And now, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the next round of "Guess the Genre!" The first question is worth £30.
Today's topic: Pathologic. Is this game...
C) Survival Horror
E) All of the above
Don't you hate multiple choice questions? You want to pick one, but the others sound sort of right, and then the all-or-nothing option beckons teasingly. This is exactly how I feel about Pathologic, having played through many hours of a preview version provided by UK publisher GMX Media, and yet still knowing I've just barely scratched the surface. But for now, it'll suffice to say that the game includes "A", if not solely limited to it.
While I can't be sure of genre classification, I can say with absolute clarity that this is one strange bird. No no, I'm not talking about the character with the human body and the head of a giant bird waiting outside your front door as soon as the game begins, although that should tip you off about the kind of surreal experience you're in for. I'm talking about the whole game, as Pathologic is surely as unique a game as I've played in some time. Perhaps ever. Just don't ask whether the game is good or bad just yet, because the answer will always be the same: it sure is "different".
Pathologic is set in an isolated town that resembles an impoverished area of eastern Europe, but scientifically stunted and trapped in a living nightmare. Whether for real or only in the minds of the inhabitants, here the lines between superstition, folklore, and reality are permanently and tragically blurred. Only too real, however, is a virulent plague that has spread through the town's water, crops, and livestock, and has recently begun to claim its first human victims when you arrive. Actually, if you believe the manual, the entire game is only a prototype simulator designed to test decision-making in preparation for such cataclysmic events truly happening, though this layer of abstraction never impacts the gameplay. And given the utterly bizarre choice of roles you're offered, it's more than a stretch to think of these as the last great hopes of humanity.
The game provides three different scenarios depending on the character you choose. The first casts you in the role of a doctor practicing an extreme form of medicine looking to confront the very aging/death process itself. The second sees you become more of a witch doctor than medical doctor, whose skills are some combination of surgeon and sorcerer. The third character is a woman referred to as the "devotress", who also has supernatural healing powers. Her role remains a mystery for now, as just the first two scenarios are available at the outset, while the third can only be unlocked on completion of the others. You can save and load games from either of the first two at any time, but you likely won't find yourself switching between them, as each provides a lengthy standalone experience intended to be played through to completion. Playing just one is essentially a game in itself, but playing all three will flesh out information only hinted at in each case individually. In an interesting twist, the lives of the characters (at least the first two) not only intersect but actually oppose, as each must fulfill a "destiny" at cross purposes with the others. However, while a fascinating concept that adds a nice level of intrigue, your actions can't actually affect the stories of the other, as there's no carryover from one scenario to another, and opposing characters act autonomously in each.
No matter who you're playing, your initial reasons for arriving in the town soon become secondary to the fallout of the epidemic, whose early victims are initially considered a series of murders that coincide with your emergence. So in one case you'll need to convince the town of the real danger, while in another you'll find yourself the target of a suspicious and hostile community. Needless to say, these experiences play out quite differently, at least until you're able to clear your name in the latter.
I'd tell you more about the story, but quite honestly, I can't. Not because I haven't played enough yet, but because I simply don't understand much of it. The ever-confusing blend of the mystical and the physical is challenging enough to follow, but the current state of localization makes it practically unintelligible in parts. While presented fully in English, with a combination of sporadic spoken lines with text-only dialogue (common to most RPGs), the translation from the game's original Russian is agonizingly incoherent at this stage. It's not like a Babelfish travesty that can't even connect words properly, but the overall meaning can be incredibly obtuse. It's a bit like reading Faulkner or T.S. Eliot, which allow you to read through fluently, only to finish with a blank and increasingly pained look on your face that finally produces an audible, "Huh?" Of course, this is only a preview version, so here's hoping GMX is able to iron out the largest language wrinkles before release.
What makes this issue so key is that Pathologic is heavily story-oriented. A large part of gameplay is engaging the townsfolk in dialogue and trying to piece together the unfolding drama and your involvement in it. Understanding your goals and purpose is crucial to advancing the plot, particularly as the game plays out in real time. Characters will come and go on their own schedule, and at times you'll need to know who to meet and when in order to make any progress at all. While such time allotments are fairly forgiving, that doesn't help you if you're wandering aimlessly from a lack of direction. The surprisingly unhelpful in-game journal proves to be no ally, so you're left to fend for yourself in making sense of the (presently confounding) tale.
