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[Quickie Nr. 003] Konjad and Pathologic
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Sat 10 November 2012, 16:29:47Tags: Ice-Pick Lodge; Pathologic
[Written by Konjad]
Ice-Pick Lodge was founded in 2002 in Moscow. They managed to complete their first game in the year 2005, first released in The Commonwealth of Independent States and a year later in The European Union. While it was barely noticed in the West, the game has received many awards in Russia. Ice-Pick Lodge have developed three games in total, each of them different from the other, and yet all of them original and surprising in so many aspects. Pathologic was the first one, after which came Tension: The Void and Cargo – The Quest for Gravity.
Pathologic is one of those games that make you remember them for no particular reason, perhaps solely due to the atmosphere. It’s one of these few entertainment-oriented crafts which make you wonder what could possibly happen if the modern industry weren’t so very mainstream-oriented.
Pathologic, what the fuck is it?
Pathologic is an action-adventure horror game, more or less, but it’s difficult to actually define it. It definitely does have a depressive atmosphere of isolation and hopelessness in the face of the powers of nature and uncertainty. Is it horror then? There are no gimmicks typical of horror games, no abrupt events, no monsters and no darkness or fog everywhere you go. Nor is it close to games like Silent Hill or Amnesia: The Dark Descent. If I had to pick a similar horror game, then a far guess would be The Path, but only because both games are more about telling a story than anything else. However, in every other aspect, The Path is still different. If you’re looking for a horror game, Pathologic is not the best choice.
Is it an action game then, like Resident Evil? By all means no! The action elements are kept to a minimum, and while you can fight, it’s a rare occurrence and very often ending with one single bullet to someone’s head – yours or the enemy’s. Things are that way in the later parts of the game, at least, because you start off with no weapon or with just a lancet, depending on the character you choose to play as. More often than not, you’ll be avoiding combat or running away from it, unless you really want to engage in pointless violence.
So, an adventure game it is! Actually, that’s a no as well. There’s basically no puzzle solving at all. You’re just exploring the town and talking to people most of the time. I was disappointed when, at a certain point in the game, I was supposed to examine some infected blood. The action was essentially automatic, and there was no real input from the player. Too bad, I expected a tiny puzzle requiring at least a minimal knowledge of biology.
It is, however, a Choices & Consequences game.
Actions have their consequences, and what’s different from the cRPG genre is that there are no choices such as, “do A and that happens, or do B and something else happens, usually rewarding the player in the same way as A”. There are “best” choices in Pathologic, but getting to them is a struggle and an effort, often an impossible one. Impossible because your planning can fail – you might lack money to get more medicine or food, or you might not make it in time. Yes, “make it in time”. The game has a clock ticking. It’s ticking to your ultimate failure, and you have to hurry all the time to make as few sacrifices as possible. The game is divided in 12 days, and you need to sleep, eat and do everything you can to stay and keep others alive. That requires you to save food and drugs for yourself and sometimes share them with others… but you need to keep in mind there must be enough left for you to carry on. Otherwise, a few hours or even a day or two later, you may literally end up in a dead end. Some other actions, not necessarily that obvious, have their consequences much later, so that the game requires you to plan first and foremost.
(The game has three characters to choose from and the storyline may vary depending on who you play as. I’ve only played as the bachelor and, therefore, my experience might be different from yours.)
When playing Daniel Dankovski, a bachelor of medicine, you come to a small town – small if measured against the real-life scale, but large compared to typical video game settlements - to visit one of the residents and do your job. However, upon arrival you discover that he has been murdered. Confused, you have to find out why and who would kill this man… and the answer comes not long after the beginning of the game. The killer is a tiny microbe. Soon after, the epidemic starts, and day after day more and more districts of the town become unsafe and are put under quarantine. Your job is to find an antidote, but that’s going to be a tremendous effort. The game is divided in 12 days, starting peacefully, slowly becoming a bit unsettling and in the final parts straightforward threatening due to a lack of supplies, the desperation of the inhabitants and the raging epidemic. Few games deal with illness seriously, and if they do, the condition usually serves as a story to be told, and not as a part of the gameplay. In the case of Pathologic, it plays the main role in both.
