Play it now — Pathologic

Play It Now!I’m in a strange town where nothing seems quite right. Everything, really, seems a bit off and the natural and the unnatural seem to exist side-by-side.

I’ve become embroiled in events and the prognosis for the outcome looks singularly bleak. The game makes a point to remind me that I’m playing a game, but even so – whilst the locals task me with this errand or that, there’s a constant sense that I’m in over my head.

While everyone seems to be keen on giving me instructions, I’m not at all certain what I’m supposed to be doing now, what I’m supposed to be doing next, or whether I’m doing the right thing.

Really, quite a lot like life.

The game is Buka’s Pathologic. What is it with me and bleak Russian games anyway?

It’s won several awards, none of which would be for its translation into English. The English text gives the air of being genuinely outlandish or eccentric in its almost poetic cadences, rather than just being of uncertain translation.

There are three campaigns, each with its own playable character. Two are immediately available and the third is unlockable. The manual advises you to tackle them in order.

The town. Where to begin? The town is set in some unknown Steppes, presumably Russian ones – at some indeterminate time and quite probably in some alternate history.

There’s not a telephone or power line in sight, and the town’s only link with the distant outside world is the railway line. At the East of town is the massive bulk of the Abattoir – a hulking, almost self-contained meat processing plant that resembles some alien edifice more than it does anything raised by the hand of man. To the West an improbable structure stretches into the sky, hanging in the air.

East: The Abbatoir West: The "polyhedron"

Within minutes of starting the game you’ll likely see at least one character who is definitely not at all human. Quite how we are to feel about that isn’t clear.

I still don't know what this is

In the recommended starting campaign (the ‘Bachelor’ campaign), you play a doctor (Bachelor Dankowsky) who has come to town seeking out a man who is reputedly immortal. Your hope is to salvage your reputation after the closure of your laboratory for “scientific extremism”. The immortal man is easy enough to find, but what develops spins out of control rapidly.

Whoever they are, they want a word. Consistent with the game’s name, the campaigns revolve around a mysterious infection whose force will only start to become apparent by about the second day. During your time in the town, you’ll be dealing with the quarantine, the town’s quirky (and often bizarre) inhabitants, getting mixed up in local politics, and probably attending a number of mystery plays.

At times you will encounter mysterious animal-masked figures for whom your character is… well, just that. Only a character. When they talk, they are addressing you as the game-player.

This one talks about game mechanics. Sort of

Your missions and errands are mysterious at best. A list of important people “must survive” due to some (perhaps mystical) connection between them. Events and other circumstances will lay additional tasks upon you, and there is always something to do each day to draw your attention away from the simple basics of staying alive.

Your character will get hungry, tired, sick, or injured in the course of things. Just keeping yourself fed and rested seems to take a lot of your resources, let alone being able to accomplish anything else. I might well suggest that you play the game once casually for a few days of game-time just to get a handle on things, and to form a better idea of the resources at your command. Once you’ve got a better feel, you can sit down and actually attempt to play in earnest.

There isn't a single intact mirror in town

From a technical perspective, frame-rates are excellent. My machine happily runs it at the maximum settings delivering around 300fps indoors and roughly 200fps outdoors. The models aren’t very high-polygon, and the whole game has an unfinished feel to it. Indeed the Readme file describes it as “the initial game prototype of first person simulator, where you have to spend 12 days in the town contaminated by unknown disease.

It's not the garden spot of the steppesMost of the time you won’t even see a user interface. Certain health-bars will turn up in the corner of the screen when their condition becomes serious. Inventory and notes windows pop up on request, then fold away. The rest of the time all you see is the represented world. A few – a very few – things will subtly highlight when you can interact with them. Mostly doors, rubbish containers and the very occasional other container.

Pathologic hasn’t done well in English-speaking countries, and you can find it in among the budget titles for just a few dollars. It’s such a disorienting, difficult and surreal experience that I hesitate to recommend it at all, but recommend it I do.

Heaven only knows why, but it appeals to me in some strange way.

One thought on “Play it now — Pathologic”

  1. I loved this game, but it’s probably because I love the typical Russian bleakness and hopelessness.

    If you want a really intense experience, try playing it while suffering from the flu or other infection with a raging fever. It really takes on a realistic feel then.

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