Pathologic Classic HD [Review]

It is somewhat strange to be revisiting Pathologic. It’s not a setting or a title that you would eagerly embrace for subsequent playthroughs, as you move through the game’s three characters – this alone being on the original release of the game and not this reissue and updated version of the game.

Revisit it though I did in what I’m convinced is the gaming equivalent of masochism for me. I received Pathologic Classic HD as a backer reward for supporting the Kickstarter campaign for the Pathologic Remake. I gushed in the first review I made of the original game and I can already feel that desire to spout gleefully and exuberantly over this version of the game bubbling up inside me. So I’m going to try and temper that desire and instead try to go through this more methodically in hopes of better explaining why I believe you ought to experience Pathologic – now more than ever with the release of the “Classic HD” version of the game.

First though it’s worth taking the broad strokes look at Pathologic and its overarching components.

Trinities run through societies, religions and cultures. The number three has had significance for many cultures and Pathologic is another entry on the list of subscribers to that notion of a Rule of Three.

Pathologic is very much a game of threes. There are three characters, three factions, three ideologies and three intended endings. There are three layers of narrative and three basic districts to the town where the game takes place. The number three runs through the game like a central artery constantly pumping a triumvirate of issues and features throughout the world and story, its minor vessels and capillaries carrying deceit, intrigue and challenge all around its aching and quietly protesting body.

So where to start among these threes? How about, the most immediate and apparent of them?

The three characters; Pathologic allows you to play as one of three characters, the first two available to play from the start and a third character who is subsequently unlocked after completing a playthrough of one of the other characters. Each of these characters exists within the world parallel to the player and has their own motivations and routines and will be encountered in the town as both potentially an ally and an adversary.

Each character has Twelve Days within a remote steppe town set at around the turn of the 19th/20th Century. A pestilence is sweeping the town and you as a healer of various sort are caught in the middle of events. You are there already for your own reasons but the canvas on which your actions will be painted has grown drastically larger and with potentially dire consequences. You are to attempt to quell the plague’s fire by whatever means you can. Your success will vary as you seek to understand and ultimately combat the crushing weight that looms over and runs through the town’s streets and gutters, sweeping away all it touches.

Playing as the Bachelor, Dankovsky will potentially be an experience of equal parts administrative manipulation and street level brutality. You’ll be scratching the surface of the town’s culture and traditions while struggling to keep your head above water. Every discovery and piece of collected understanding will throw you further down a rabbit hole of collective questions but you can come out at the end a success – as indeed is possible with all three characters. The Bachelor serves as something of an informal and indirect tutorial to the game offering one of the easier starts to the game. That’s not to say that the difficulty will not rise sharply through his play-through. You can bet it will. However it will start more gently than the other two playable characters.

Haruspex, the second of the three offers a deeper look into the town’s traditions and mystical culture. It’s also quite likely something of a slaughter. The Haruspex, Artemy, if played first offers a real baptism by fire and understandably has put people off the game having played him before the Bachelor. If you persevere though, you’ll find the Haruspex is an exceptionally capable individual who is well geared towards finding allies more readily than the Bachelor. There’ll be a steep price of course but he has his ways, not to mention something of a desperate and dysfunctional romance.

It is the third unlock-able character, Clara the Changeling (or Devotress in the original version of the game) that offers some of the most compelling reveals of the game and its three layer narrative. Her playthrough is arguably the most challenging of the three but she is also potentially the strongest of the three healers you can control as if played both intelligently and ruthlessly.

There is a problem though; that being of stamina. It takes around fifteen hours for each character’s playthrough and each grows more gruelling than the last. Expect to hurt just as much as you heal both in and out of the game. Making it to the end of one character’s story is an achievement, let alone all three. I would encourage you to persevere though and let yourself become caught in the game’s febrile atmosphere as there are few titles that offer, for good or ill the comparable feeling of relentless attrition that Pathologic does. I remember in particular playing the original release of the game while ill at one point and running a mild fever. I didn’t expect it to be conducive to the atmosphere but in some perverse and twisted way it was beneficial.

That notion of ruthlessness and brutality is also worth examining in more detail for a moment. Pathologic is a game that is at best dismissive of the player, but frequently holds them in outright contempt, as you are thrown into a world that has its own priorities as do the individuals and the factions they comprise. Make no mistake, you play an important role in Pathologic but you are not the centre of the game’s universe, you are quite often a nuisance or an irrelevance, unless it is otherwise convenient to the game’s agenda.