You will need to eat and use drugs to survive, some to boost your immune system and others to fight the affliction and its effects. However, when you get infected – you’re infected. You can slow down the progress of the sickness, but you’ll only be able to get rid of it very few times in the entire game, and it’s easy to catch the disease. The Sand Plague will make your vision blurry, and after some time you'll need to take painkillers and various antibiotics which slow down the development of the disease, but as a drawback decrease your health. Alternatively, you can drink alcohol, which also helps, but drastically raises your exhaustion, forcing you to sleep often and therefore waste a lot of precious time. To fight off the sedative effects of drugs and alcohol, you can drink coffee, but it has a negative effect on your health, or you can, for example, eat lemons, but they increase your hunger, and so on... This is a great system that requires constant management once you get ill, and when you finally lay your hands on a pill that can kill the microbe in your body, you will be hesitant whether it's actually a good idea to swallow it because you know you will still be in contact with the disease due to the environment.
Prices in stores fluctuate, usually going up, but sometimes going down as well... Thus, you never know if the item you're saving money for is going to cost twice as much tomorrow. Moreover, most of the food rots with time, and sometimes it may be better to save money to buy it at a later point than to purchase everything at once... but then the price might spike up. You never really know. You can also trade with children running around the town, they sometimes happen to have useful things to offer, not to mention that they are the ones you get ammunition from.
Apart from that, there's a karma system. Many actions will increase and others will decrease your karma. Sharing your food, medicine and painkillers with others will make you more popular, but you need to keep in mind that you need these things for yourself as well as for characters crucial to the story. Stealing will make people dislike you, and killing someone (except in self-defense), especially a child, will make them loathe you.
Every day you get various tasks to accomplish, but you’re not alone. Many people will help you as much as they can, often doing the job for you if you fail… but they might pay the ultimate price for their commitment to your cause, and their absence may lead to your doom later on. Every day, the disease spreads and the town attracts attention of the police forces and eventually even the military, who try to do everything they can to stop the spreading of the epidemic. Decay, in both the physical and the metaphysical sense, is the main theme of the game, followed by sacrifice and the idea that everything comes at a price.
The game has a very well done soundtrack, perfectly fitting the atmosphere and gameplay. The main theme is unsettling yet intense, and rather uncommon for video games. The rest of the soundtrack is just as good and makes the game feel even more depressing. Unfortunately, the sounds are not so good. They are there, but it’s obvious the game had a really low budget. You only have some basic sounds to actions and the voice acting is mediocre, though I can at least say the voices fit the characters well enough. Few sentences are said, and for the most part you just read the dialogue. Perhaps it’s for the better, since no dubbing is better than annoying dubbing.
Let’s be honest, even for a 2005 game, the graphics look mediocre and the animations are terrible. For comparison, it looks even worse than the three years older Morrowind. Everything is very angular, mouths don’t move when NPCs are speaking, animations are simple and, for some weird reason, excessively slow. Most of the standard buildings are pretty much just the same box copied all over, which doesn’t help either. Fortunately, it’s not all that bad – the graphics manage to be sinister and keep up with the atmosphere of the game, even with all the shortcomings. Interiors are better than the exteriors – they are detailed and varied. Infected buildings succeed in making your heart beat faster than usual thanks to the visual effects, especially combined with good music. Wandering around the town won’t give you anything interesting to look at, though, except for some unusual-looking buildings that are, interestingly, often named after the medical names of different body parts. In general, the art direction is decent, too bad that technologically it's nothing to admire.
One of the reasons, probably even the main one, why the game never got popular in the West is the terrible and uneven English translation. Sometimes it’s decent, but other times it’s abysmal and makes you wonder what the sentences you’ve just read are supposed to mean. The game is playable even in such a translation, but it makes you wish you knew the language of the original version so you could play it. You’re lucky if you know Russian, then... or Polish, because there is a pretty great unofficial Polish translation patch. It’s disappointing that the unofficial English re-translation of the game was abandoned when it was still very far from being finished.
Pathologic is the kind of game that will appeal only to a particular niche of gamers. Those who like depressing themes, minimalist storytelling and for whom the atmosphere is of utmost importance are going to love Pathologic, even at the cost of having to suffer through the confusing translation, the slow gameplay, and a lot of running around the town and visiting the same places over and over again. This game makes you plan ahead, and is not instantly gratifying if you manage to do something right - it makes you work and even struggle for a slow progress, but after some time you will feel satisfied that you've managed to get so far... and perhaps are still able to continue.
Pathologic, even without all its defects, would never be able to get into the mainstream. But while most people laugh at the idea of seriously listening to Beethoven, some find his music to be astonishing and timeless.
Link: Unofficial Polish translation: http://grajpopolsku.pl/downloads.php?cat_id=1&download_id=281
PS. Many thanks to Darth Roxor for proofreading!