Despite visuals that would turn many players away, a complete lack of presence on Metacritic, a Game Rankings score of only 66%, and a generally pervasive feeling of being unplayable, Pathologic by Ice-Pick Lodge has received a lot of praise in some circles. I've already discussed it on HG101's own blog, Gamasutra has championed its eccentricities alongside Deadly Premonition, and Rock Paper Shotgun ran an exhaustive three part feature on it. In fact, the RPS feature is what motivated me to buy the game in the first place, leading to the HG101 blog coverage. Not to mention all the awards and GOTY recommendations it received in its native Russia. Even so, it's still a comparatively obscure Windows based game, and one that's likely to grow increasingly so as the Windows OS makes older software obsolete. Furthermore, most places that cover Pathologic tend to give away massive spoilers, notably the RPS feature. This is why I'm not providing any links.
If you've not yet had the pleasure of experiencing Patholigic, try to avoid anything which details the surprises it holds. Also, don't be put off by exaggerated claims of it being obtusely difficult, unbearably archaic, or having a translation which makes it unintelligible. It has flaws, undeniably, but in a similar situation to Deadly Premonition, many of its bizarre quirks are what make it so wonderful. It's also not particularly difficult, if you stay calm and think. Ultimately, the game let's you correct any mistakes you've made via a rather ingenious system, so even if you fail some tasks it's still possible to see the best ending. Persevere and you will be rewarded with a genuinely unique gaming experience.
Set in a remote cattle farming town on the Russian Steppe, accessible from only one direction via train, the game takes place over 12 days at some point in the early 1900s. A precise date is never mentioned, but given the presence of an enormous Soviet railway gun at one point, it obviously occurs between the two great wars. One military character even mentions being pulled away from the front, implying perhaps one of the conflicts Russia was involved with just prior to World War II. Regardless, the entire town is gripped by the "sand plague", which threatens to become a country ravaging epidemic if not dealt with. Players take on the role of either the Bachelor, a doctor from the capitol; the Haruspicus, a returning folk healer; or the Devotress, a mysterious young woman thought to have magic powers and feared by the townsfolk. The main challenge, whoever you choose, is simply to survive for 12 days - actually stopping the plague, and dealing with various characters subplots, is secondary. It's also easier said than done.
Pathologic is a "survival game" in its purest and most intense form. You need to eat, sleep, avoid injury and, most importantly, avoid infection by the sand plague. It's actually fairly easy to avoid infection, especially if you abuse the quick save/load options, but getting infected adds an incredible new dimension to proceedings - the regular need to medicate yourself. This entire system meanwhile is facilitated by a constantly fluctuating economy, based around currency and bartering. At first medicine, food, and clothing will be plentiful, but as panic sets in prices will rise, money becomes worthless, and the authorities will start imposing draconian measures to maintain order. You may well find yourself trading in your only handgun for some bread and antibiotics, while outside the store arsonists set fire to anyone they think has the disease.
The beleaguered town is split into a number of named areas (Bridge Square, Tanners, Damp District, etc), divided into three main sections adjacent the Gorkhon River (the river doesn't actually exist, though is named similarly to the Orkhon River). In the West of the town is the Polyhedron tower, an unnatural almost Luvcraftian structure, floating above the ground and seemingly constructed from the paper upon which its plans were drawn. To the South is swampland and the closed train station. To the East is the enormous Abattoir and Apiary which houses the workers, both locked to prevent spread of the disease. Amidst this hell are 27 key characters known as Adherents, who are distinct from regular NPCs, each with their own agenda. You must deal with all of them in order to survive and bring about a conclusion - though be careful, since in an apocalyptic situation such as this, you can't really trust anyone. The town is ruled by three opposing dynasties, a triumvirate which balances itself: the Kain family, acting as spiritual leaders; the Subarov family, who deal with law and order; and the Olgimskiy family, who are the financial providers.
It's a nightmarish story about the struggle between religious beliefs and scientific advancement, between technological progress and ancient traditions. While a plague turns the blood to a consistency like cottage cheese, the devout turn to their gods while the godless turn to experimentation. As the supernatural visage of the demon Shabnak-adyr looms out of the mist, desperate men resort to the trusted technology of gunpowder and lead. The world and its characters exude an aura distinctly East European, surrounded by grim overcast skies, foreboding plains, and cold rust. The indigenous religion of bull worshipping and sacrifice, of rivers of blood kept warm beneath the earth, permeate everything.
The Bachelor. A dandy from the capital, in a snakeskin jacket and with a bag of strange scientific contraptions. Seeking to discover immortality, the authorities condemn his experiments - he visits the town both on their order and after receiving a letter claiming his hypothesis is correct. This is a chance for redemption, but the superstitious townsfolk don't trust him. Daniel is the easiest character, but also the least interesting since, unlike Artemy, he can't harvest organs or create serums. His special ability is a looking glass which reveals the disease, but it's totally useless.