Fortunately, what the game lacks in narrative clarity at this stage, it makes up for in abundant atmosphere. This is established right from the opening cutscene of children having a funeral procession for a rag doll -- a dark, compelling video I can't resist watching each time I load the game. The soundtrack is excellent, creating a disturbing ambience that's creepy enough to be unnerving and yet subtle enough to stay in the background where it belongs. The 3D graphics are undeniably dated, looking several years old at this point, but in some ways this ends up working to the game's advantage. The entire town feels lost and passed over by time, and the game's dated visuals support that sense of stagnancy and decay. And while not nearly as smothering as it is in Silent Hill, the fog in Pathologic helps create an oppressive sense of confinement and doom, despite really being an illusion created by draw distance limitation. Admittedly, these can't have been intentional, but they work! It's a dreary and bleak environment, and the threat of pestilence is almost palpable.
The town itself is surprisingly large and quite dynamic, with day/night cycles, weather changes, and various NPCs roaming the streets. With the help of an in-game map, you'll soon become extremely familiar with your surroundings, as you'll have both ample opportunity to explore and the need to do so. While not a true sandbox environment, given the time constraints of the storyline, the world of Pathologic offers far more freeform exploration than the vast majority of adventures. (And by that I mean "all of them".)
Navigation is handled with the familiar mouse and keyboard combination used in first-person action games. The controls are fluid and comfortable, and you'll soon be zipping around the maze-like streets of Pathologic. Or maybe not "zipping", as even top speed isn't particularly fast, which is too bad, as you'll be doing a lot of trekking back and forth. So much so that your character will become tired and hungry, in fact. As time passes, you'll need to eat and sleep to keep your strength up. Unfortunately for you, tainted food and water can increase your risk of disease, so you'll also need to take medicine to safeguard your immunity levels. Those, in turn, can have side effects that impact your health, so you'll then need to find ways to improve your physical condition. Maintaining your welfare becomes a constant balancing act throughout Pathologic, which adds a nice layer of strategy to the proceedings. Each condition is represented by a status bar that is easily accessed with a keystroke, or appears on its own when approaching a critical level. It's possible to lose the game outright by failing to correct whatever disorder is out of control, so ignore them at your peril.
Necessary items can be found by rummaging through garbage, buying in shops, or trading with the townsfolk, particularly children. Strangely, money is slowly accumulated simply by running around, presumably by "discovering" it in your travels, but this never requires any action on your part, so it feels more like interest being accrued on your life. Which, given the gruesome nature of the story, might not be so out of place as an explanation. More valuable items like protective clothing and weapons will also be necessary as you progress further into the story.
Yes, weapons. Knives, guns, and homemade explosives are all present and accounted for, but Pathologic is not to be considered an "action" game by any reasonable standards. One of the other conditions you'll need to monitor is your character's "reputation", and killing people negatively impacts that, so violence is clearly not a recommended course. Whether there's a greater emphasis on action later in the game, I cannot say for sure, but it's definitely not Pathologic's primary focus. If and when you do engage in combat, it's a relatively simple real-time affair of maneuvering yourself into the best position for a few mouse clicks of punishment, preferably dodging the incoming attempts at the same. If you die, it's game over, but success in this area really depends more on your character's physical condition going in than your skill at delivering pain (assuming you're not innately terrible at the latter).
Running away, on the other hand, is something I experienced on more than one occasion. The second scenario starts with you wounded and under suspicion that has most villagers intent on spilling your blood. If spotted, the music quickens and you'll be relentlessly pursued, forcing you either to turn and fight (and in your condition, this is suicide) or hoof it to the nearest available open building (thank heavens for pacifist merchants and apparently insurmountable doors). This is great for getting the heart racing, but really it's more of a nuisance, and finally restoring your reputation comes as a welcome relief. There are similar fight-or-flee encounters elsewhere in Pathologic, but only occasionally, as humans are only one of the lethal killers in the game, and much easier to avoid than the plague.
I'd have preferred to offer more insight into the later stages of the game, but Pathologic looks to be a fairly massive experience, and finishing even a single scenario would have me playing long after the game's imminent release, which rather defeats the purpose of a preview. So what can be said conclusively at this stage? Perhaps it's best left that Pathologic looks to be one of a kind experience. Its many rough edges may yet be resolved, but even if they do, the game won't be to everyone's taste. Certainly it's anything but a traditional adventure… or a traditional RPG, survival horror, or simulation. But debating genre is to miss the point of the game entirely. It's new, it's unique, it's daring and surreal, and if that's not worthy of attention in this day of recycled formulas, I don't know what is. Whether the game can deliver on its potential remains to be seen in the final version, but it's refreshing to see that genre innovation is becoming contagious.
Pathologic has been licensed by GMX Media for release in the UK later this month. Russian publisher Buka Entertainment, who own the international rights, are still in negotiations to spread the game to North America and elsewhere around the world.