GOG.COM and with the title page they offered, I decided to have a look. This trailer is the first thing I saw (courtesy of Gog.com):
That trailer convinced me I would absolutely have to play this game, and I would get a lot of the true survival horror thrill I was looking for... but as I said, this game played me like a damn fiddle... It took my cash and in return it was a chore to just play the 8 hours I demand before I review a game for you guys. Come on in and see why.
Story: Honestly, I'm not quite sure how to define the story for you because I couldn't understand very much of what I experienced. According to the manual for the game, this is a plague simulator in which you will be stuck in a quarantined town for 12 days and your goal is to survive, dragging as many people along the way as you can. And while this simple explanation makes sense, it does little to explain the absolute cluster-fuck you get when you start the game.
Before the game even brings up a title screen, you will be treated to what I found to be the highlight of the game, one of the creepiest opening videos in any game ever. Set to an offbeat music, you will watch a small group of children walking with a man in a black spandex suite wearing a mask that is completely blank except for small holes for the eyes and mouth. They will then proceed to bury what looks like a small mummified child (or possibly mannequin) in a shallow grave... all of it looking fairly low budget and straight out of creepypasta about some exe game you just downloaded.
And then the game starts... with you in a theater where you alone watch three actors playing out some scene that appears to be Shakespearean in style. However, the acoustics in the room echo things badly and I honestly can not be sure what was even said. (Keep in mind, I had to crank the voice volume up to even get this far.) What I can be a lot more certain about is you will eventually leave this room and pick which of the three characters being played below a moment ago you will play in the game: The Bachelor, the Ripper, and the Devotess. These three characters all have different origin points and you won't even be allowed to play the Devotess until you finish the game as one of the other two. For our purposes, I played the Bachelor, who turns out to be a bachelor of medicine who shows up in town to prove his theory about death being optional with the help of someone who, rather ironically, died just before he arrived. Now he must travel around the town to try to find out who is and capture the killer.
I am sure the story develops beyond this point, for what I saw suggests a lot actually is going on under the surface, but it proved entirely too hard for me to figure... between the cryptic nature of what literally everyone says when the game is primarily told through character dialog and the god-awful translation from Russian that we got in this English release, and the plot has been reduced to complete rubbish.
Graphics: Considering this is a game coming out of Russia back in 2005, I was not expecting Pathologic to be anything but dated, and I wish I was not this accurate. The game looks blocky and bland... even compared to other games that came out prior! And anyone who complains about the greys and browns making up literally everything in a game will not be pleased with what they see here. Still, as far as colors go, that is pretty much the point.
This is a small, claustrophobic, and industrialized town out of the early 1900s. It is bleak and oppressive looking because that just sets more of the tone for this game. And yet it still manages to squeeze some margin of variety from the environment. You will travel between blatant warehouse storage, to high end and low end housing (complete with decrepit buildings) to even a massive factory that is jarringly out of place with the dark-tech look it contains or the alien-looking floating mass in the absolute reverse side of the map. None of this looks particularly good, but it all looks spectacularly oppressive.
Unfortunately, characters you see will not get the same benefits. Most of them indeed fit the environment, but they leave no lasting impression, and those few that do either do so because they remind you of a classic bald James Bond villain (or in one case Natasha straight out of the Bullwinkle cartoons, no I am not kidding) or because they stand out as completely out of place (such as the woman who's house the Bachelor starts in who looks like she should be a servant in Cleopatra's palace, not some single woman who lives on the outskirts of this place.
I wish I could talk about enemies because then at least I could say there was something to do in this game (and we will get to that), but I only found one in my entire time playing. And that one is the biggest "what the fuck" moments I had ever seen in a game. Rather then make this thing human-looking in any way possible, it's a humanoid thing in rags with the most smooth and undetailed head sticking half-way out of the top I have ever seen... It is disconcerting to be sure, but about as threatening as a child in a mummy costume holding their trick-or-treat pail up.
