If “fun” is on one extreme of the video game emotional spectrum, Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic 2 is on the other. It drops you into its setting with a harshness that’s redolent of a season’s first blast of freezing cold. As that setting, a remote town on the Russian steppe, is ravaged by mass hysteria and plague, you feel desperate and hopeless, struggling against a force you don’t understand and cannot seem to overcome so much as momentarily stave off. Playing Pathologic 2 feels like suffering, and it’s meant to be that way.
Despite the number in its title, the game is a partial remake of the cult 2004 original, which featured three playable characters with different yet interconnected stories. As of its initial release, this remake features only one: Artemy Burakh, also known as the Haruspex, a surgeon called back home by his father, a sort of folk healer within the community. For most players, however, experiencing Pathologic 2 once as a single character will be more than enough, given the game’s length and sheer difficulty. Over the ensuing 12 days, everything in the village goes wrong. Its dubious meat-packing industry halts, the tensions with an indigenous group called the Kin run hot, and a plague fills the air with black particles. People die in the streets, their houses, and the makeshift hospital cobbled together in the theater. Plague districts are cordoned off and marked by great bonfires. The army arrives, prepared to purge. For this isolated village, it feels like the end of the world, and you feel it in your bones because the game constantly places you on edge through its harsh survival mechanics.
Meters for exhaustion, hunger, and thirst tick down every minute of each hellish day, and while there are initially plenty of functional water pumps around town to quench your thirst, the other two meters need to be managed on a constricted schedule and whatever pittance is on hand. If any bar fills, it begins to subtract health. Throughout, you get what you need however you’re willing to get it. Children, for one, love nuts and sharp objects, so you might trade a pair of broken, rusty scissors and some peanuts for a salted fish to eat (at the cost of thirst), or sell one of three revolver bullets for the coffee beans necessary to stay awake instead of losing a few precious hours sleeping. Perhaps you’ll sully your reputation by cutting out the kidney of a dead mugger to sell for a bandage. Furthermore, plague districts affect an immunity meter that, if you don’t manage it properly, gives way to an infection meter.
Players will have these variables hanging over them as they’re loosed upon the town in first-person perspective. Each new day provides new events, new conversations, and new leads on certain mysteries. On the way to investigate any such points on the map, you must constantly weigh the need to finish certain events before nightfall with the need to manage meters. Is it worth it to take a detour to a shop, to trade with kids playing in a yard, or to root through an abandoned house? After all, the way Pathologic 2 handles failure is harsh, reducing the health meter and occasionally subtracting from other statistics in the event of your extremely likely death, making the next attempt more difficult. And yet the very act of managing those stats or prioritizing certain tasks might also lead to missing others entirely, with resulting consequences. Other events seem designed only to waste precious time by diverting your attention from other matters, and you’re rarely told which is which.
The only thing that significantly hinders the game’s apocalyptic despair is the sense that its difficulties have been tuned a little too sharply. For as much as the game’s survival systems are designed to be overbearing and exhausting, they often feel unnecessarily harsh, somewhere beyond the point that has already been so clearly made. In such moments, you begin to wonder if scavenging wouldn’t still convey a huge amount of stress if food satisfied just a little more of your hunger, and if the meters ticked down just a little more slowly. The developers have promised an option to adjust the difficulty in the future, though in the game’s current state, it’s hard not to wish for a slight loosening of its grip around your throat.
All the same, there’s seemingly no “right” way to play Pathologic 2. Its design philosophy is totally antithetical to the mainstream, prioritizing the embrace of failure and the stirring of emotion over linear forward progress meant to feel traditionally “good.” Even before you’re tasked with saving lives, the game is already an intensely difficult, grueling experience, and the eventual need to treat infected people—whether they’re general patients you’re being paid to save or the named characters whose survival continues their role in the story—adds still another potential stop on a crowded itinerary, another place where funds and items may be diverted to pay a toll in human lives. For example, gathering herbs allows you to brew tinctures that can be used for diagnostics, but tinctures as well as antibiotics can be traded and sold just like anything else. So you’re forced to choose which lives are most valuable, and it feels horrible to end up choosing yours over and over again.
As these different elements converge, it feels as if a community’s entire being has been crammed into Pathologic 2. You grapple with the town’s economics, keep up relationships, save lives, and peel back what layers of the place’s dark history that you can. It’s one of the most stunning examples of a game as a cohesive whole, as every aspect is tuned for maximum stress and horror—an atmosphere of imbalance and overhanging dread that’s enhanced by the eerie, ever-clanging score. All the while, the abattoir looms large in the distance, its giant, dripping sacks of meat hanging uselessly on their suspended journey to the station. The doomed wander in full-body canvas cloths tied around them, and strange beings in ghastly crow masks with glowing eyes stand watch. The town appears lost in an endless ocean of straw-yellow grass. Few games are as transportive as this, and fewer still will leave players so utterly convinced that they never want to see such a place for as long as they live.
This game was reviewed using a download code provided by tinyBuild.
Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge Publisher: tinyBuild Platform: PC Release Date: May 23, 2019 Buy: Game