Pathologic is frequently gruelling, both a test of your patience and personality, an insidious examination of your actions and response under pressure. These are not going to be overtly signposted but they will most certainly be there – for example: At one point during the Haruspex playthrough I needed to find another character to gather information from them. They’d been taken hostage by one of the town’s gangs – a group of teenagers and younger children that had armed themselves and amidst the chaos of the town cut out their own fiefdom. They had a position of strength when it came to negotiation, if I were to maintain my reputation, (more on that later) I’d need to acquiesce to their demands if I wanted access to the individual with the information that I needed. Their price was steep though in the hawkish economy of the plague beset town; a high quantity of rifle ammunition, both rare and expensive to procure. With time constantly ticking down and no guarantee I’d even be able to source the full amount I gave an answer to the game’s personality test and blew the kid’s brains across the back of the wall and – releasing the individual gained the information I needed.

So… Expediency sometimes pays. The moral cost to your actions however can have further reaching consequences. Reputation could be described as key given the importance placed on it, however that wouldn’t be entirely true. You can forgo maintaining a positive reputation within the town, there’ll simply be consequences to your actions and the agency you are afforded.

This issue of personal agency within the game’s structure is something that I think could potentially catch many people out. As players we tend to be well conditioned rats in a cage of mechanics obediently ticking off a list of tasks to be done. Outside of the main task on Day One (of the game’s Twelve Days) every other task in the game can be failed, indeed not even undertaken and the world will keep on turning, only consequences will remain.

Being given autonomy can be something of a culture shock, to be told that your actions both do and do not matter in the same breath goes against what we’ve been largely, unconsciously trained to do. We see a list of tasks and we expect to complete them and for the game to address this with a change in the world state. Now Pathologic will do this. What it also does though is accept inaction and failure. It won’t reward you for it but it will not come to a crashing halt if you fail to complete a task or objective – nudging or outright demanding that you try again “till you get it right” acting a chastising nanny, overbearing and omnipotent. For this reason despite the apparent clunkiness of the game’s mechanics this helps Pathologic to feel more real and alive than many other titles, even if it doesn’t broadcast the effects of your successes and failures from the rooftops.

Remember that you are simply a cog in a machine, or a puppet on a string and you’ll be able to approach Pathologic on its terms – it doesn’t particularly care how you want to approach it. The boldness of this decision in design is not going to gain Pathologic as many adherents as it may like but it exists and can either be accepted or not.

Consequence plays a massive part of the game. Who lives and dies, succeeds or fails tends to be a murky miasma. Things will become very clear by Day Twelve – in terms of basic consequences at least with three standard endings depending on choices that you can make. If however for the sake of argument you are not invited to that final summit due to your actions or lack thereof you will receive a fourth “worst case” ending – what can I say… I shunted it off to the side to maintain the Rule of Threes concept.

Getting to this point though, that long and frequently gruelling process is what will make up a good portion of your time with Pathologic. There is the revision and comprehension of what’s going on but I’ll leave that till later, it’s something that needs to be danced round delicately as it gets to the heart of the games superb narrative and the multiple layers present within. The immediate process of playing the game though and getting through each day follows a basic pattern. Messages and summary letters are reviewed throughout the day from an unseen messenger. New tasks, requests for help and the never ending mind games and manipulations will be conveyed to you through these letters as each faction and the individuals that comprise then will jockey for position – in some cases for themselves but more often for the ideology to which they subscribe, be it the Utopians who look to maintain their position in the hierarchy and to “charitably” “elevate” the well-being of the town. The Termites look to maintain a status quo that respects the town’s traditions and the balance of its population, a focus on industry and a residual fear of change. Then there are those that are largely forgotten or on the fringes of society, the Humbles. They are perhaps the most interesting of the three ideologies. Despite being comprised of individuals looking for personal redemption and security they share a common need regardless of their individual circumstance. Each of these three groups will be assigned to a character sympathetic to their mind-set and from among the group will be key figures; “Bound” or “Adherents” whose fate is tied to your own and the towns – in short, keep them alive and your influence grows.

You’ll have a main task for each day which if failed results in one of your Bound falling ill, potentially fatally. Secondary tasks will reveal more of the story and provide you with resources. The problem is the amount of time that everything takes. Time is perhaps your most challenging opponent in Pathologic. You’ll need to traverse the town by foot and will frequently find yourself criss-crossing the districts to achieve your goals as you run a gauntlet of scared and angry townspeople, infected districts, looters and opportunists and as the story progresses guard patrols and military checkpoints. Playing the game blind is at times an exercise in frustration as directions can be rather unclear which fits the circumstance and setting, but on a number of occasions are unnecessarily obscure.

