I really want to like Pathologic 2. It’s just about everything I love in a horror game. The imagery is disturbing, the writing deliciously cryptic; it’s one of those games that is so dark and withholding, you want to know everything about it, even as it fills you with dread. But due to the unique design of Pathologic 2, I’ll never be able to divine all of its secrets. It’s a game that is complicated and impenetrable on purpose. It’s a twisted story of suspicion, heritage and mob mentality, set in a strange small town during an outbreak of plague. Resources are scarce, villagers are violent and the threat of death lurks around every corner. The player, meanwhile, has only 12 days to manufacture a cure, clear his name and find his father’s killer, all while carefully balancing a schedule he’s never seen, of people he’s never met, in order to survive. It’s among the most emotionally and mechanically punishing survival games you’ll ever play, and also the most aloof and withholding.
But while the game is admirable in its willingness to be a stone cold bummer, it seems impeded by its own difficulty. The 12 day cycle it’s built on leaves little room for mistakes. There are hidden conversations to be had and people to meet, resources that can only be obtained under specific circumstances; it’s all that you would expect from a game that hinges on the immutable routines of its nonplayable characters (reminding me, somewhat, of a less-forgiving version of Majora’s Mask). But while I enjoy that the game has secrets, the mechanics of the game’s survival systems are so punishing that there’s little chance to actually enjoy them. I’m always looking for food, wasting time on chance encounters, trying to find a place to sleep before I expire. My panic and frustration outweigh my desire to really investigate the town and its limited opportunity encounters. It’s hard to focus on anything when you’re always about to drop dead.
It only gets worse with the penalties for the player’s death. Unlike any other game I’ve played, Pathologic 2 gets harder every time the player dies. And—this is the worst part—the change applies even if you go back to an earlier save file, you can’t escape it by hitting the refresh button. The only option is to not fail, but failure is an inevitability. Which has the backfire effect of making me feel like not even trying.
Of course, that sense of desperation and futility is purposefully cultivated. You can’t complete every side mission and save every person from death, and that is the point. But still, I wish I could actually enjoy this fascinating world the developers built. It’s too risky to test the game’s limits through trial and error, and there isn’t enough time to work out a survival ecosystem. It seems like such a shame that the game punishes you for curiosity, given how much the appeal of Pathologic 2 relies on intrigue, chance and exploration. I like challenging games but this is exhausting.
In the few days it took to write this piece, the developers of Pathologic 2 announced a difficulty slider bar would be coming in a future update, and explained their philosophy behind how hard they made the game. Admittedly, it takes the wind out of my sails. The designers meant it to be this hard and meant us to feel this hopeless. Complaining about it is missing the point. But while I respect that the developers are principled in their commitment to a theme, the point they make comes at the player’s expense.
That being said, Pathologic 2 is a game that can’t be understood until you experience it from multiple perspectives. So with that in mind, I may as well just forgo all pretense of caring about my character’s death and my inevitable failure, and just see what I can get away with before I restart the game. I hate to approach a game with the intent of testing its systemic boundaries to see what I can get away with in my “real” file, but that’s where I’m at with it. I’m going to stick with Pathologic 2 because it’s too fascinating to give up on. But I’m going to have to do it with redefined parameters of success.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.