Pathologic Classic HD
Pathologic Classic HD
Reviewed on: PC (exclusive)
The original Pathologic was one of those mind-bending games that had the potential to shake up the video gaming industry just over a decade ago. This Russian title never got its chance to break out in Western markets, but stayed alive through its cult currency on the Internet as “one of those crazy-ass Eastern European games.” Some Let’s Play channels picked it up, and though not too many people played it themselves, Pathologic‘s notoriety helped it stay afloat among those who like to experience this weird sort of adventure.
That’s not to say such notoriety was undeserved. After all, Pathologic dives deep into the same moody, late-’90s goth-rock murk as Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, but tempers it with a Lovecraftian, almost David Lynch–esque strangeness that obliterates any of the camp sensibility. The poor initial translation added to the alien texture of the story, creating gaps of understanding that seemed pregnant with cultural implication. This wasn’t a game about conquering the forces of evil—Pathologic found its sense of terror in the anxiety of human society, prodding at the thin skin that separates humankind from its beastly origins. Though the “sand plague” infests this frontier town, there’s a sense that the true disease is not an exterior influence on the people, it’s an insidious, inherent manifestation of the darkness within our minds.
The gameplay itself wasn’t really anything special, truth be told. However, playing Pathologic in its early localization period felt like exploring a new frontier in gaming—the sort of psychological headspace that the Penumbra series and Amnesia would toy with a little later on. When the HD remake was announced, it was hard not to be skeptical, but with an improved voice cast and renewed translation, it was hard to say no. So, on we plunge—out onto the Russian steppe and into the heart of madness.
Remember the Fear
Pathologic opens with a cryptic scene between three characters in a strange theater. They all seem to be making reference to each other’s histories and true natures, but the dialogue is more philosophical than expository. This exchange truly doesn’t make much sense at first, but its serves to introduce the fundamental question posed by Pathologic—is it better to cut out an infection delicately, or to become a killer in the pursuit of a cure? When the lights go out and the mysterious player-controlled being that’s watching this exchange must grope their way through the darkness, one is left to ponder these two divergent paths, and to consider the possibility of a third.
Then the first real decision of the game begins—who will you play as? As it happens, the three characters on the stage are the three choices available, but unless you’ve completed a playthrough as the Bachelor or the Haruspex, you won’t get a change to play the Changeling just yet. Part of this is to force you down one of the two ideological paths, but the other is to keep the magical nature of the story ambiguous. The Changeling’s story is by far one of the most bizarre ever to find its way into a video game, and I can’t imagine it making a whole lot of sense to anyone who doesn’t quite understand the broad strokes of the plot already.
No matter which of these characters you choose, brace yourself for some weird, hallucinatory madness in the form of an introductory cutscene. All three characters make it to the town in different ways, but don’t expect to understand anything right off the bat. In fact, let go of any attempt to fully “get it” in Pathologic, as it will very quickly disabuse the player of any illusion that the story contains any truly straight lines. You have a single task at the outset—keep as many “adherents” alive as you can, as their importance to the story will become clear as the 12-day story unfolds. Your task gets more complicated as the game progresses, and you begin to learn some troubling details about The Town and the nature of the “sand plague.”
Exhuming a Classic
While I’m not about to offer up any spoilers (there’s enough of those floating around the Internet), it’s worth noting that, while the gameplay is often painfully slow in Pathologic, the story is what’s really on display here. Expect a lot of weird, rambling conversations with NPCs and some painfully slow movement around the map, but that pacing really should direct your experience. Spend a little more time than usual reading through the dialogue. Notice the subtle details in your long walks across the map. Allow yourself to get a little lost in the experience and don’t let the twitch gamer in you get impatient with this decade-old game. It’s more like a piece of art to be appreciated—even with its fundamental flaws—than a streamlined and toned gaming experience, so if you feel like that’s going to hamper your experience, the door’s right there.
The main reason to pick up Pathologic is to engage with its labyrinthine story—a twisty, ambiguous nightmare that will have even the most hardened fiction aficionados scratching their heads. This updated translation definitely adds to the coherency of the dialogue, and it makes quite a few details of the narrative more clear than the first time around. However, the sparse bits of spoken dialogue are still fundamentally awful. Yes, they are an improvement on the original, and no, they’re not a deal-breaker. However, Clara’s voice actor puts an audible question mark at the end of every clause as she speaks, and it gets old pretty fast.
The graphical update isn’t really anything to write home about, either. While there is a marked improvement in the flat, polygonal faces of the original game, the less detailed NPC models only really succeed in looking more off-putting and creepy. Only the more important characters to the plot get much of an update, making it much easier to identify when you’re talking to somebody who matters to the plot. It’s hard to know whether this was an intentional move or not, but when there are NPCs walking around that look—permanently, mind you—like the enraged mask salesman in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, it’s a little hard to feel motivated to save them. The animation quality has barely been touched, either, meaning that the updated models often move like stiff polygon people from 2005. Then again, if you’re playing Pathologic for a next-gen graphical experience, you’re kind of missing the point.
In truth, this HD remake is a vast improvement on the original work, and though it’s not quite perfect, one can hardly expect a decade-old game to reach modern standards of production. In all honesty, the game would have been worth picking up even if the graphics hadn’t been updated in the least—they’re more of an added bonus instead of a main feature in Pathologic: Classic HD. I understand that, from a marketing perspective, it probably makes sense to advertise this Pathologic remaster for its “HD graphics” (which seems to be the primary selling point for other remakes and remasters), but I feel it undersells the aspects of this remaster that actually matter—namely, the improved translation and voice work.
While Pathologic is certainly not a model for Triple-A gaming, it’s still one of the most unique and intriguing gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I’m certainly willing to shell out $15 or so to have a version of this game that works with my current hardware, instead of having to find some weird method of jerry-rigging the original game. It’s also kind of nice to get a little reminder of the days before CD Projekt Red dropped a The Witcher–shaped bomb on the Western video gaming market—you know, back when nobody else knew how utterly mind-blowing games from Eastern Europe could be.
Pathologic certainly isn’t the kind of game I would recommend to everyone, but if you’re looking for an experience in a time before mini-maps, quest markers and all-too-open worlds, Pathologic: Classic HD can give you a taste of the good old days of survival horror.