No pain, no gain.
As a preface to the review itself, I think it’s important that some of the issues regarding Pathologic 2’s press reception are addressed. I’ve found myself going against the grain and looking to pour praise on this crushing, time-consuming behemoth. Many reviewers, it seems, were not willing or able to put enough time into the game to make a fair assessment of its merits and self-awareness. There have been damning reviews from major media outlets, and a general overwhelming resentment due to the game being difficult, obtuse, and allegedly a bit naff.
As much of a peacemaker as it’s tempting to be, I can’t let this go unchallenged. It highlights a prejudice toward Pathologic based on perceptions of its predecessor and the unusual structure it presents, aversion to a difficulty curve that is, at best, non-linear, and a misunderstanding of the game’s intentions.
You are not supposed to win this game. Your fate is sealed, and if you are somehow lucky, thrifty, and ruthless enough to claw your way through all 12 days… well, just look at what you’ve become. Pathologic is about parables, folklore, and genuine terror. A ‘creeping sense of dread‘ would be a luxury at this point; in a world where there is no more food coming, the plague is drawing in, and fevered religious destruction fills the air, fear is a very real and tangible thing.
Health, exhaustion, thirst, stamina, and immunity must all be managed, along with social status, inventory management, and the passing of time. None of these ever-depleting bars is generous to the player; in fact, my advice (if you want to actually ‘complete’ this game) would be to do what I did, play it once for as long as you can, then restart entirely and learn from your mistakes. Stockpile, defend, and learn which of the hundreds of hard choices will come back to hurt you. Preparation is key – but that first playthrough is the true spirit of Pathologic 2.
The story follows trained surgeon Artemy Burakh, or the Haruspex from Pathologic 1, as he arrives home to a town he seldom visits, hurried by a suspicious letter from his father. Stepping off the train, he unwittingly lands himself in a hellscape of quick-witted child councils, archaic religious endeavour, and a debilitating sickness that is spreading through this crumbling town. Oh, and the buildings defy all laws of nature, and trees sprout healing herbs if you bathe them in blood.
Without giving too much away, the story is affectionately fleshed out from its predecessor, allowing for new and old fans to experience the disturbing, disgusting, and downright horrifying truth relating to Steppe demons and wise children. The game knows itself and your concerns. It is self-aware and ever-changing; whenever you feel one step ahead, it is only because you’ve been allowed to feel this way, and your arrogance will be punished with pain.
It would be a lie to say that Pathologic 2 is not punishingly difficult. My first four hours were exhausting, painful, and honestly just deeply sad. I felt lost and abandoned, my tutorial consisting of contorted masked creatures speaking in riddles, and I felt the indelible mist begin to clog my brain. It is tempting to be put off at this stage. It’s easier to go play something more gratifying, less angled to torture the player. But sticking with Pathologic 2 is a cathartic experience.
Looking deeper than the unsatisfying tags of ‘survival’ and ‘thriller,’ Pathologic 2 is an artistic RPG that has the power to overwhelm and engulf you. From beginning to end, it is very much a Hard Mode game: fights are ugly and unsavoury, food is never enough, and every time you die a further punishment is added. Alone, this would be irritating. But in alignment with the incredible writing, uncanny imagery, horrifying concepts, and disturbing NPCs, this sense of frustration and lack of hope makes it near-perfect.
It is also, from a technical perspective, gorgeous. It walks the fine line between making the world suffocating, gloomy, and industrial whilst also maintaining an uncanny beauty and mystery in its architecture and its people. The sound design is far improved from the original, and menu screens are intuitive. Players would be wise to remember that it features a sort of “running tutorial”, so if something seems unclear, a short wait will usually reveal all. Itineraries and goals are represented by ‘thoughts,’ cut off at varying times by inaction or time passing. You can choose who to prioritise and who to cut off, but a world like this wastes no time in dispatching the isolated.
Understandably, though, for those unable to sink as much time into the game as I have, Pathologic 2 is sure to become a streaming favourite. Given the limited save spots, impossible resource gathering, the strength of the plague and reliance on a riddle-solving narrative that can lead to irreversibly broken relationships, the story can get lost in the struggle to stay alive. As stated, I believe this is part of the structure; were it not so devastatingly difficult, the message would not be as poignant. But just as a heads up to those looking at buying it: you won’t get far if you have less than 10 hours to sink in.
Overall, despite some smaller issues that are being patched out as we speak, Pathologic 2 retains the grim atmosphere of the original, putting meat on the bones of the storyline and characters, but leaving none for you. It’s a shame that the negative reviews put it at risk of obscurity, because it’s immeasurably engrossing and deserving of some serious play-time from those who like to enjoy the journey more than the end goal. You will starve, you will die, you will kill others and run away, you will feel deeply miserable and admit that all hope is gone – and at the end of it all, when you shut down your PC, a nice walk in the sun will seem all the more rewarding.
[Reviewed on PC]