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Pathologic (Windows)

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58
MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.0
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168607)
Written on  :  Dec 15, 2007
Rating  :  4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars

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Summary

Don't get scared if you see the Executor in front of your house

The Good

Pathologic (or Mor: Utopia, as it is called in its homeland Russia) is a hybrid game that defies categorization. It has elements of adventure, RPG, first-person shooter, and in a certain sense survival horror.

From the moment you start playing the game, you are enveloped in its unique atmosphere. The bizarre setting is different from anything else you've seen in a game before; it's very hard to describe it with words. Imagine a quiet Russian town with a certain early 20th century feel (though some elements indicate present time, the setting doesn't really strike you as "modern"). A desolate train station and a grim factory cast their shadows over the town. Not far from the house you start in there is a staircase leading into the heavens. You leave the beautifully decorated apartment (the words "decadent" and "gothic" come to mind for some reason) and venture outside.

It looks like eternal autumn. Lonely leaves are carried by the wind. You can't ever see sun or clear sky. The dominant color is grey, with brown-red old-style buildings. In front of you, you see two masked characters. Or maybe one of them isn't masked - he just looks like a bird with a human body? In a highly stylized, theatrical language, the Executor and the Tragedian tell you what has happened to the city. There is a terrible disease. Nobody knows what it is. Nobody knows who, or what, had caused it. Nobody knows how to cure it. It's up to the hero to find the cure... or maybe just to survive.

Scary, weird sounds accompany the experience. The chilling sound effects and the occasional dissonant music add so much to the atmosphere that the horror begins to creep into the player's soul. The designers knew how to craft masterful psychological horror - without throwing at the player hordes of zombies or revisiting the nightmares of mental patients.

I'm serious when I say the game is worth playing just for experiencing this unique world. Wandering around the streets of this town, talking to strange characters, exploring every corner of it just to see where the imagination of the developers can take us is surprisingly fulfilling. But don't think Pathologic is just an "artsy" decoration. No, there is plenty of game in it.

It is hard to say what is the dominant genre of Pathologic, but I would say it is built like an RPG. The general structure of the game is pretty much the same as in other modern Western RPGs: you receive your main quest, which then becomes divided into smaller plot-advancing quests. The quests mostly involve talking to different characters, acquiring special items, etc. While you are wandering around the town (as part of a mission or during your "free time"), you might also receive secondary quests, etc.

The player is free to choose which quests to complete and which to ignore; the game will advance anyway, day by day; story-related events (such as the arrival of certain key characters) will happen regardless of what you do. Pathologic is the only game I saw which you can complete by doing nothing. You can, theoretically, spend a few days stocking on food, and then simply sleep through the rest of the game. Things happen around you, town quarters get infected, arsonists appear on the streets, government officials arrive; and you, the hero of the game, are sleeping... it's a very odd experience, to say the least.

Naturally, you won't get any of the "good" endings this way. You'll simply witness the town perish without having solved anything. But it is still interesting that the designers allowed the player a complete freedom of actions. Completing the game the "proper" way requires paying attention to the health of certain key characters, saving and curing them when necessary, and then making some tough decisions concerning the fate of the town.

There are no experience points or anything like that, and the game is absolutely not combat-oriented. Only a few quests involve violent confrontations, and even then we are talking about a handful of enemies at most. However, the player is free to attack anybody (except quest-giving characters and shop owners) at any time. It is possible simply to go on a killing spree, enter any apartment and attack its innocent owners, or hunt down criminals at night. If the player kills an innocent, a blood-chilling sound of a weeping child will remind him of what he is doing.

Killing people also affects the player character's reputation in town. Beside reputation, the player also needs to worry about the hero's hunger and stamina meters. You need to eat and sleep regularly, otherwise you'll die. You also need to obtain some medicine and protective clothes, because different locations in town will be contaminated by the mysterious disease, which can affect the protagonist as well.

The game has an internal clock and is basically played completely in real time. The necessity to regulate hunger and sleep adds to the survival aspect of the game, which is so strong that the game can also be labeled as "survival horror". The combat is deliberately hard and uncomfortable; neither of the protagonists (yes, you can play the game as three different characters, each with his/her own scenario and quests) is a professional combatant, and it shows. However, the satisfaction you feel after having successfully eliminated two robbers with two precise shots from an old pistol is at least as rewarding as clearing out a whole room of monsters in a "normal" FPS.

Speaking of rewards: the game is a veritable "collector's paradise". You will constantly need items - food, healing, medicine, weapons, and especially ammunition, which is extremely scarce. There is a very interesting and rather complex trading system in the game. Certain types of people you see on the streets can trade different items to you. For example, little kids can give you valuable bullets or pills in exchange for some cheap jewelry you thought was useless. You can collect a lot of items by simply roaming the town and trading with people. Often you can even find valuable items in dumpsters!

An alternative to that is robbing; to satisfy your instincts of a virtual kleptomaniac, you can obtain lockpicks and break into any house you see. Houses usually contain a lot of items, including food you'll need so much; but of course, you can get caught and attacked; you can kill the attackers, but then your reputation will quickly plummet...

This is the kind of role-playing that Pathologic offers. Despite its adventure-like premise and FPS-like interface, it is in many ways an open-world game, even with elements of a "sandbox", which can get very rewarding and addictive.

Pathologic has an enigmatic narrative with plenty of symbolic references and weird twists. Much has been said about the awful English translation. I played both English and Russian versions; as a native Russian speaker, let me testify that the difference is huge. The writing is exceptionally rich. Sometimes the dialogues are so deep, so thought-provoking, with so many unexpected twists of the mind, with so much variety of expression, that I thought I was reading a 19th century Russian novel...

The Bad

... That said, even in the Russian version the dialogue can sometimes be grating. Most of the characters have a very weird style of speech; the choice of words is often too extravagant, which makes the conversations confusing. It is as if the writers wanted to demonstrate their knowledge of the Russian language and got a bit carried away.

The quests are for the most part very simple; it's just the ever-present time limit that makes them harder than they are supposed to be. Basically, almost every quest involves you going to some part of the town, talking to characters there, then visiting another house, then going back to the original quest-giving character, etc. Sometimes you can make decisions and say different things, but most of the time, it's just direct walking and talking. It's strange to encounter such uninspired quest design in a game so rich on detail and interesting gameplay ideas.

What bothered me most in the game were the interminable walks. The city is very big, and you'll have to visit many people to complete a day. You'll be going back and forth through the same streets. Sure, you can (and should) explore, search, and trade with people on the way, but I'd appreciate some sort of quicker transportation when you really want to get things done. This almost turned into a patience test.

The Bottom Line

Pathologic is a highly unique experience. Magical, surreal atmosphere and strangely addictive gameplay make the game more immersive than many of its "triple A" contemporaries. Even an impatient player who can't accept its quirks won't be able to deny that it is unlike anything else out there. For that, Pathologic deserves attention and respect.