Having successfully launched a Kickstarter to remake the game, Ice-Pick Lodge have decided to bide us over – and preserve the original for posterity – with an HD re-release of Pathologic. This survival-horror game, a Russian creation first released in 2005, is as creepy as it was ten years ago… and slow. Excruciatingly so, at times. A fresh lick of paint can’t hide the fact that Pathologic hasn’t aged well, although there’s also enough here to get you interested in the remake. Often gripping, often clunky, this HD remake is a mixed bag that won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Think carefully before you buy: you’re either going to be thrilled with your purchase or bored to tears.
On starting the game, you’re given the choice between three playable characters: the Bachelor, the Haruspex, and the Changeling, and promptly plunged into a dark world of death and disease. Each character has their own storyline which interweaves with the others, giving you different perspectives on everything that happens. Whoever you play as, events are kicked off with a series of sudden deaths, and the subsequent arrival of a deadly disease in a rural Russian town where superstition rules over logic.
You have only twelve days to figure out what is going on, and, perhaps most interestingly, time will not wait for you. Events take place whether you are present or not, meaning major characters can die and the plot take huge turns without you even noticing. This is particularly potent give that one person is destined to die each day; your actions determine who is going to survive. The town is full of rival families and factions who you can either ally with or oppose, leaving their fates entirely in your hands.
What is most impressive is how the story of Pathologic shifts and changes according to your decisions, constantly in flux. Although it’s less impressive now than it would have been ten years ago, there’s still a considerable amount of flexibility to the plot. It’s reminiscent of Bethesda games – in particular, Morrowind. Nor is that all it owes to the RPG great. The open world structure, the first person perspective, the combat, the dialogue system; in fact, the list of things borrowed from Morrowind could fill a tome as thick as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It doesn’t have such strong RPG elements, of course, but that’s hardly a surprise for a survival-horror game.
In addition to the basic gameplay of solving the town’s mysteries and surviving its many dangers, you also have to take care of your character’s needs for food and rest. The former, in particular, is not as easy as it sounds in a plague-ridden town where resources are scarce. Death can come in several ways: by starvation, disease, or even bleeding out from wounds received in an earlier fight. You also need to manage your reputation to ensure that the locals don’t turn against you, which can in itself be fatal.
The gameplay of Pathologic is an intriguingly complex puzzle, set in a creepy world full of weird characters where, in true Gothic tradition, science and the supernatural are locked in a constant struggle. It generates a genuinely unsettling atmosphere, something of a surprise given just how bad the graphics are. Even for a ten-year-old game, and even with the touch-up it has been given for this HD release, Pathologic Classic HD is still an impressively ugly game. There’s certainly something unnerving about all the blank, identical houses, and the blank, identical people walking the streets with their crab-like gait, but it’s also certain that this was not a design choice made on purpose.
There isn’t really a single element of Pathologic Classic HD that looks good, although the soundtrack is at least interesting enough to somewhat counterbalance this. There are plenty of other problems, too. Occasional lines of voiced dialogue, which should add flavour to the characters, are delivered in a dull monotone. The original translation from Russian was so thoroughly garbled that the HD release has been given a new one – but, no matter how much better it is, it still isn’t all that great. In fact, it features some genuinely awkward lines and at times seems overwritten, aiming for a poeticism that it can’t deliver. In short, the story and atmosphere are left to stand on their own merits – a feat they succeed at because the core concepts are so good – without any help from the writing or graphics.
The single biggest problem with Pathologic Classic HD, however, is that despite the superficial lick of paint, it is just so old. That, in and of itself, is of course not a valid criticism, but like the Bethesda masterpiece to which it owes so much, it has not aged well. Morrowind must certainly be considered one of the greatest and most influential games of all time, and worthily deserving of respect, but anyone who comes to it having already played its sequels Oblivion and Skyrim will find it slow and awkward in comparison, and afflicted with an obtuse user interface. Pathologic, unfortunately, is much the same.
Of the three issues listed above – slow, awkward, and obtuse – it is the first that is the biggest problem. Your movement speed is ponderous at best, there is no fast travel, and it can take several minutes to get somewhere by foot – a particularly heinous crime given how boring the environments are. Nor does it help that your objectives are sometimes unclear, meaning you can go to the wrong place or, indeed, just end up wandering around completely lost. Furthermore, you may have to spend quite some time acquainting yourself with the game, as it gives virtually no explanation of its controls or mechanics. All of this adds up to make it unbearably slow – and on this occasion, it’s more “clunky slow” than “slow build up”.
Looking back at Morrowind, many of its failings are forgivable because of what it achieved for its time, and because of its legacy. Pathologic, however, is merely an indirect part of that legacy – and despite being released four years later, looks no better and has many of the same problems. To put it into perspective, Oblivion, which was a major step forwards, was released only one year further on. It’s fantastic that the Classic HD release is preserving Pathologic in its original format, and it has enough positives that it’s an effective advert for the remake, but frankly, there are just far too many flaws for it to be forgiven.