Pathologic 2 is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma wrapped up in a God-awful set of survival mechanics.
There’s a lot to love about Pathologic 2; it’s just that the game is determined not to let you. This sprawling first-person adventure crafts an appealingly quirky world that’s familiar and alien in equal measure. One moment you’re combing a dusty hovel for clues or administering medicine, the next you’re conversing with an impossibly gangly masked figure or gawping at a colossal gravity-defying structure.
Another pleasing aspect of Pathologic 2 is how grounded the game’s themes are. You may end up tackling a plague of unknown origins but the game is, at its core, a story about identity and responsibility. It’s your character’s (dwindling) attachment to his people that brings him back to Pathologic 2’s strange town. Not that any of adult NPCs are particularly interested in your quest to uncover your father’s killer, however. Instead, it’s the town’s children that provide the most aid, a welcome change from the norm and one that pays off later in the game.
But while the game gives you the freedom to explore the town, it subjects you to a dire survival system that stifles much of the game’s initial appeal. You have only 12 days to uncover the killer and, later, combat the illness that spreads throughout the town. In theory, your days should be spent choosing which leads to follow before the day ticks away and those opportunities are lost to time. In practice, you’ll spend half of that time struggling to prevent your survival meters from plunging into the red.
It doesn’t help that the town is so labyrinthine that you’ll frequently find yourself stuck behind fences that you’re unable to climb, despite the fact they only come up to your waist. So you have to backtrack, all the while your hunger meter is ticking away. Even though people can survive days without food, Pathologic 2 penalises and potentially kills you if you don’t shove a chunk of smoked fish into your mouth every half-an-hour.
What’s infuriating about this is that there are times when Pathologic 2 really shines. The game’s optional medical sub-game is relatively simplistic but curing the town’s residents is genuinely rewarding. Fail to save them and you can sell their organs on the black market. While hardly ethical, it is gruesomely entertaining. Or you can abandon your father’s medical practice and chinwag with the town’s major NPCs, which really fleshes out Pathologic 2′s story.
Main storyline aside, there are some wonderfully written side characters, such as the Herb Bride who, though you have no memory of her, swears blind that you were to be married before you left to pursue your own medical career. Though, like so many of the game’s characters, it’s highly questionable whether you can trust her.
You’re never forced to engage with Pathologic 2’s storyline, though when you’re informed at the end of the day that a notable character died, you’ll feel a twinge of guilt for not having stepped up. But then you realise that the reason you weren’t investigating was that you were picking through bins for food or that, when the disease started to spread, you were shoving pills into your mouth to avoid an untimely demise. The sickness also appears to be sentient so as the game progresses, you’ll have to deal with clouds of miasma which will actively pursue you.
There are times when Pathologic 2 will really draw you in, even though the story features only one of the prequel’s protagonists. The game’s graphics, while not particularly cutting edge, successfully convey the town’s strangeness; framing the game as part of a play only adds to the mystery. Pathologic 2, as intended, makes you feel like an outsider; the only one able to see just how “off” this dusty, isolated world is. It never resorts to jump scares, but nevertheless manages to maintain an air of “wrongness”. Logically, you shouldn’t be creeped out by the citizen trying to sell you a bull, so why does it feel so odd? For a few moments you’ll dwell on the strangeness of the situation – but then the red bar of your thirst meter will remind you that you haven’t had a drink in five minutes.
Underneath it all, Pathologic 2 is an engaging and disquieting game, one that has the potential to be something really quite special. But its survival mechanics are unnecessarily suffocating and take much of the joy out of it. Until Pathologic 2 is cured of that particular problem, be prepared for an uneven slog.