For the most part though, you’ll have enough information to succeed in a task. Make sure to talk to people and think rationally about who will potentially have insight on a problem and you’ll be able to find your way through most situations, well… when they’re not lying to you. One handy feature I only discovered when I’d nearly finished Classic HD – despite completing the original release as well is that when you click on a character portrait whilst in the dialogue window you’ll be shown a selection of character quotes that give a reasonably clear though somewhat biased assessment of the person you are talking to sourced from the opinions of other characters within the town.

Two other things that are very worth mentioning are the visual and audio cues that signify an update to the map or a letter being received. Glyphs will be displayed in the bottom corners of the screen and the sound of paper being shuffled will inform you of the arrival of new correspondence. When in doubt though, remember to simply talk to as many of the towns key residents as you can when lost.

So you’ve got an idea on how to proceed once you’ve received a task. You know to speak to the town’s key figures and are aware of how they will seek to manipulate you. Congratulations! You can now look forward to starvation and infection as you’ve still to work out how to survive in this cursed town.

Hunger, thirst, exhaustion; these are just some of the things you’ll need to maintain and manage to survive from day to day. The town’s economy will wildly fluctuate based on circumstances beyond your control to the point where you may need to sell your only weapon to afford something to eat, just so you can last through the night. If you don’t mind getting blood on your hands and a plummeting reputation then it’s also possible to break into people’s homes to steal the resources you need. There’s no certainty that you’ll be able to gather all you need though so it, like many things in the game, aside from night following day is a gamble.

It can be a little overwhelming, all the different things you’ll need to manage and I think a lot of this is affected by our tendency to be well trained rats. Always trying to tick all the boxes and constantly be as efficient as we can in pursuit of some arbitrary measure of success. Pathologic gives you a chance to embrace and not fear failure. To expect it and to then find ways to collect yourself, dust off and try again. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its problems.

Inventory space is limited and the need to go diving through rubbish bins to collect items for sale or barter can become tedious. Using the character’s inventory does not pause the game (unlike engaging in dialogue) and can be more fiddly than would be ideal. Finding yourself running a circuit of locations that offer the most items for sale becomes its own routine mechanic that you will likely establish. Thankfully that potential monotony and predictability is crushed by the plague. As districts are overwhelmed and become ever more dangerous you’ll have to adapt accordingly. There is a mechanic where you can purchase or receive an updated map that denotes infected districts on each day. The cost however can be steep for what could not even be that useful a tool.

Good forward planning will help you more than anything else in Pathologic. Try to think as though you are there – what would you need each day? Plan accordingly and collect provisions, don’t take too many stupid risks and always keep in mind that you’re expected to fail. Journey planning can be a little troublesome with some entries or shortcuts on the map being poorly labelled. Another issue would be low fences and the character’s inability to vault or otherwise climb over them. It’s tedious, unnecessarily awkward and further cuts into the time the player has to get everything done as they need to make their way around obstacles within the world.

It’s entirely possible to get the “best” endings as well as reaching the bottom of the multi-layer narrative’s twists and turns as each character (with one exception that I won’t divulge) but you’re going to need to put quite some effort in to get it. That is likely to be the biggest turn-off for many potential players I think, it’s demand for effort and focus. We’ve become so used to waypoint markers, fast travel and hand holding that a title like Pathologic was and still is a culture shock. I love it all the more for this though. It doesn’t care about your needs or preferences, it has a goal in mind and for the most part successfully realises it.

Combat is perhaps the game’s biggest mechanical weakness though. Opponents will relentlessly pursue you which is equal parts comical and frustrating unless you enter a building causing a world transition only to exit and reset and recycle the world’s character spawns. It is possible to make use of limited line of sight based stealth system and to back-stab an opponent using a kitchen knife though the area you need to hit is a minute spot at the top of the spine and if playing with a controller is a quick recipe for gaming misery. On that note, one of the things I was most curious to try out in Classic HD was controller support. It “functions” – I highly recommend you stick with the original mouse and keyboard control scheme though. Aiming alone given the lack of ammunition and the tendency for shots to miss as weapons degrade will make it all the more necessary to hit accurately – no need to make things any harder for yourself.

