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Pathologic (Windows)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.0
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Written by  :  hydra9 (3853)
Written on  :  Jan 04, 2008
Rating  :  4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars

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Summary

A unique game, the first of its kind, with all the good and bad points that can bring.

The Good

Pathologic is an adventure with a distinctly novel premise. It places you in the role of one of three characters, recently arrived in a mysterious, isolated town that is about to play host to a deadly plague. Over the course of the next twelve days, you will attempt to discover the source of the infection and, if possible, a cure.

The game is a fusion of elements that refuses to be pigeonholed into any one genre. Okay, so I called it an 'adventure' just now, and it is, but equally it's an RPG. It also has strong survival elements (though it's not a 'survival horror') and you will probably shoot a few things from a first-person perspective (though it's definitely not a 'shooter').

Story

Most of your time will be spent walking around the large gray town and talking with a cast of more than twenty main characters. Conversation uses a familiar multiple-choice system and it is through these interactions that you will be given your daily tasks and will start to learn more about the strange place you find yourself in.

There is an immense amount of dialogue and whether you love or hate the game will most likely depend on your opinion of this text. Personally, despite its problems (which I'll go into later), I loved it.

Pathologic has the best story I have ever encountered in a videogame. I can say that without a doubt. And it's not just a brilliant story; it's also expertly told and intricately developed, built up with layer upon layer of history and character detail. It gave me a wonderful feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, coming into a place with its own definite history and long-established set of traditions, customs and beliefs, most of which seemed totally alien to me but made perfect sense to its inhabitants. Everywhere I went, I heard references to past events, pieces of gossip and rumors about other characters. The citizens have relationships, rivalries and history with each other that isn't there just to serve the plot. It feels natural; organic; a fleshed-out world with depths and secrets I, in twelve days, could never hope to fully uncover. There is so much intrigue in the dialogue (an offhand mention of this... a biting remark about that person) that I found myself doing something I've never done before for a game: I took out a notebook and began writing notes on everything that piqued my interest. I didn't need to do this (as the in-game automated note system does a great job of keeping track of everything important) but there was so much more I felt compelled to write down. My visit to the town was a voyage of discovery. I wanted to learn everything I could about the place, its inhabitants and their way of life. Every little detail was fascinating, whether it helped me with the main quest or not. Sometimes, knowledge (or rumors) could totally change the way I looked at something. For example (without giving anything away), there was a person who seemed normal at first... a little eccentric... a little tragic, from what she told me of her past... then someone else made a comment about her which totally changed my view on her. Had everything she said been a total lie? Suddenly, I found myself looking at her with new eyes. From that point on, I started to actually hate her. Now, this isn't a major plot point I'm talking about; it's not the big reveal you get in plenty of games/movies where suddenly your friend turns out to secretly be the Grand Evil One in disguise... No, it's just a piece of personal history relating to a relatively minor character. It has nothing to do with the main plot, but it was one of many things that got me emotionally involved and thinking of these digital puppets as real, in some way. Someone in a forum post said that the main part of Pathologic takes place 'in the player's mind' and I couldn't agree more. I filled page after page of my notebook with thoughts, conjecture and observations. Unlike any other game I've played, when I turned off the PC, Pathologic stayed resident in my mind. My brain was turning over, working on all the unanswered questions I had. For two weeks, try as I might, I couldn't get it out of my head. It kept creeping into my thoughts all day and invaded my dreams at night.

One of the things that appealed to me so much about the story was that it fits right into a category that I love. That is: The 'Small Town With A Dark Secret' story. Or 'dark secrets,' because Pathologic is full of them. I'm also an H.P. Lovecraft fan, and though this isn't really a 'horror' game and there's nothing obviously Lovecraftian about it, there is a similar kind of thick, creepy Gothic atmosphere.

Survival

While you're wandering back and forth across town and talking to interesting people about interesting things, you'll also have to cope with the game's 'survival' aspect. Your character has various stats that are affected over time like health, hunger, fatigue and infection and you can't leave them unattended.

