Review: Pathogen

By Kelsey Rinella 07 Nov 2013 0
John Conway's Game of Life is a famous zero-player game. Interestingly, it is possible to have the AI play itself in multiplayer. No sign yet of the iPad learning about the futility of global thermonuclear war. John Conway's Go of Life

Very few game experiences start as badly as my first impression of Pathogen: the first thing I tried (opening the options menu) froze the game. The menu is terrible, with shockingly poor tap detection and general poor responsiveness exacerbating the aggravation of having to navigate a structure presented much larger than necessary with no option to zoom out. Worse, even if it had been implemented correctly, the single-player campaign is apparently designed to save your progress only once every five levels (though you can progress to the next set of five after completing only one of the prior set). Then the game takes a break from kicking you in the nuts to poke you in the ear--it overrides the mute button, so that options menu starts looking pretty key.

But then, you play the game.

Pathogen has been billed as similar to the ancient Chinese strategy game Go; in that it's an abstract game played by placing round pieces on a grid, it's at least a superficially accurate comparison. The trouble with any comparison to Go is that what's special about it is partly that it remains interesting at very high levels of play, which we only really know because it's been around so long. There's no way to know that about any new game, at least, not for the next thousand years or so. What I can say is that, when played by a terrible Go player, this feels pretty familiar.

The biggest difference between Pathogen and Go is that the pieces evolve and spread. There are three levels of pieces, each able to evolve into a higher form and capture and evolve its neighbors until the third level, after which they turn into walls. Walls don't spread, but they can't be turned to the other side. Like Apparently, our logo artist has some skills I lack. The map editor in action. I really thought blatantly copying an existing logo would be easier.[/caption]

The campaign mode is of only moderate length, but injects some quite exciting and informative variety by periodically changing up the rules and offering a wide variety of different starting positions. I found the set of boards in which all pieces evolve at the end of each turn startling and useful, focusing my attention on the dangers of uncontrolled growth. Should that, played at all three AI difficulty levels, prove inadequate to slake your thirst for more, there's a map editor and local and online multiplayer (though ranked matches are listed as "coming soon").

Also, my four-year-old is totally taken with it. He's terrible, of course, but will happily sit and watch me play or play himself, and he gets angry at the AI when it takes his pieces. I don't know what to make of this--the graphic design is attractive enough, but not so showy that I'd expect it to explain the appeal. I suspect it's just that it's a lot like Conway's Game of Life--these little dots do all sorts of things on their own, and it's inherently interesting to watch them work and intervene from time to time.

Pathogen is a game I'd love to see played by people smarter than me. The way the late game often accelerates is primally thrilling, and helps keep the game from dragging at any point. There's no way to know yet whether it has anything like the durable interest of the classics, but I haven't found any sign of a bottom to its depths.

Review: Pathogen

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