Born in Russia, weaned on Oblivion, served with cancer.

Pathologic is a surreal role-playing / horror game. It’s not the typical horror game where things jump out and make loud noises, but rather the more unnerving kind that tries to creep you out with a dreary atmosphere and disturbing subject matter. The problem is that it does all of this rather awkwardly, and first-time players will likely throw it aside due to its odd presentation.

Snap36Players can assume (among a cast of three characters) the role of Daniel Dankovskiy, a scientist on a desperate mission to save his financially unstable laboratory. He hears rumors of a man named Simon Kain, who has lived for countless centuries in a quaint little northern hamlet removed from ordinary society, and immediately sets out to research the man and regain his reputation. Upon arriving, Daniel finds that Kain has been murdered, presumably by a demon, and a mysterious plague is slowly starting to consume the town.

In many ways, Pathologic is the equivalent of an interactive David Lynch film. You don’t always understand what is going on in it, but the atmosphere and presentation are so engrossing that you can’t look away. As you leave your lodgings for the first time in the game, a bird-man (you know, like one of those hooded Black Death guys) approaches you with his creepy masked buddy. Actually no, scratch that, both of them are creepy, and they’re also tied somehow to the odd mythos of the game.

Your alter ego has six very important status bars. First is the reputation bar. According to what you do in the game, your reputation will go up or down. Perform moral actions (help someone in need) and you’ll gain a good reputation. Do evil things and your reputation will go down. This stat is essential when dealing with shopkeepers, who will refuse to do business with you if it’s too low. Other interesting stats includes Immunity and Infection, which really helps bring through the ‘plague-infected town’ vibe. You’ll need meds and protective gear when exploring disease-ridden areas. Hunger and exhaustion also help bring extra realism, since you’ll need food and sleep to keep healthy.

Snap23Granted, there’s a lot of cheapo production in Pathologic to keep it from ever being confused with Oblivion. It isn’t a top studio game, but boy do you have to give it props for originality. For one thing, time progresses a bit like in those old Quest for Glory games, where events take place in the world that don’t require your direct input. For example, the town will steadily become engulfed in the aforementioned plague, and this gets portrayed in very grisly ways – the air turns foul, bodies start piling up, people start to panic, bandits start to feed off the chaos.

The game is divided into several days, and each day has a limited amount of time for you to perform the main quests as well as the many secondary ones. This actually makes Pathologic quite difficult to deal with initially, since you have to learn where everything is and how to get to it fastest. One possible way is to explore the town freely and make notes of important places – now that’s retro – and restart the game with the added knowledge of the gaming world.

Snap47Rough edges and all, the game plays similar to other first-person role-playing games. Like Oblivion with terminal cancer, you go around locations trying to solve quests and find loot. You also trade quite a lot, with different inhabitants of the town willing to trade you for different things. Like in Oblivion, you can find all sorts of garbage from trash cans or abandoned homes, but here you can trade them with the various inhabitants for useful items. Prices at shop keepers also fluctuate as time goes on, with the world going to hell and all.

Pathologic is also one of those RPGs where fighting takes a back seat, and where most of the gameplay is focused on either scavenging or talking to characters. There are several quests where you have no choice but fight, but large parts of the game can be completed without drawing blood.

Being such an artsy-fartsy RPG with its focus on story and dark themes, one can’t help but cut Pathologic some slack. It tries something new, however clumsily, and ends up accomplishing a certain feel that few games manage. There are plenty of weak points, don’t get me wrong. For one thing, having so little spoken dialogue in such a story-centric game is a huge letdown – you have to read walls of boring text. The game also includes far too much walking around through its large town.

System Requirements: Pentium III 700 MHz, 256 MB RAM, 1.2 GB HDD, WinXP

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