When the news broke that Pathologic 2 was coming to the PS4, I was quick to point out the very many glowing reviews that the game had received, mostly from relatively unknown reviewers. Well, I have to say, I’ll be adding my pseudonym to the mix as I’m besotted with Pathologic 2 by Ice-Pick Lodge, published by tinyBuild.
Pathologic 2 taps into the unknown; a seemingly self-explanatory predicament: your father writes an ambiguous letter to you, asking that you visit him. The weeks it takes you to get there is already too late as he has been murdered. A pillar of the community and loved by all, his passing turns the world upside down. Mysterious things start to happen, murder becomes an experiment without remorse, and some ferrymen accept toenails as payment to take you down the river. Am I getting too far ahead? Not really. That was within the first hour.
Not everything can or should be explained, and Pathologic 2 fits into that category effortlessly. I’ll try to take you on the journey I’ve experienced thus far, but this is something that needs to be experienced. Pathologic 2 is very much about breaking the fourth wall, having you question your sanity, does a person have control of their fate, and where do I get toenails other than my own?
Starting out, you have the option of three difficulty levels. Larva, Cocoon and Imago levels. Larva is an easier mode, but what was refreshing to see is it isn’t strictly a story mode, and there’s still a challenge. This tempted me to head that way – a more leisurely route but with a focus on gameplay, but no, Cocoon it is. Then I read the write up:
Hard difficulty. Close to the intended level. For those who are not afraid of hardships, but could use a small handicap.
That was it; my status as a game player/reviewer challenged. I had to go for the intended difficulty, Imago. The instant I selected it, I regretted it as felt that I was going to be in for a hard time. Changing the difficulty in-game is possible, though, but it’s the choice of words used to justify the challenge:
Pathologic 2 follows the events of a catastrophe. Game difficulty is one of the techniques that help us tell this story…Pathologic 2 is intended to be almost unbearable.
Gulp. Freewill and all, as I could still change it, but to this date have stuck to the Imago setting. Not because I’m badass, but because I’m just so deeply involved in the environments and the constant fragility that ensues. Other than the difficulty, there’s the add-on available called The Marble Nest. That won’t be covered here as I’ve only just got the DLC, but will aim to put out a separate post on how I found it.
Pathologic 2 is consistent throughout. It doesn’t throw you any lifelines, there’s no right or wrong action, and there’s never a time when you feel you are going the route ‘you’re supposed to’. I don’t think the latter exists as it is an open-world game with a multitude of paths to take. It’s just that when you interact with an NPC, it isn’t always clear if you should have said something else as it’s almost as if they dismiss what you’ve said. This sounds confusing and potentially irritating, but on the contrary, it adds to this dreamscape, or nightmare, that the game projects.
First impressions were disorientating. The graphics in Pathologic 2 felt more PS3 than PS4. That was a little disappointing as it had the potential to blow the competition out of the water, but I was left feeling a bit ‘meh’. Then you interact with the NPCs. This feature was stunning! It’s a close up mode where we see the person in question with dialogue on the right and your options underneath.
The lighting was terrific as the background is completely blacked out, making the character the focal point. There’ no voice acting, but I mesmerised by how each character could stare through my soul. I hadn’t seen a style this effective before and really created the mood, making me feel uneasy, a good thing, considering the theme of the game.
Each interaction gives you a dialogue choice, but I have to say, the protagonist you play, Artemy Burakh, is like a petulant child. I didn’t like a lot of the responses he gave and would have wanted to see a more balanced choice. For a top surgeon, he came across as incredibly immature and had a bit of an attitude on him.
In the first few scenes, I’d choose a response from a list that was poor and what the exchange go down the pan. In some respects, I didn’t care for him much, but when you start walking around town where everybody hates you, i.e. won’t talk to you, exchange goods or worse, chase you down to attack, you start rooting for him. In sympathy? Perhaps. Underdog is a massive understatement.
Let’s keep the narrative side of things a little vague, as it’s best to experience them first hand. How does it play? As a first-person adventure, you move around town the same way you would with any FPS shooter, only you’re mostly armed with a scalpel. A rusty once at that. The first part of the game is a bit of investigative work; cross-examining the locals about what happened with your father, lore and classic bartering.
There are various items you can sell to vendors, but at first, no-one likes you, so you have to do business with the low-profile criminals. Here you can also buy goods such as weapons, food and apparel. As there is an underlying tone of a plague which kicks off within 12 days, getting hold of a mask and gloves early pays off. That’s right: 12 days is all you have until it all kicks off and the Pathologic 2 will throw everything at you to slow you down.
Food and drink will be pivotal to your survival as there are several parameters you need to pay attention to. Other than standard health, you have immunity (protection from the disease), exhaustion (countered by sleep), hunger and thirst. Keeping on top of these while having townsfolk try to beat you down for a reward is heavy going so in some respects, Pathologic 2 plays like a stealth game.
Other features include an in-game map with points of interest and objectives, people you have spoken to so far – as part of your detective work, you build up a better picture of any foul play throughout the story. There’s another section called ‘thoughts’. This is almost like a notebook in cases where you’re unsure of what to do next. They don’t immediately have to be completed, but each thought links up to another so it makes sense to find out as much as you can.
Loading times are quite poor. I would open the door to the outside, immediately turn around realising I had gone the wrong way and the door would be closed already. Pressing X to open it once more, a loading icon would appear, and I’d have to wait for a few seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, but it happened quite a bit and was mildly irritating.
The same could be said about the jittering. Through busy areas and dead spaces, the frame rate would drop quite frequently. It was so common that I had to double-check if I was downloading anything from the PSN or whether Pathologic 2 was online-based. It’s not, so on this basis it did spoil some areas for me. Thankfully it didn’t occur during combat, just when travelling between locations, and more so in the earlier stages of the game.
There are also a few spots of invisible walls. In some of the areas, you will open the door to a room full of people. In the blink of an eye, they morph into mobcap looking characters wearing a mask that you will see in the screenshots and promotional material for the game. To understand the meaning, just play the game! When I first encountered these… weirdos, I wanted to interact with them, but an invisible wall appeared preventing me from getting close.
That said, I walked to the side of a pair of characters without issue but returning to them once more, it did the same thing. Again, it didn’t ruin the game, but it would be nice to see these issues ironed out in a patch or two. Combat was ok, but I’m not the greatest fan of first-person combat with melee weapons. Sure there are guns to use, but I found using the scalpel, or worse, fists, to be a bit of a pig.
So that winds it down to a summary of my experience. When I first encountered the jittering and invisible walls, I honestly thought that the game wasn’t ready for release. The issues then died down, and I didn’t experience them as much, but the loading times bothered me as it made Pathologic 2 feel sluggish. But, and a bit but that only Sir-Mix-A-Lot can appreciate; it’s hypnotic.
Of the games I’ve been playing this past couple of weeks, Pathologic 2 is the game I’ve been thinking about between plays. While it doesn’t have the same budget that Bethesda can throw at an Elder Scrolls game, I have to say that I preferred playing Pathologic 2. Yes, the former is more in-depth, larger playing environments and customisations, but Pathologic 2 is creepy, thought-provoking, and itching to be explored. There are technical glitches here and there, but they can be corrected with a patch. The fundamental game, lore and just the damn experience is fantastic, and I’m keen to have a look into this DLC material.