Sound: With a lack of combat or even real displayed interaction in this game, you can also expect a general lack of sound effects to go with it... and this again is the case, giving this game an overall eerie silence, well, short of the sound track. And that sound track itself seems designed to distort and make the game feel more creepy then it normally would. I would highly recommend giving it a listen. If nothing else, the main theme is simply awesome.
But sadly, the biggest opportunity to make this game come alive was missed. There is very little voice acting here. In fact, it will basically be in pre-rendered cut-scenes and small quips to show some personality when you start a conversation with someone. But with only a few of these per character, this really limits what you have to hear.
Gameplay: Pathologic is played from a 1st person perspective, but before you think of this as standard controls, we need to go over a lot of issues with this. First and foremost is the mouse sensitivity. The default was unplayable as a slight move of your wrist could send well on your way to looking behind you. In order to make the game playable, I found it necessary to set this almost to a minimum and even then when you combine this with the incredibly claustrophobic interiors of the houses you go into, this is actually the first First Person game I have ever played to make me wonder if I was about to get motion sick.
But we are not done with the controls here. There is no run button and should you need to attack something, getting ready to do so is clunky, as you will first have to hit a button (default TAB) to raise your hands, which will contain whatever weapon you equipped prior. Want to switch? Hope you have time to open your inventory and select the weapon you want there. And if you have to get into a fist-fight (which may be the majority of your fights because ammo is scarce for whatever guns you can manage to get) the system is atrocious. You basically fight by holding down the attack and launching forwards and backwards to land your hit/dodge the enemy's. But thankfully, this isn't as big a deal as one would think since this game really has very little combat in it.
Rather this game is about investigation, which is really where the game fucks up. You see, most of your investigations involve questioning other characters to find out what they know and investigate the area accordingly. The issue here is that the characters you talk to rarely make a lot of sense for that, leaving you often wondering what hell to do next. This is most likely an issue because of the translation of the game, for this one is notoriously bad from it's native Russian script. But it still leaves the player wandering around looking for the next thing to do to progress a story... in short it's broken. And even THAT would not be so bad if not for two things... the spacing of places to go find people who actually are important to the game and the fact that you have a 12-day clock of game-time (which runs somewhere between 2-3X realtime) and events will happen when and where they are supposed to whether you see them or not. In essence, it is completely possible to miss the entire game because the clues on where to go were not clear, or you got to someone too soon and the game just lets them ramble anyway, leaving you to sit for a while waiting. The combination makes for a very poor playing game indeed.
Bugs: Due to the nature of this game, I am not sure if the game got buggy on me a few times, but I can confirm one absolute bug. There is a point in day 1 where you follow one of those deformed guys to find a broken down building where someone is hiding. The problem is either he started in the wrong place or I didn't see/know to look for him because he wasn't there. But he sure did find me after like he was supposed to, chasing me down to kill me despite never having followed him to where that should have happened. This ended that attempt to finish the game due to not having a clue where to go.
Overall: I really wanted to like this game. After all, when I got in I was expecting a great Lovecraftian plot which would lead to a showdown with something you couldn't fathom. I wanted to dread playing because it was nerve wracking, and yet want more because it demanded my attention. What I got was basically a walking simulator with a plot that makes no real sense and mechanics that were basically broken and/or completely alien. This game is absolute trash, which is a shame because the spark of something great was there. If you insist on seeing what the fuss is about, at least do yourself a favor and wait a while. I hear the game is being remade... and hopefully that version will at least make sense.
Source’s Listed System Requirements:
- 2.4 Ghz processor
- 1GB RAM
- DirectX 9.0c compatible graphic card
- Windows XP/Vista/7/8/10
- 2GB hard drive space
- AMD Phenom II 6X 1100T (6 core) processor running at 3.3 Ghz
- 8GB RAM
- Nvidia Geforece 760 GTX with 2GB VRAM
- and Windows 7