Pathologic 2 is, in a word, difficult. And not just in the traditional sense, i.e. it’s difficult to complete the tasks laid out for you successfully. The game is so unrelentingly bleak and unnerving, and its narrative so simultaneously layered and fractured that the mere act of trying to play and understand it can feel draining. It’s even difficult to classify, as, despite the title, it began life as a remake of the first game before the developers adopted the label of “reimagining,” citing a number of gameplay and story expansions for their decision. That’s a little disingenuous to my mind. Metroid: Zero Mission expanded significantly from the original Metroid – that didn’t make it not a remake.
It may be a moot point in the end, because the lifeblood of a remake is whether the game in question is still worth playing after its new features are no longer new, and there isn’t any other game quite like Pathologic, even fourteen years later. Sure, the survival mechanics have been done to death (in fact, that trend was probably the reason this title was put into production), but the way the moral choice and reputation systems are largely governed by characters’ irrational superstitions is still fairly unique. And I certainly can’t think of another game that weaves these things together with complex systems of resource acquisition on top of a story of politics, magical realism, and singularly visceral symbolism.
The literal plot is set in an isolated town of roughly 15,000 in the Russian steppe circa World War I. Artemy Burakh, a surgeon also known as the Haruspex, returns to the town at the request of his father, only to find him murdered hours earlier, and the town on the brink of an outbreak of extraordinarily devastating plague. But as important as these events are, this isn’t a game about a plague and a murder mystery. This is a game about the breakdown of society – its morals, traditions, and institutions – in the face of destruction. It’s about the tug of war between spirituality and practicality. It’s about compartmentalizing misery – how much we can accomplish when we do so, and how disastrous it can be when we fail.
There are no hidden intentions in this regard. The story opens with multiple dream sequences and a supernatural play as a framing device. To call it a tour de force would be an understatement; the characters, themes, and imagery form a haunting symbiosis. It’s a shame that it all gets chopped up by the gameplay structure. Pathologic 2 takes place over twelve in-game days, with each day taking exactly two real-life hours (not counting menu and dialogue interactions), and forgetting this fact is impossible. You absolutely will not be able to do everything Pathologic 2 asks of you, and if you miss a pivotal scene, or your inaction causes a major character to die of infection, there will be little to no recourse for you.
The original release had an infamously horrible English translation that made the proceedings even harder to follow than they already were. This version of the script is leagues better than the old one, but the often cryptic dialogue can still obscure some of the story’s finer points. The remake has an additional storytelling issue of its own: the absence of two of the original three campaigns. True, they were only different perspectives on the same events rather than continuations of one another, so the game still feels complete without them, but their removal makes it even harder to grasp the full scope of the plot and diminishes the effect of some recurring themes. The choice to debut the game with the Haruspex instead of the Bachelor was also odd, because of the three protagonists, the Bachelor is the least familiar with the town’s idiosyncrasies, and the Haruspex has the most unforgiving early game.
That introduction certainly sets the tone for the rest of the game, though. Fans of “stressful” games like Don’t Starve or This War of Mine will certainly be most amenable to the crushing urgency of Pathologic 2’s gameplay, but even those games feel like The Sims in comparison. In particular, the speed at which Artemy’s hunger stat rises is absurd, and the equipment degradation system would only make sense if every item was made of soggy crackers. There’s an in-universe justification for the former, but it’s small comfort when you’re digging through every available trash bin trying to scrounge together enough junk to trade for a single piece of bread. After a few in-game days, I thought I had developed a stable routine to keep my meters in equilibrium…and then the actual plague hit.
There are two things in Pathologic 2 that you need to avoid unless you have no choice: combat and infected districts. This is harder than it sounds, because the former tends to come to you, and the latter contains important character interactions and bountiful resources. The combat, on top of being shallow and mechanical, is another victim of the game’s hyperrealism, so trying to take on multiple enemies (or even one enemy with a better weapon than you) is practically suicide. Meanwhile, infected districts offer half a dozen ways to contract the plague yourself, which quickly overtakes hunger as the game’s most irritating feature. Infection is so unbalanced and difficult to remove that acquiring it early enough is basically a death knell for that playthrough.
On that subject, unless you’re a veteran of the original title, you’ll almost certainly need to start this one over at least once. The second half of the game will see the protagonist become an emaciated husk held together by tourniquets and fuelled by legendary amounts of drugs, and that’s if you’re playing well. Playing poorly will see you repeatedly ground into the dirt, unable to do anything but await the subpar version of the ending. Part of this is because of the always perplexing decision to permanently punish future attempts for the mistakes of previous ones. To their credit, these punishments are a lot more creative than those of other games with similar concepts, but that doesn’t make them any more humane.
The strange thing is that despite (and possibly because of) several of these frustrations, Pathologic 2 is highly engaging. Boredom would be a luxury here – it would imply that you have a minute to stop every now and then. Plus, many of the iffy design choices are arranged in such a way that they almost cancel each other out. The impenetrable narrative evokes a desire for information powerful enough to motivate players through the harrowing gameplay, while the constant need to stave off death for another day more than fills in the gaps between important scenes. It helps that new goals and dangers are almost never introduced without also opening a new avenue for resource accrual.
Given how much traditional fun was sacrificed in order to make their points, it’s clear that artistic integrity overrides all other priorities for the developers at Ice-Pick Lodge. This can make it difficult to determine if certain elements are intentional artistic choices or just technically inadequate. The level design’s winding, haphazard streets, for example, certainly feel authentic, but the abundance of fences and rock walls make them inconvenient to navigate. And while the visuals are generally excellent (albeit poorly optimized), are the stunted animations during dialogue’s extreme close-ups supposed to be as uncomfortable as they are? Furthermore, is the fact that each conversation begins with a single unrelated voice line spoken in an incongruous British accent supposed to be another layer of disassociation? The soundtrack, at least, is decidedly high quality, being full of powerfully atmospheric mood pieces.
To anyone asking whether this remake was strictly necessary, the answer is definitely yes. Pathologic gained a cult following despite being deeply flawed, and it’s easy to see why – its narrative was an ambitious masterpiece sadly ruined by translation issues, and its terrifying themes and atmosphere were only dragged down by antiquated production values. The improvements here allow both of these highlights to shine. Unfortunately, both games’ stabs at postmodernism went deeper than intended, so from a design perspective, they’re perfect parallels of their own protagonists – shambling messes that can barely stand under their own weight as they’re pulled in all directions. Fittingly for a game that can consistently be described as “difficult but not quite impossible,” Pathologic 2 is difficult — but not quite impossible — to recommend.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by tinyBuild.
Pathologic 2 is the ultimate acquired taste - unforgiving, byzantine, and eye-opening.