Every Evening The Masks Perform, And Every Night The Blood Is Scrubbed Away
You probably didn’t even notice that Pathologic Classic HD went on sale for a ridiculous $3.24 on Steam this week. And why would you? While the 2005 sorta-RPG received praise and awards aplenty in its mother Russia, an abysmal English language port meant that the game never took off in other countries. It’s largely remembered only because of an excellent but spoiler-filled Rock, Paper, Shotgun piece that describes it as “Oblivion with cancer.” While you could wait for the reboot version coming out later this year (the promising demo of which I was lucky enough to preview), I think it’s important to talk about why the original game is worth celebrating, especially now that we have the Classic HD version that makes it actually worth playing for people who can’t speak Russian.
Pathologic is a difficult game to write about. It’s a difficult game to play! And like all difficult things, both should be attempted at least once.
1. Even Its Premise Is Unique
The game takes place over twelve days in an unnamed Eastern European town during an unclear time period somewhere around the first few decades of the 20th century. You play as one of three characters. The first is the Bachelor (as in Bachelor of Science), a man obsessed with logic and reason. The second is the Haruspex, a shaman of sorts who commits acts of brutal violence in the name of healing magic. And the third is the Changeling, a miracle and a monster, a self-proclaimed prophet who will either be the town’s salvation or its ruin.
All three are healers, of a sort, and it must be coincidence (or fate?) that they all arrive for different reasons on the day when the town is overcome by a nightmarish plague with many names. This is no ordinary disease: it’s uncurable, it’s inescapable, it takes hundreds of lives every day, and it seems to be specially targeting those who would help you try to fight it. It takes not only the health of the townspeople, but their humanity – the workers trapped in the Termitary have resorted to eating the diseased corpses of the dead, while the children seal themselves off and form a Lord of the Flies-esque civilization of their own. Not that this town was ever “normal” to begin with: worm people, sorcery, and enormous floating structures are all seen as a normal and natural part of the environment, not that these magics can do anything to stop the Sand Plague.
And don’t think that your choice of character is anything as crass as a difference in class abilities. This is a somewhat simplistic description, but it may help to think of Pathologic as one story, told from three different perspectives. As the Bachelor, you have no idea why the Haruspex, ostensibly a fellow healer, seems to be carving up bodies left and right, but as the Haruspex the game leads you through the steps to where it looks like the most natural and justified decision in the world. Only by playing the game three times will you get the whole story of what’s going on – and even then, you’ll never have all the answers. Pathologic, you see, is a horror game – and it doesn’t need anything so crass as a butt-ugly monster with sharp teeth to absolutely terrify you.