With the Coronavirus pandemic taking over and most of us now either working from home or having to self-isolate, I thought it would make some morbid sense to play some contagion-related games. They’re everywhere. Last year’s A Plague Tale: Innocence was a high point of my 2019, along with Resident Evil 2 Remake. The full release of Resident Evil 3 Remake is just two weeks away. So I thought I’d try Pathologic 2 for the PS4. The name itself comes from pathology, the study of disease and outbreaks. Should be perfect.
A friendly group of mimes in gimp suits greet you as you fire up the game, looking like the misunderstood No-Face from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. I’m ready for the weirdness.
But then the first warning sign. A literal warning sign. The developers felt the need on the first loading screen to say this: ‘Warning. Play begins in the middle of things, but it will all start to come together as you continue.’ I can hear the Nazi soldiers in Wolfenstein shouting ‘Alarm!’ in my mind. Why would a game need such warning upfront? My gut says they had a large number of play-testers or reviewers who didn’t understand what on earth was going on, and want to assure you it does eventually make sense. Thing is if a game is any good you get hooked by a lot more than the story and this type of warning should be unnecessary. So, now I’m worried. I’m worried this may be the most overt piece of information this game will ever give me.
And so begins one of the most opaque and incomprehensible games I’ve ever played. I’d love to give you a synopsis upfront, but you’re going to have to bear with me. When I know what’s going on, I’ll tell you. The game begins with what might loosely be termed a tutorial. And I mean loosely, I think the only thing I was taught was how to fight. Badly. A series of nonsensical conversations (I was warned), mostly in the dark and I am dumped in the ward of a makeshift hospital in the midst of a night of plague. You can just about glean that you are meant to be a doctor (many hours later I have still not healed a soul) and no one tells you anything of import.
The left shoulder button reveals who out of the sparse NPCs will actually talk to you, and it’s an even smaller number. Each time you speak to someone, you get a strange separate dialog screen with a freaky NPC face in better graphics than the rest of the game, and of course a number of long-winded dialog options. It’s all trial and error though because you don’t know what’s going on. For a long time, the NPCs just spout gibberish, involved in their own strange worlds. The game hides what story it might have, counterintuitively making you not want to reveal it, because it’ll be hidden behind such verbose and draining dialog options.
The only thing I could get anyone to say was that all ominous decisions are made in the cathedral. I leave and take a strange walk through a nightmarish town in the grip of plague trying desperately to find someone to talk to who might give me a little exposition, and just end up being ignored by fifty or so NPCs, only one or two of which I could speak to. They don’t want to help, just to burn other NPCs. It’s just one long macabre sightseeing tour through a medieval town. You reach the cathedral only to be unable to affect anything. The people in charge are burning everyone infected, alive or dead, and despite revealing that you are the doctor who has been here 12 days, they aren’t going to listen to you. More dialogue options, none of which I can back up with any knowledge I have gleaned from the game so far, so I pick at random. A strange know-all-but-endlessly-cryptic man appears and whisks you away, for what? A second try he says. A second try at what?
The game throws a series of five to ten-minute scenes at you; travelling on a train with another man speaking esoteric nonsense, a cult of robed men wearing freakish bird masks, a bull the size of a building stops the train, a task to find a girl some water in a house full of the mimes from the loading screen, and a stone circle fighting sequence. Not a single one of them really tells you anything. I am really beginning to see why that warning came up at the beginning. But I persevere. Eventually, you arrive at the main town again, on day one of the twelve-day outbreak. Maybe with twelve days to play you can affect a different outcome from the bleak one at the cathedral just witnessed. The stream of scenes ends with you accused of killing three youths in a trainyard off-screen. Did you do it? Didn’t you? No one knows, not even you. And now because of this off-screen scene, you are hated and feared by the townspeople. Talk about arbitrary conflict and mystery. The loading menu finally gives you some exposition, your name and a reason you have come to town – you’re looking for your father, and you know a plague is coming. So many people talking and yet the only bits of story that matter are being delivered by loading screen. It’s bizarre.
This is when the real game begins. An unnecessarily large and sparsely populated open-world town reminiscent of medieval Europe or Russia with NPCs who may or may not have tasks for you if you can puzzle your way through their dialog. They are few and far between. Mostly it’s just a huge amount of walking about trying to find something even remotely interesting to do. And you move slow. You move like there are lead weights on both your feet and there is a two-foot personal space bubble surrounding you.
On PS4 Pathologic 2 has an infuriating loading issue where it loads the world nice and quick, but then for up to a minute you are forced to stand still and look around before you are able to move. It’s like a dog seeing a squirrel, but being on a leash. You can see all the things to look at and chase, but you have to be let off the leash by your owner first. This is still followed by near-constant framerate glitches, pop-in buildings and NPCs and my favourite bug I witnessed; a man I was talking to suddenly being flung bodily across the map. Don’t worry about him, he’s in a better place. He’s the only one who’s going to survive this plague.
I imagine there will be a small minority who will say I didn’t give it a chance, that the story gets better, or it’s actually really clever. If you feel this way and are at all masochistic in how story is revealed and like punishing games, then this is for you. You know the way the Witcher Wild Hunt makes you care, constructs clever grey narratives that you get lost in, NPCs that you really care about. Yeah, this game does none of that. Pathologic 2 obscures what interesting narrative it has, and hides it under layers of deliberately obtuse game design, slowing you down constantly and revealing nothing. For most of you reading this review I imagine you have seen the game or trailer, got concerned that it looked strangely unfinished and then began to search for unfortunate journalists who had taken on the pain for you. I tell you now, it’s deliberately like that.
Pathologic 2 is a remake of and a sequel to the original Pathologic. The very idea that this is a remake – and this is still what you get – makes me want to play the original out of sheer morbid curiosity. Just how inaccessible was it that the remake, the better version, is this?
It’s also sold as a survival horror, but there is very little scary to be had here. The graphics are too rough, the animations too cumbersome, and the glitches too common. The combat is terrifying but only because you spend the entire time rushing your camera past your opponent and completely missing any kind of hitbox. One of the main gameplay loops – trying, I can only guess to make it more than a walking simulator – involves you having to maintain your hunger and thirst levels, by drinking and eating whenever you find such items. It was basically admin and added nothing to the game. The scariest thing here is that a developer decided to give it a second go round. I like to imagine the pitch meeting. Dev: So it’s a creepy, barren world with very little to do, and lots of walking and sleeping and drinking water. Pub: Is there a story? Dev: Sort of, but we made sure the best bits are hidden away for only the most masochistic of kickstarters to find. Pub: And for anyone else? Dev: Oh, they should steer well clear, there’s nothing for them here. Pub: Is there anything scary? Dev: Yes, we have weird mimes. Pub: Sold!
Pathologic 2 is an experience, I’ll give it that. But not one I wish to spend any further time in. It’s just far too dull and painful. The most telling thing of all? I fell asleep playing. Pathologic 2 is out now for most systems, and just this month on PS4. If you are absolutely desperate for some contagion related entertainment, you can do a lot better than this.
Pathologic 2 is available now on PS4 (review platform), PC and Xbox One.
Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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