It’s also worth noting that each character will have certain limitations or exclusive advantages to what they can use. The Bachelor possesses a viewer lens which enables him to see plague clouds from a greater distance enabling him to better plan routes. Both he and the Haruspex will be able to use the same weapons though the Haruspex will tend to have more cause to use them and a higher frequency of ammunition. Clara by comparison is limited in what she can use. The consolation and flip side to this however is that aside from a Derringer pistol her very touch can hurt or heal. It’s an unlimited weapon and with practice can be used to devastating effect. Of course her constantly dropping reputation and the knock on effect of suspicion to outright hostility you’ll encounter will make that offensive capability little comfort when all you really want is to be able to buy a loaf of bread. It’s these moments where the game is quietly observing you from the stands and perhaps smiling wryly, watching you twist and turn in what the wonderfully, bizarrely translated manual for the original release termed a “simulator of a human being behaviour in the condition of pandemic” (sic) or as a Stress Behaviour Simulator in the remakes Kickstarter pitch video.

I’ve avoided going into too much detail regarding the narrative for a couple of reasons. The first and foremost is that within Pathologic is one of the smartest stories I’ve encountered in a game. Where a title like Planescape Torment asked a big question with a surfeit of readily available and equally pertinent answers Pathologic wraps its story in multiple layers of metaphor and possible interpretation, both inside and out of the game. It asks you questions without doing so overtly, instead it lets you mull over ideas as you become aware of each proposition having both been asked them and raised them yourself as you walk across the town, watching it slowly tear itself apart. Playing each of the three characters will offer you a window into each of the three layers of the game’s narrative. It is possible to find the major narrative twist on your first playthrough. To get all of the stories ins and outs though it is necessary to play as Clara. I think it is a testament to the richness of the setting that no matter whom you play as you’ll find something new; different perspectives and events, to explanations of changes in the world that would have been a mystery before.

One example of this is early in the game. A hysteria sweeps the town and young women are attacked and killed in the streets by fearful mobs, all in front of you. This will be explained for some characters and not others. Only by experiencing all three characters stories will you be able to complete the picture. Another example would be related to the factions. Playing as the Bachelor, you are from the start loosely allied to the concept of the Utopians and the game does encourage you down this path. It will respect your own agency and depending on your performance allow you to go against the proscribed and recommended character path. If you were to sympathise with it though you’ll likely find out more about the politics of each faction and be able to gain more pieces to to the overall story.

There is something oddly satisfying as well about breaking the conditioning and going against an allied faction’s manipulations that were expectantly imposed on you. The game does address this in a somewhat loose manner at one point and is one of the aspects that I’d have liked to have seen developed more. It comes at the close of the game and I’ll leave you to form your own view on how it was handled.

Feedback and the effects of your actions can take longer to make themselves apparent. At the end of a day, providing you’ve survived you’ll have a bell toll and silent text informing you of the numbers of people who have died, gone missing and are infected. It’s an understated and I think deliberate way of keeping track of the broader picture just before you go to sleep, another weight to carry as you fall into a fitful sleep. Other consequences of actions will naturally reveal themselves, sometimes with cruel fanfare and others more subtly.

Somehow though, despite the difficulty and lack of compromise in the game’s design it still remains a fascinating piece of work. With the release of Pathologic Classic HD it received one of the most important possible improvements over the original release; the translation. Pathologic was originally written and created in Russian and the initial translation to English was closer to a barely comprehensible fever dream than a coherent narrative. With this translation, bar a few spelling errors things now make sense!

I was a little wary over the effect this would have on the experience as the need to make sense of the original translation had an unintended consequence of further drawing me into the fever dream that Pathologic initially offered. Now though the town and its atmosphere and mechanics will still do that based on their own merits. It’s circumstantially shifting music and decaying atmosphere of brutal buildings and starkly lit interiors will remind you of the misery that waits for you. The earthy colour palette will paint broad strokes of blood and earth and a soundscape of cries, moans, rifle fire and selective silence will have you clawing your way to safety and respite. It’s not a technical showcase; I don’t think it was ever intended to be though. It was primarily an experiment and an experience to which there is little that can compare to it. The risk of alienation for the player given its methods makes for a highly risky investment. It’s telling I think that the only other title I can think of to compare to Pathologic is by the same developer – Ice-Pick Lodge and is Turgor/Tension/The Void, perhaps an even more punishing experience.

Classic HD does offer some visual tweaks and additions with SSAO, Bloom and Motion Blur shaders as well as widescreen support for general display and most parts of the user interface were required. For the most part though things are unchanged, just fixed up and made functional. There are some small tasks that have been repaired and reinserted into the game though the existing Walkthrough for the game still applies. There also have been some changes to names and other terminology in the game that may take a little time for returning players of the original to get used to mostly though things are well considered or otherwise intact.

Classic HD was created as a way of preserving Pathologic in its original state for posterity – something which I feel is a well-intentioned goal while development continues on a full remake of the game.