The Haruspicus. A "hierophant" and heir to the legacy of his father, Isidor Burakh, the town's highly respected mystic healer, especially among believers in the steppe rituals. He's been studying in the capital, but is called back by a letter from his father, who dies shortly before his arrival. As a hierophant for the local "Bull and Earth" cult, Artemy is entitled by lineage to dissect human bodies. Local folklore believes that cutting along the "sacred lines" allows clairvoyance, while the letting of blood onto the Earth nourishes the spirit within it.
The Devotress. A mysterious third character who only becomes playable after finishing the game. She's also the most difficult to play as, since the townsfolk are actively frightened of her, believing her to be an evil witch. This results in a constant loss of reputation which means shopkeepers and NPCs are uncooperative. She can't use weapons, but is able to harm or heal people using just her hands; healing people increases reputation. Klara starts the game waking up in an open grave, with little memory of how she got there. Catherina Saburova believes she is a prophet.
Brother of the recently deceased Simon Kain, and now eldest of the Kain family, one of the three ruling families in town. Brother also to Victor; Maria is his niece. At first he believes his brother was murdered, and requests that Daniel investigate the matter. At odds with the rival Subarov family, he has a liking for Vlad the Elder, since he's easier to manipulate than the son.
"A bud that is about to blossom out into a beautiful flower. A sun that has already shown the edge of its dazzling crown. We are now waiting for the sunrise."
Brother of George and Simon, and father of Maria. He was married to the late Nina Kain, one of the town's Mistresses, alongside Catherina Saburova and Victoria Olgimskiy. He detests the Inquisitor, who was sister to Nina, believing that she bears a grudge against his dead wife and family. He also has a son, Khan, who has barricaded himself inside the Polyhedron.
"It's easier to show wisdom in someone other's affairs, than in your own."
Daughter of the late Nina Kain; heir to her mother's legacy as town Mistress. Apart from being extremely attractive, she also has mystical and spiritual powers of clairvoyance, similar to Catherina Saburova, Kapella Olgimskiy, and Mishka the orphan. She is well aware of the importance of the Adherents, and the need for their survival if the town is to be reborn.
"Within each of these people dozes a certain power which, if discovered, would allow them to break the routines of human existence and become something more than human. I don't know, I'm not a Mistress yet. The future is vague."
Son of Victor Kain, he has locked himself and many of the healthy children of the town inside the Polyhedron. He's also in charge of the Doghead gang, whose members wear creepy stitched masks that given them a canine appearance. Khan doesn't play much of a direct role in Artemy's scenario, but Daniel will deal with him a lot, even gaining access to the Polyhedron, if he's willing to collect army rifles for his gang.
"Our salvation is in calmness and in silence. To be still, as someone who has teased a nest of poisonous snakes."
Vladislav Olgimskiy the Elder
Cattle Baron of the town, and head of one of the three ruling families. Was married to the late Victoria, one of the town Mistresses. He owns the Apiary and Abattoir in town, and is in charge of all the butchers. Is often in conflict with the local religious Order. Vlad is a tricky man to work out, since in both the Bachelor and Haruspicus scenarios he appears to be on your side, but when you play the alternative scenario it becomes clear that he's playing them against each other. His son is also called Vlad (The Younger), though they don't get along, while his daughter is Victoria Olgimskiy, also known as Kapella.
"For what am I punished by such children? The girl is good, but the boy - the boy is intolerable! Swines! No, their whims should never have been indulged."
Vladislav Olgimskiy the Younger
The unruly and always questioning son of Vlad the Older. Despite researching the Steppe people and their strange customs, he cares little for their superstitions, instead believing in science and logic like the Bachelor. Despite local folklore forbidding the digging of wells, he digs one anyway in a secret location. This leads to no end of trouble, with strange noises, a disturbing vision of the Rat Prophet, and trouble with bandits. Not a bad guy, just not someone who willingly plays by others rules. He will happily hire the player to perform arduous tasks for extremely handsome rewards.
"The Apiary is a huge doss-house, within which live... No, rather - nest the workers of the Bull Project. You could call it primordial."
First name Victoria, like her late mother, and future Mistress of the town. She is wise far beyond her years, and plays a key role in both the Haruspicus and Bachelor's scenarios. She is often at odds with Klara, the Devotress. Mainly Kapella acts as a surrogate mother to the many orphans in town, helping them out or, more often, arranging for the player to help them out. She has some very strange spiritual beliefs.
"If not for this pestilence, I would spread a pagan cult among the children, and then, the parents would live forever!"
