It’s time for the Great Game Debates again. You know, those nagging questions that critics like to rehash, like “Are Games Art?”. Another big one is “What Makes a Game Fun?”. Now, that’s a little more grounded in practical reality, because why spend time and money (as a consumer or a developer) on a game that isn’t enjoyable? The problem is, what do we mean by “fun”? Rewarding? Challenging? Emotionally or psychologically interesting? Innovative? Familiar? We could go on listing adjectives but the point is, there are many flavors of fun and the game that makes you rage quit might just be the challenge I crave.
All that said, it’s difficult to imagine anyone having any category of fun with Pathologic 2. It has to rank as one of the bleakest and most consistently depressing games ever made, absent of even a glimmer of light, humor or hope. That isn’t really the problem, as dark visions and oppressive tone have powered all sorts of entertainment before. The issue is how the game actually plays. It’s a collection of frustrating, punishing mechanics that neither acquiring skill or patience can entirely be overcome.
Pathologic 2 is a remake/sequel to a game from 2005 and it occupies the intersection of several genres: survival/crafting, horror, FPS, roguelike… It has elements of each. You play as a doctor, who has been called back home to “The Town” somewhere in a mythical eastern Europe to find the cure for deadly plague that has ravaged the population. You have twelve in-game days to achieve your goal. Oh, and your father has been mysterious murdered. And you are also a killer, and not terribly liked or trusted.
Everything about Pathologic 2 brings to mind a surreal dreamscape, from the pervasive rain to the cast of otherworldly, twisted, strange and inscrutable characters you meet in the town. There are layers of aberrant psychology, politics, religion and folklore to unpack and while the game’s graphics are hardly bleeding edge, the visual tone and character models are perfectly in tune with the disquieting tone of the story. It’s all just very, very weird from the gangs of not-quite-right children to the bird-masked villagers, speaking in cryptic dialogue that often sounds like a Google translator gone seriously awry. The clock is ticking and your task is to explore The Town and survive long enough to maybe save some people and solve the mystery of your father’s murder.
If the visuals and tone of Pathologic 2 are spot on — at least in terms of telling the world’s most depressing and nightmarish story — the gameplay and survival mechanics drive the train off the rains and into the side of a mountain. Survival mechanics are now a familiar feature in many games, but Pathologic 2 not only puts them front and center, it makes them nearly impossible to manage. Health, hunger, thirst, exhaustion and infection must all be attended to and in nearly every case, increasing one works to the detriment of another. You’re constantly making choices in the game and none of them are good, just shades of frustrating. There’s little time to explore or delve deeper into the madness of the story when so much time is taken up by moment-to-moment survival.
The icing on top of this macabre cake is that every time you die, the game actually becomes harder, with some meter or another being shortened, making another demise much more likely. It’s an incredibly annoying cycle that, along with the game’s very simplistic and unsatisfying melee combat, feels at odds with the story-rich game that’s buried somewhere underneath.
Pathologic 2 looks unlike anything on the market, and its genuinely surreal and emotionally twisted tale and graphics are at least unique, if not actually appealing. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but neither was Carmac McCarthy’s The Road. Miasma of poorly explained and confusing systems and unforgiving survival mechanics are more clearly a problem and they make Pathologic 2 nearly impossible to enjoy on any level, and certainly not fun.