I would hope that I’ve looked in a reasonably fair manner at Classic HD given my obvious and overt bias towards the game. It is a bold experiment that has an audience that it exists for. It’s not a title that will likely win people over that don’t share an affinity for what it is trying to do but it is something that if you are already partial to what it offers and explores then it is waiting for you and has been updated and repaired to be playable now and for the future while the developer looks to the future. I think it’s best to describe to Pathologic as a “cult” title that was never particularly interested in identifying or indeed intending itself as such. It simply was and is… Pathologic. Attempts to categorise it usually end in head scratching and frustration. All you can really do is approach it on its own merits and flaws.

It absolutely has its problems as a game and I would hope that I’ve made these limitations and issues clear. For me sometimes they added to the experience. If you have a clear notion of what you are unwilling to compromise on in terms of mechanics though then I hope what I’ve described means you aren’t caught unaware. I would urge you to give the game a chance for what it is trying to do but can entirely understand a person’s unwillingness to do so.

Now I’ve been very well behaved and haven’t revealed the twists you have to look forward, I’ve left you the world to discover, its established traditions and workings and what makes it live, breathe, bleed and die. I could probably write a few thousand words just about the setting and how it all comes together but this would be to deprive you of the treat of discovering it for yourself.

I would somewhat envy you the opportunity to experience the game afresh. After completing the original game with its mess of a translation and doing the same with Classic HD I’m in no rush to hurry back to that cursed town. I will however be ready to dust myself down and once again stalk through the marshes and steppes, my hands thick with blood and the fever once again waiting to overtake me as the Pathologic Remake nears completion.

So what does that leave us with to discuss? In terms of DRM there is a DRM free release of the game available at GOG. It is also available via Humble and Steam.

Modding is the same as with the original release of the game. It makes use of a hierarchical replacement system as with an Elder Scrolls title for example. Textures are stored as renamed .dds files and sound is saved as .ogg. Replacing both is a relatively simple process. A tool is available to unpack the game’s files, allowing for studying and use as a template – particularly useful with texture changes. I think it is also possible to make adjustments to the game’s script – spelling fixes etc. if required. For the most part though Classic HD is a compilation of modding fixes pre-packaged with the game and outside of further customising the outward appearance of the game, is really in a ready state.

With all said and done and some important things left unsaid for the player to discover, Pathologic Classic HD occupies a space where it is a title restored for posterity, as well as updated as a curiosity to be experienced and explored. Make no bones about it though. The game is not for everyone and it never was. If it is for you though then there’s never been a better time to play the game. I look forward to hearing about the experiences of someone else that got lost out on the steppe, their successes and recriminations and perhaps we can both look forward to this curious animal rising from the earth again with the remake that is to come.

There is a tendency within the gaming press for calls and recriminations of a lack of “innovation” or “daring”. Pathologic manages to be unforgivingly daring to the point of deliberately antagonising the player. There’s something to be said for the problems that are caused by innovation for its own sake as a motivation, Pathologic I think managed to dodge those potential pitfalls. Just remember it still has its own issues, which brings us to trying to sum things up.

Still as unforgiving as it has ever been, still unique, still outstanding – this is where the problem presents itself. We tend to attach words to scores. A description of “outstanding” is matched to a 9/10 score. Now all these previous words that you have presumably read would I hope convey my belief and reasoning for why Pathologic is outstanding at what it does, but that it is also a hugely acquired taste and has problems within its own sphere of influence. It’s absolutely not going to be for everyone, for many it is going to be a miserable and utterly repellent experience.

So how do you then tell them let alone convince them of it that Pathologic Classic HD is a “9/10” game?

The most reasonable way I can think of is to say this; For what Pathologic is and what it does within its own niche it fits that “outstanding 9/10” moniker. Compared to all other titles across genres? …Well. It just doesn’t compare. It would be like comparing trying to compare Apples to Oranges.

There’s no sense in even trying to create a structure that has an average baseline simply for the sake of having a structure. Pathologic looks to give you agency and to embrace its unique nature; of equal parts respect, antagonism and indifference for and towards the player. Up to this point there are numerous words that I would hope describe Pathologic. Please focus on them whether you agree with the conclusion or not and try to resist a perceived need for a numerical score, as much like Pathologic, a single number or word cannot sum up all it contains and has to offer.

Perhaps we ought to take that approach with other titles as well. Respond to them on their own merits and resist the need to collectivise and compare them to ill-judged bed mates.

And perhaps I’ll see you on the Steppe someday. You bring the Twyrine, I’ll bring some food and together…

 

 

…we’ll watch the town tear itself apart.