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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Review: Pathologic

I have never played a game like Pathologic. I've wanted to write this piece for some time, but to convey the correct message demanded that first I put the game into context by writing the main articles of the past couple of days. So, Pathologic is a risky, artful venture. But is it any good? Read on...

Pathologic finished development by Ice Pick Lodge and had its Russian release in 2005, the game was met by critical acclaim and won a rich vein of golden awards including 'Best Debut of the Year' and 'The Most Non-Standard Game'. Non-Standard is an understatement. Pathologic starts as it means to go on; A troupe of children march to haunting, simple, oddly catchy, sombre funeral music, a girl buries her doll in the earth as others watch on or play instruments. This game intends to suck you in and freak you out.

Gameplay revolves around your efforts to fight against an invisible, omnipresent and apparently undefeatable enemy - a disease. There are a total of three characters to play the roles of, each with drastically different perspectives on the outbreak. All three must gain the trust of the plagued town's community, manipulate others in order to reach their own goals and survive an increasingly hostile environment despite their own frailty. Time passes, your character gets hungry, tired and ill; You explore once safe districts to find them swamped in a green haze, infected; What seemed like a long wait until Day 2 becomes a frantic rush to complete your assigned tasks by Day 3. With each hour the odds seem all the greater stacked against you. When the seemingly insurmountable obstacle is overcome, the sense of reward, relief and satisfaction really has to be experienced for you to know its immensity.

The player is presented with a surrealist world which embraces the supplementation of the realistic with the absurd. Towering constructions defy gravity and common sense, accepted by the townsfolk for their twisted, spiraling existence. NPCs acknowledge their own limitations by highlighting your own importance, the game treats itself as a play in which only the player knows the lines. The soundtrack is augmented by sound effects, both easily recognisable (a dog barks as you turn a corner) and unfamiliar (as you walk along the train tracks, something whooshes past your ear). The graphical style is basic, but provides the level of visual detail the game requires; the facial textures come close to being as impressive as Oblivion's, conversations are accompanied by a black and white picture of the character you are speaking to, making dialogue an intimate affair.

And yet there are problems. The translation is impressive, considering that the original game was worded in Russian theatrical tongue and had to go through a far more complex process than a direct linguistic conversion. Unfortunately, the text often falls short of being wholly understandable. I was often left equally amused and confused by the choices presented to me as conversation options. Some quests are left vague to the point of requiring a walkthrough to even find the correct area in which they take place, and often involve long, trudging walks through a largely bland town, back and forth, in order to complete them. On the 2nd day, food prices increase ten-fold, meaning cash that the player might like to spend on ammunition or protection from disease has to be cyphoned off into keeping their character from starving. To make this worse, the protagonist must have some kind of space/time fluctuation within his digestive system, because even if I were to pawn all of my possessions and spend all my currency on a loaf of bread and some milk, my avatar would be hungry again before I'd wiped myself clean of crumbs.

Pathologic is a deeply engrossing, rewarding, frustrating, unique experience. The game demands your patient attention, and reciprocates with constantly pleasurable feedback. There is no instant action to be had here, if you are looking for cheap frills then look elsewhere. If you have read my articles of the past two days, and thought to yourself what a shame it is that so few developers take the risk to try something unconventional, then this is the game for you. Ice Pick Lodge deserve the massive success they have had with their game.

You can purchase Pathologic at Play.com and the forums are here - believe me, you'll need the help they offer.

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