Why should you get this game? Because for the first time in it's long and checkered history, the cult horror game Pathologic is finally in a playable form. The graphics are better, the English translation actually matches up with what's being said in the game, and many of the truly game-breaking bugs are nowhere to be found. For the first time, players are finally able to play a rare gem in the form the authors intended it to be played.
Why should you play Pathologic at all? Well, that's a lot more complicated. The short answer is simple:
Everyone needs their mind messed with a little sometimes.
But let me explain: Pathologic is the first game by cult favorite developers Ice Pick Lodge, the twisted geniuses behind such games as impenetrable and incredibly difficult afterlife FPS The Void, psychological 2D stealth adventure Knock! Knock!, and a gaming satire known as Cargo!: The Quest for Gravity. They're also nuts, and responsible for manufacturing games that usually aren't seen outside of creepypasta. But I'm getting away from my point a little. Let me try again.
In Pathologic, you choose from one of two characters (a third is unlockable, but you have to play the game at least once)-- Danil Danofsky, a bachelor of medicine investigating the murder of someone who was supposed to be immortal; or Artemii Burakh, a Haruspex and one of the few people allowed to perform autopsies in the game's world. There's also Klara, the Devotress, an unlockable character who has mysterious healing powers and a higher calling than the other two, but chances are unless you're really determined or edit your save file, you're not gonna see very much of her outside the opening cinematic. I'll get to why in a moment.
While these three go about their business, a mysterious plague known as the "sand plague" takes over the small unnamed town they find themselves in. Furthermore, the three families who run the town with the aid of their precognitive "mistresses" are locked in a power struggle that seems to finally be coming to a head. Bizarre customs involving children and their animal companions, the massive hilltop slaughterhouse, the local asylum, two alien buildings at opposite ends of town, burning people suspected of being artificial humans at the stake in the district centers, and the odd play that goes on every night at midnight run rampant. And before the end, things will get a lot, lot worse.
The game is nominally an FPS/Survival horror/Adventure game. As whatever character you choose, you investigate the town and its inhabitants, running errands and trying to get to the bottom of the numerous mysteries. You can also dumpster-dive, barter with townsfolk, and explore the impossibly weird geography of the small town on the steppe. There's a constantly running game clock, and it's not possible to see everything, so players have to think in terms of what they do want to see. And if you think of it in terms of a game, you will die. A lot.
Yes, the game is kind of unforgiving about that. Quest-givers will wind up lying to you more often than not, in fact, most people in the town are exercising some kind of dishonesty. Prices at most of the shops in town are controlled by a bald, mute lunatic who jacks up the price day after day while giving you corrupt pawnshop-style prices on anything you try to sell. Maintaining a good supply of food is absolutely essential, as is getting enough sleep. Most times you get in a fight, it's deadly, and even a common fistfight could take off half your health. Ammo and guns are so scarce that it's actually more useful to barter them for supplies you need, than it is to shoot people. It's a difficult, punishing game, even more so than stuff like Dark Souls. But there's a purpose.
Pathologic is a game that gets inside your head. It forces you to think not as a player, but as the character you chose. It even reveals much of the artifice other games would normally hide, showing you that yes, this is a play, this is artificial, but if you think that's going to save you, ha ha ha, nope. Further driving this home are the Adherents, plot-critical characters that you have to keep alive and safe through each of the plot's twelve days. They can and will die unless you pay attention to their needs, leaving you high and dry. So can quest-givers and major NPCs, and not all of this is scripted. Of course, some of them have to die over the course of the plot anyway, but figuring out which is which depends on how you yourself feel the character would act. It's a game that dumps all the choices squarely in your lap, and then reminds you that not choosing is still just as much a choice.
However, once you actually learn to live in the game's world, the game becomes unsettling and engrossing in equal amounts. It's one of the very few games that casts you in the role of a detective, and then actually makes you deduce, detect, and interact with the characters. Every aspect of the mystery is left up to you to solve, every clue waiting for you to discover it, all the conclusions your own within the scope of the game. It's amazing to have that degree of agency when the controls and interface aren't that complex (NOTE: There is no tutorial, get a manual. I know, some of you aren't used to it, but seriously, GET. A. MANUAL).
The game also kind of seeps into your head a little. It's very immersive once you get the basics down, allowing the surreality of the world to seep in. You also get some instruction and direction from the two masked "players," one wearing a raven-like plague doctor mask and cloak, and the other dressed up as a mime in a black bodysuit with a white mask. While this is incredibly vague, it does give some insight in how the world in the game works and what you're supposed to do in the world. Even if a lot of it still remains for you to find, rather than being pointed out to you.
But if you want a challenging, unique, innovative experience that breaks genre barriers and gives you something that everyone says they crave out of their gaming experience, you need look no further. There may be other games that make you feel this way, other games that challenge the way you think and act in games, other games as challenging, but in the end Pathologic stands on its own, a titanic work that neither begs for your attention nor particularly needs it, but instead waits and bides its time until you're ready. And when you are, it'll be waiting with its own peculiar welcome. On an ancient steppe. In the fog.
Score: 5 out of 5 - with the caveat that you should seriously look into this game and understand further what you're getting into. Some people hear "complex and challenging" and go charging into things headfirst, I will warn you immediately that this is not an experience for many, and you should search around.
Reviewer received a copy of the game for review