Dealing with these needs can be a delicate balancing act, but it's an engaging challenge and the developers have provided enough different ways to solve these problems. If you have enough money, you can buy food and medicine in shops, but most of the time you'll have to scrounge around. Rooting through bins can yield items which can be traded with passersby. You can complete side-quests for extra money. Stalk the streets at night and get into fights with robbers, then take whatever you find on their still-warm corpses. You can even break into houses and loot them; it won't be good for your reputation if you invade a normal family home, but no-one is likely to complain if you take a few things from an evacuated building in an 'infected' district of town. Looting is morally dubious, but it can be pretty satisfying. There's nothing better than finding a nice fresh steak on someone's dining table when it might cost 3000 coins in the shop next door.

Taking care of yourself is probably the biggest challenge in the game. But it adds to the realism and connection with your character. At the end of a long day of navigating my way round town, avoiding plague clouds, bandits and rats, eating dried meat and munching on coffee beans to stay awake, the prospect of a few hours' sleep on a polygonal bed seemed like an incredible, rare luxury. I could actually feel my character's exhaustion. Then I was up and out in the small hours of the morning, on a desperate search to scrape together enough money and buy some food before my hunger became too much to bear. The raw egg was fantastic.

Graphics

The graphics in Pathologic are exquisite. The town is bleak but oddly beautiful. The ground is thick with wild plants. Yellow leaves continually whirl through the air. The game's visuals, though less detailed, have a similar appeal to the beautiful desolation of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and at the same time, this is a very different setting to anything I've played before. Pathologic is a fully-realised artistic vision, set in an indefinable time, in a place that has grown up in total isolation from the outside world, technologically bereft, with its own styles of architecture and clothing. Buildings range from the stern grey houses of the main town to the rusted splendor of the factory district, to the ominous, looming domes of the Abattoir. Then there are the buildings which seem fantastically surreal; The gravity-defying crystal Polyhedron and the ruined stairways which stretch up into the sky, leading nowhere. House interiors have fascinating paintings hung on the walls that offer insights into their owner's character. Costumes look as though they have been created by a professional designer. Everything fits together; Everything makes sense. Even when it seems to go against normal logic, it somehow fits into this society's own scheme. BioShock has been praised extensively for its art direction and the way that every object had to be designed from scratch to fit into an entirely new world. Pathologic, with a much smaller team and less resources, deserves similar praise, as it has achieved the same goal.

Sound

The game's atmosphere owes a lot to its soundtrack, which is one of the best I've heard in years and fits the somber visuals like a glove. It is an inspired blend of clean, organic sounding instruments, choral parts and percussive elements that cut in when needed and really increase the tension. There are different pieces for every building you enter, as well as themes for night, day, infected or uninfected zones and so on. Every time I entered a place that was crawling with disease, the score really helped me feel the decay.

The sound effects are similarly good, as well as useful. Revolting bubbling sounds alert you to disease spots around you. Cries and moans of the dying come faintly from inside infected homes. You'll hear sounds of fights going on in nearby streets, between soldiers and vandals. There are also the ambient environmental sounds of trees creaking in the wind and leaves blowing past. The game always has the ability to throw up surprises: After hearing dogs barking on several occasions, I assumed the noise was just part of this soundscape. Then I almost jumped out of my skin when I was walking towards a dark alleyway and a large dog suddenly ran out of it, straight towards me and then right on past, ignoring me totally.

Some of the sound choices are odd, but make sense in a game that works hard to unnerve the player at every turn. I remember the first time I killed a normal law-abiding citizen (by accident, actually): I was shocked to hear the sound of a little girl crying. In a similar way, it's a little creepy to hear a child clapping and laughing when you kill a criminal.

The Bad

Unfortunately, there are some pretty major flaws in Pathologic. In my case, I liked the game so much that I was able to put up with them. Your experience may vary.