Head of the Subarov family, one of the three ruling families in the town. At first appearing cooperative and helpful, he soon reveals himself to be power hungry and slightly insane, enacting harsh laws when the plague starts to spread. After a time characters learn that to get anything out of the Saburovs it's much wiser to go through his wife, Catherina. Curiously, she lives in her own separate annex of the family home, with the two sides having no connecting doorway at all.
"I wanted to return the power and dignity to our country. If I wasn't for this pestilence, I would probably become governor."
One of the town Mistresses with magical powers and a morphine addict, she's just as unhinged as her husband. She is, however, much more amicable and, if you handle the conversations delicately, open to manipulation. Her powers aren't as strong as the other Mistresses though, and she's prone to being terrified of the smallest things. She offers Artemy insight into his destiny, and is quite taken with Klara, regarding her as a saintly prophet.
"I need morphine! Is it true that my eyes are like buttons? I feel gripes inside my belly, as if I am filled with straw."
A doctor and former soldier, wounded in the head at the Storm of Skerries. He was the student of Isidor Burakh, Artemy's father, up until his death. When Simon Kain dies he steals the body in an attempt to create a vaccine using it. Unfortunately he fails and ends up on the run from the authorities in town, since cutting a body is regarded as sacrilege. He sets up a secret dissecting lab in the warehouse district, and works extensively with Doctor Dankovskiy in trying to find a cure.
"Dissecting of the body by anyone who is not a hereditary menkhu is considered a disgusting blasphemy. In their eyes this is worse than incest."
One of the Stamatin brothers; sibling to Petr. Although describing himself as an architect, he's more like the local drug dealer and pimp. He owns the underground twyrine tavern, bartering the twyrine herbs from the player in exchange for ammo (twyrine is a family of plants native to this area, with various "medicinal" effects). He also seduces the "herbal brides" into becoming exotic dancers - they are revered as holy maidens by the mutant "worm" people, and are able to call up the herbs from the Earth. One of Andrei's dialogue trees implies that he attended the same university as the Bachelor, and that they know each other. Daniel recognises him as the one who "juggled knives".
"A hole in any body is an intimal thing. You yawn - cover with a palm. You defecate - hide out of sight. You copulate - wait for the darkness. These taboos are imposed not by people, but by holes."
Brother to Andrei. A severe twyrine addict and the local insane genius apparently responsible for designing and overseeing the creation of the Polyhedron. Although he doesn't make much of an appearance in Artemy's scenario, he interacts a lot with Daniel. The troubling thing is, he can't ever recall designing the Polyhedron and, given how it floats above the ground, he can't understand how it's able to defy the laws of physics. There's something very strange going on here...
"We are afraid of everything, brother, as all mortals are. And, we want everything. As if immortality is granted to us."
The Inquisitor. Despite the ominous descriptions prior to her arrival, the fact that she sends several to the gallows, and most characters extreme dislike of her, Aglaja is actually quite a nice person. She brings order to the anarchy of the town, and helps both Daniel and Artemy in their quests. In Artemy's scenario there's also the hint that she maybe has an attraction towards him. Unfortunately she herself is destined for execution, sent to the town by the authorities only as a final chance for redemption.
"He sent an arrow at a worthy target, only for it to strike him in the back..."
The Major General - a well respected, highly decorated war hero, with a severe haircut. When Daniel and the Inquisitor can't curb the plague, the authorities send in General Blok, along with several rifle and flamethrower platoons, plus plenty of railway artillery, all with the intention of destroying the town. His reference to "the front" implies perhaps that the game takes place during or just before WWII. Despite his harsh nature, he's quite honourable and likeable, with an unwavering belief in duty. He will severely punish those who act unacceptably.
"Whose will has sent us to this plague hole? We are needed now at the front!"
Current head of the indigenous religious order which worships bulls.
"He is body of Mother Boddho's body, his figure is comparable with the Universe. His lines are lines of this world. His white tissues predicts the flow of time, his blue tissues control the rains and water, the brown tissues store warmth. His bones are the bones of mountain ridges. His skull is the sky. His juices are the rivers. His hair - the grasses and roots. His voice - song of Boddho, his semen - happiness for Boddho's Vein. His black blood is the memory and time of our Earth."
Head of the local thieves, Gryph hangs out at a warehouse near the railway lines and sells pretty much everything that isn't food or twyrine. Of course his trade-in prices are lower than anyone else's, and his items are the most expensive. Still, if you need ammo he's the best place to go. His gang is in constant conflict with Notkin and the children in the Dualsouls gang.
"I reckon it's more honourable to go about some thievin' than killin'."
Now here's a nasty character with a dark past. She claims to be a talented circus performer, but there's a subplot which reveals some disturbing inconsistencies with her story. She has a connection to Var the hunchback, on the other side of town, though he isn't an Adherent like Anna. He will buy harvested organs off Artemy though. Anna spends much of her time making disparaging comments or plotting again others in town.
