In 2005, Russian game studio Ice-Pick Lodge released Pathologic, an open-world adventure mixing psychological horror, survival, and RPG elements into one very unusual package. While it was a big hit at home, Western audiences were mixed in their reactions – some just didn’t get this game, but a few liked it a lot, and it has become something of a cult hit in the years since.
I first encountered it as Pathologic Classic HD, a remastered version brought out in 2015. Its superb graphics, interesting story and truly creepy atmosphere intrigued me, despite its glacial pacing and unpolished feel. This was a game on the verge of greatness – great concept, great visuals, just needing a few important elements to make it feel complete.
Now, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Ice-Pick Lodge has released the first Alpha build of Pathologic’s planned remake, and I’ve had a chance to see their progress so far. Entitled “Pathologic: The Marble Nest,” this build is described by the developers as “the first Pathologic Playable Thing,” as they caution that it’s just a standalone demo, rather than a version of the actual game. It certainly has a stripped-down quality to it, but The Marble Nest does show off well what we can expect come Fall of 2017 (spoiler alert: it’s really good).
“Your play-though is a 12-day race against time, to solve the crisis before it claims you.”
First off, I was glad to see the foreboding atmosphere of dread that characterized Pathologic is back in full force. Accompanied by eerie background noise that can only barely be called music, you start off The Marble Nest just as you did the original game, in a house on the Russian Steppe, amidst a horrible disease outbreak plaguing a town. You have very little information given to you as to what is happening; you find out by talking to NPCs that you are a doctor – one of three playable characters – who is simultaneously trying to find a cure for the outbreak while at the same time trying not to die himself. Meters on your screen tell you the state of your vitals – health, infection, immunity – telling you that this is a game of survival. Your play-though is a 12-day race against time, to solve the crisis before it claims you.
Visuals, a strength of the original Pathologic even in 2005, look to be once again superb; buildings, people, and the open-world of the town display a photo-realism that has been a hallmark of the game. The look is also very similar to the original, with a lot of dull earth-tones, and rainy or foggy environments. It is depressing, but very fitting to the themes of the narrative. NPC interactions, however, are disappointingly still inanimate; characters merely stand in front of you in conversation, which is text-based. Hopefully, Ice-Pick Lodge can find a way to have full character animations for the final build.
Although the devs warn that The Marble Nest is a “demo,” the open-world of the town and Steppe is surprisingly well-realized already. I was able to walk around quite a bit, marveling at the size of this world in its current state. Mind you, many of the houses were similar and I could only go into a limited number. Two structures, though, were breathtaking – the Cathedral and the Polyhedron, both familiar locations from the original. The Cathedral is more of a machine than a building, with a massive pendulum suspended from the ceiling. The Polyhedron, an Escher-like building that defies physics, stood ominously outside of town, twisting into the sky like a symbol of the game’s twisting story itself. The physical world of Pathologic is once again a weird, Twilight Zone-like place that really encourages exploration.
“Indeed, Pathologic is much like a deranged game of Chess – and I was not sure if I was the King, or the pawn.”
Adding to the weirdness was the return of Pathologic’s signature characters, including the masked Tragedians and the Executors (as well as others even stranger that come later). They are back, standing outside to creep you out when you leave a house, or remind you that time is running out when you dawdle. And now, in upgraded graphic textures, they are even more unsettling than ever. Pathologic always had strong visuals, but this new remake looks to take the game to another level. Overall, my play-time left me very confident that Pathologic’s final build will be visually stunning.
Another strong suit of the original was the story, and that is again the case in this remake. You uncover the story in extended conversations with NPCs, and each one of them has their own personality that adds a new little twist to your experience. Characters give you more than information; you get existential musings on life, death, scientific ethics, and lots of other topics along the way, in the spirit of the best Russian authors like Dostoevsky or Bulgakov. The aforementioned Executors, looking like Death personified in their robes, will also gleefully taunt you with jabs at your ego, questions about your competence, and other little tidbits that seem inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Indeed, Pathologic is much like a deranged game of Chess – and I was not sure if I was the King, or the pawn.
The very slow pace of the original is back in The Marble Nest as well – this is a game that takes a while to get used to, and unpack. As a result, it is not a title for everyone. Many players will grow frustrated with the seeming lack of action and give up long before the greatest parts of Pathologic are revealed. It does pay back your patience, however, in a very rewarding narrative payoff by the end. You can play through this demo in around 3-4 hours, but the full version might be slightly longer once it is completed.
Overall Pathologic is looking very good so far from what I saw. There is a beautiful world here with lots of interesting characters to interact with. The hallmark visual splendor and narrative depth are every bit as engaging as ever, with an upgrade that promises to take the title to new heights. Mark your calendars for Fall of 2017, because it is looking like we are in for a fun – and terrifying – ride.