Translation

It's ironic that a game with the best story I've ever come across also suffers from a terrible English translation. I've got a Russian friend who played Pathologic in its native version and told me the writing was truly excellent; as good as a fine work of literature. Therefore, if you can play this game in Russian, do so (and skip this section of the review).
It's a testament to just how good the writing is that it manages to shine through a translation that dips in quality throughout the game from sometimes being 'okay' to sometimes looking like it's been copy/pasted straight out of AltaVista's Babelfish software. It's pretty obvious that different people worked on the translation without properly paying attention to each others' notes. The quality sometimes changes from day to day. For instance, playing as 'The Bachelor,' the first two days of the game were generally alright, then the quality dipped noticeably on days three and four, before improving somewhat on day five. Characters are sometimes referred to by more than one name, which can lead to confusion. But after playing through twice (once with Dankovsky; once with Burakh), I can say that there wasn't much that totally failed to make sense - sure, the odd bit of dialogue here and there - but if you're patient and read everything carefully, you should understand most of what's being said. After a while, the broken style actually became normal to me and I didn't have many problems with it. But that doesn't change the fact that it shouldn't be like this, and it's a crying shame that it is. A lot of people (especially the reviewers, most of whom slated this game mercilessly) will not have the patience to put up with this translation, and they shouldn't have to.

Similarly, the voice acting isn't too good (though it did kind of 'grow on me,' the more I played) and the actors dutifully read out lines that incorporate blatant typos (e.g. "I'd be ruler if I wasn't for this plague!") or try to put false emotion into lines they obviously don't understand. There's some sloppy editing, too: One time I was stunned to hear an actor stumble over his line, stop, then give it another shot! I'm told the voice acting is better in the German version (though I'm not sure whether the translation is any better).

Time and tedium

The game has a ticking clock that means (I think) that one hour of game time will pass in about 10 minutes of real-time. Each day has a main task to accomplish. Fail to do this, and it's game over. There are also optional side-quests. which you can complete if you feel like it. These do not carry over to the next day, meaning there is a time limit on them, too. Completing them is advisable, as you can often gain extra money or items, as well as a deeper understanding of the story.

Now, while this real-time system makes sense as day naturally turns to night, meetings can be arranged for specific times, etc., it does put unnecessary pressure on the player. And the frustration and (unwanted) tension is increased by the unbelievably slow speed your character walks at! Actually, s/he doesn't walk; s/he almost crawls along. There is no option to run or change your speed in any way.

Add to this the fact that the town is pretty large and your average quest for the day will typically involve talking to Character A (who lives at one end of the town), who tells you to talk to Character B (who lives at the opposite end of the town), who tells you to talk to Character C, who then tells you to go back to Character A again... and the frustration factor increases a lot. Simple tasks take hours, due to the constant back-tracking and slooow walking speed. This is a long game (about 50 hours per character, with three characters to play) and the number of times you will amble slowly backwards and forwards across town is incredible.

At times, the game is honestly not fun at all... Yet, the feelings of frustration didn't last. Even when the game had been annoying the hell out of me, I'd come back to it the next day, still wanting to play on.

(Note: I should mention, though, that the clock is paused when you are in conversation, or checking your map/diary/etc. This is an excellent design decision, as it means you never feel rushed when talking to people.)

Other issues

The 'adventure' part of the gameplay does not require much brain-power. You generally talk to a person, who points you in the direction of another person and so on. If you have to locate a missing item, you will usually (but not always) be told roughly where it is. There are a few more varied tasks, but not many.

Combat is not a big part of the game, but it's pretty basic. Also, AI doesn't really exist. People do react in certain, specific, pre-programmed ways, but there is no intelligence. For instance, a soldier will raise his rifle and shoot at an approaching plague sufferer, but he will then be 'locked in' to this behavior and won't react if you come up and start attacking him with a knife. Also, if you kill him, none of his soldier buddies who are standing 2ft. away will pay any attention.
Criminals and rats will chase you on sight, without ever giving up, getting tired or taking an alternate route. They exhibit exactly as much intelligence as the swarming drones in Smash T.V.

The Bottom Line

So what can you make of this review? Pathologic has a lot going for it, but it also has some pretty big problems. Personally, I found it grabbed me right away and pulled me in totally. I could put up with the bad translation and frustrating moments because I was so interested in the story, the characters and the environment. But it's not an easy game to like. It's not a big dose of non-stop fun and it will only reward patient players. The story, and the atmosphere of the dying town, really are everything here. Creepy, deep, full of mystery and weirdness... Pathologic is a unique game and you're either going to love or hate it.