"I do not want to undress! What if something terrible is on the skin?"
Residing in an affluent suburb to the north of the town, known as The Rib, Julia is seemingly the perfect counterpart to Daniel, believing in logic and reason. However she also plays a major role in the Devotres scenario, being one of her Adherents. Sickly and prone to paranoia, she will behave unpredictably at times.
"I had to convincingly pronounce the logic of inevitability because I had attained it by my own efforts."
Now here is a tragic character. Lara is one of the most kind-hearted women in town, opening her home as a shelter to those less fortunate, while setting up a monetary fund to help the sick. Unfortunately she's disliked by several characters. Lara has a sad past involving her father and is quite fearful of what is happening around town.
"I was the kindest. I did not know up until the end that I would have to meet the murderer of my beloved father!"
A key figure in the Bachelor's scenario, she doesn't feature at all for Artemy. She owns the opulent Slough Manor in the Leafs district of the town, on the far West side, near the Cathedral. Seemingly regarded as one of the beauties of the town, she worries she's losing her appeal. She also has some very strange religious beliefs, and seems quite easily swayed. She's quite taken with Daniel, however, regularly trying to seduce him into bed and ultimately falling in love with him.
"You see, my varnish has peeled off. I really wanted to give my soul to our Cathedral to bring at least something immortal to it."
The blind daughter of the deceased graveyard keeper, and therefore an orphan. This frail young girl is brave despite her disability, challenging those who attempt to burn corpses, and getting arrested as a result. Doesn't play much of a role in Daniel or Artemy's scenarios, but is prominent in the Devotress scenario. According to Kapella, she has an important destiny.
"You won't touch the poor daughter of the graveyard keeper, will you? If I die, who will look after the graves?"
Creepy orphan girl who lives alone in an abandoned railway carriage, near the train station. Like the "Mistresses" in town, she has a mystical gift, and is able to commune with the Earth spirit, through a rather hideous doll. She has an important future, if you believe what Kapella says.
"It's about the orphan and people that live underground. About gekhken, and the false legs, who dig tunnels to houses... They are these horrible men, like worms. He had to make the false legs love him... Sordid, sordid!"
Another orphan and leader of the Dualsouls gang of children. His leg is injured so he hangs out in the warehouses south of Gryph and the railroad tracks. The Dualsouls are often in conflict with both Gryph and Khan's gangs. For Aertemy Notkin is useful for acquiring new maps every day, showing the spread of the plague through town, detailing which areas are clean, infected or burned out and filled with bandits. It will cost quite a bit though. Notkin is describd as a protector of animals, and gets hysterical when a bull is found injured in town.
"My Dualsouls are everywhere, watching for enemy Dogheads, catching Souls, and just hangin' around."
A wretched witch according to the Bachelor, spreading nothing but evil. She doesn't trust his science, believing it will bring death and ruin to them all. Be wary of her if playing as Daniel. To Artemy the Haruspicus however, she is an obedient aid and protector of his father's legacy, openly admitting her love for him, "as a slave would love its master". When the Apiary is quarantined she shelters the runaways, protecting them from the authorities that would harm them. She has an incredible knowledge of the arcane mysteries of the Steppe and its people.
"It is made of clay, bones and blood. It looks like a person full of bones. The Steppe gives birth to it, when the Earth needs a weapon to fulfil the destiny."
This orphan lives in a poor part of town near the Abattoir. Refusing to join either Notkin's Dualsouls or Khan's Dogheads, he goes about creating mischief on his own. He does, however, have an expert knowledge of the town's layout and secret hiding places. He's also slightly obsessed with the Steppe and the supposed supernatural creatures which roam it at night. Most of though he just gets himself into serious danger, requiring you to bail him out.
"Have you met at night such pale and glowing man? The cat knows what meat she has eaten!"
This mysterious girl is also known as Mother Keeper. She's the extremely young daughter of someone formerly in charge of the Apiary. Previously living inside the Polyhedron, she left and is now trapped inside the Apiary. For some unknown reason she is regarded as the "sacred child" who all the Steppe inhabitants in the Apiary obey. This causes some difficulty when you need her to do something, since she tends to do what she wants. The inhabitants of the Apiary treat her like a small goddess, protecting her, but they won't let her leave. Disturbingly she has the power to judge and sentence to death anyone who offends the Order.
"They show me nothing, they do not let me out of here! If to incline me, the right eye is not fully closed."
In charge of the theatre, which is later converted to a hospital and then makeshift morgue. He doesn't play much of a role in the game itself, but he is an Adherent. Between midnight and 6am every night Mark organises a new stage play which looks at the events of the preceding day. It's well worth quick-saving and then making the trip to view these.
"I am honoured to introduce myself - Mark Immortal, impresario of the Theatre and master of puppets. Does the honoured one wish to see the pantomime?"