Saturday, March 18, 2017

Pathologic: The Marble Nest - Demo Impressions

The original Pathologic, released back in 2005 by Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge, is one of the most unique and interesting games ever made. I reviewed it five years ago and had a lot of high praise for it. The legacy of the original game is so strong that Ice-Pick Lodge took to Kickstarter a few years ago planning a remake that would fix some of the original's critical problems while re-imagining and improving many of the story elements and gameplay mechanics. As part of the process in developing the new version, they've recently released a free playable demo called The Marble Nest, which consists of a stand-alone scenario meant to showcase some of the game's more prominent gameplay mechanisms while condensing the full game experience down to two hours. 

For the uninitiated, Pathologic is a type of survival-horror adventure game played in first-person, in which you take the role of one of three different healers who have arrived in a strange town with a bunch of bizarre and mysterious customs just as a deadly plague breaks out. The game takes place over the course of 12 days, with the town changing dramatically as the plague spreads and more and more people become infected. Each day comes with a main quest that must be completed while the clock continues to tick, leaving you a limited amount of time each day to complete your tasks. Meanwhile, you have to manage your own condition on various statistical gauges, which involves scrounging the environment for resources and manipulating a fickle economy where sometimes your only hope for survival is to sell your only weapon for a few slices of bread.

The Marble Nest maintains all of these ideas, but trims some of the more complicated survival systems and economy management down while putting you in a scenario that spans only one day. In it, you wake up some time after the plague has already wiped out most of the population, after your final quarantine zone has been breached. With seemingly all hope lost, you watch as the city collapses around you, and then the game flashes back to 14 hours prior, giving you a chance to possibly prevent the catastrophe from happening, although you'll most likely fail and everyone will die horribly, as is the true spirit of Pathologic

Wandering the city streets with the Polyhedron looming in the distance.

Described by the designers as a "mood-piece created to acquaint you with the world of Pathologic," they warn that the demo doesn't include all of the gameplay mechanisms that will be in the full game (due out in November 2017, supposedly) and that it is very much a pre-alpha build. There's obviously a lot of missing polish that they didn't put into the demo (doors don't even animate when they open or close), but it already looks, feels, and sounds leagues better than the original game did. I guess that's to be expected, considering the original is about 12 years old at this point, and the original was never very good in the first place. The interface is sleek and intuitive, no longer the cumbersome mess that leaves you confused about how to perform basic game functions, dialogue is properly translated into real, sensible English, and the visuals look much more detailed and realistic while still retaining the same style and appearance of the original.

In terms of gameplay, The Marble Nest is basically a two-hour scenario spanning the course of one day, in which you run around a small district of the town talking to NPCs, making decisions, trying to save people, trying to maintain order as the district falls into chaos, and trying to find out who and where the carrier is who reportedly broke the quarantine so that you can keep the plague from spreading. This all plays out in modified real time, with a clock constantly ticking the minutes away from morning to evening as you race against time trying to fix all of the problems that seem to crop up all around you, and trying to find a way to avoid the inevitable fate that leads to your own weary demise, as is hinted by the en media res intro sequence before the flashback starts, in which Death himself pays you a visit with the city in flames and the corpses piling up to ask: "Are you ready to die?"

A sample dialogue hinting at the nature of the game's structure.

The demo manages to be as tense and stressful as the original game but without the slow burn of having to put in the strenuous, meticulous work of surviving in this harsh, decrepit town for 30-40 hours. All of the usual survival mechanics are still in place -- you have a bunch of statistical meters measuring things like your health, stamina, fatigue, hunger, thirst, immunity, and infection level, all of which require different items and actions to treat and maintain, but you start out in good enough condition and there's not enough time for any of these to really become an issue, unless you've never played the original and thus aren't familiar with how the systems work, then I could maybe see infection or hunger catching up to you. There's also no combat, from what I saw of the demo, which is fine because it was only a minor part of the original game.

The feeling of chaos from the original game, of things spiraling out of control as the situation rapidly deteriorates, is definitely present in the demo. Many of your assistants have abandoned their posts, leaving you short-handed and having to take care of more stuff on your own, and town officials have fallen into a type of insanity, issuing orders for the city guard that undermine your previous orders because they deliriously believe everything is fine. You had previously quarantined refugees with suspicious symptoms to the cathedral, only to find that everyone has been let out; the townsfolk get restless and start raiding the local shop for supplies, which you had ordered closed down; factory workers start talking about breaking into houses and killing people with symptoms to stop the plague. Eventually people start taking to the streets, attacking each other and setting the town's signal fires aflame, and despite all of your best efforts you're basically powerless to stop it.

As the plague starts taking over the final quarantine district.

As you roam the streets you hear about rumors from your assistants ("there are a bunch of kids hanging out in the courtyard looking into windows," "a woman down the street says her husband is ill," and so on), which get marked on your map as places of interest. You can also stumble into scenes that unfold all on their own, without any kind of prompting, and stop to investigate or possibly interfere, if you desire. At each of these events, you're usually given the option to talk to the people involved and make some kind of decision: do you let the looters into the store because its supplies could come in handy, or tell them to stay back and station a guard there to maintain order? When two people show signs of illness that don't necessarily correlate to the plague, do you keep them locked up or let them out? When a dying man tells you not to heal him, do you respect his wishes or administer the treatment and save his life?

All of these decisions impact the way the scenario will unfold; for the most part, they're just thematic, cosmetic changes, but they do a good job of making the game world feel more alive because you really get to see and feel the city descending into madness and despair. It also really adds to the thematic immersion, where it gives you this feeling of control, of making you think you have the power to prevent things and save people when in reality the situation is over your head and all you can really do is slow the bleeding. Some of the events (and your decisions within them) affect which of the four endings you get, with some being distinctly better than others. Failure is a definite possibility, and since there's no saving or loading to correct mistakes, this is the type of thing where you just have to act on instinct -- and quickly, for that matter -- and hope for the best, living (or dying) with whatever consequences arise from your actions.

The inventory screen, carrying a human heart in my pocket.

Unlike the original game, The Marble Nest can be somewhat aimless at times. In the original you received a letter from important NPCs every morning that gave you a clear objective to accomplish each day; in this demo, you have to decide for yourself what's important and what's not, because you might not have enough time to do everything. That's certainly a good thing because it forces you to make decisions and get into the role of Daniil Dankovsky a little more, but if you manage to complete everything in time, like I did, then you're stuck awkwardly wandering around with no purpose, just killing time until some kind of event happens or until the time limit finally runs out to let you trigger the ending. 

The endings (and the whole premise in general) can be rather poetic and open to interpretation. It's the type of thing meant to make you think about your own beliefs and understanding of the world. This comes into play with many of your decisions, obviously, but especially so when it comes to Death's visitation and his central question, "are you ready to die," and as you try to piece together what's actually going on in this world and what the significance of everything is actually supposed to be. It certainly has an intriguing mystique about it, and it does get you thinking, which is always good. 

I had a lot of praise and admiration for the original game when I reviewed it back in 2012, but the original is not a game I can easily recommend on account of its various problems (though I hear the Pathologic Classic HD release a few years ago improves some things a bit, such as the shoddy translation). This demo for the upcoming remake, subtitled The Marble Nest, is a game I can easily recommend, especially if anything I said about the original game or this demo has intrigued you. It definitely captures that unique atmosphere and feeling of the original game, that feeling of death and decay as a city steadily succumbs to the effects of the plague. Its two-hour length and streamlined gameplay make it easy enough to get into that I think just about anyone would be able to enjoy it. Hopefully this is but a mere taste of what we can expect from the remake when it finally comes out. 

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