Minor plot spoilers ahead:
One thought kept coming back as I played though the first few hours of Past Cure, the third-person action/stealth debut from German indie developer, Phantom 8 Studios:
“These guys must really like Remedy Entertainment.”
For context, Remedy Entertainment is the Finland-based studio responsible for titles like Max Payne 1 & 2, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break. On the surface, every title is also a third-person game with an emphasis on action. Each title did something vastly different with that basic setup–like Max Payne’s bullet time mechanics, and Alan Wake’s use of light and dark. I bring up these examples because Past Cure, from the gameplay to the story to the level design, all looks like it’s trying to emulate the best of Remedy. Sadly, Past Cure ends more like a compromise than an homage, and feels more like a tech-demo than a full title. Past Cure wants to tell its darkly psychological story using the best and shiniest graphics at the highest fidelity. It manages to do so while sacrificing nearly every other aspect of fun gameplay.
In Past Cure, you play the role of Ian, a serious man with a serious face–and serious wrinkles. He’s an ex-soldier who went missing for three years and suddenly turned up with no memory of what happened to him. After a fairly interesting (though not really scary) nightmare level, we find Ian desperate for answers as to who took him, what they did to him, and why he now has psychic abilities.
Ian is also crazy. We know he’s crazy because Ian and Marcus both tell us so several times throughout the game. In utilizing his acquired psychic powers to slow down time, or astral project, Ian further burns through his sanity. This pretty much means Ian can turn on bullet time during combat, or go into a free roaming out-of-body mode–but only to turn off cameras or turn on switches. Letting the sanity meter run out returns Ian to his normal view, albeit with a few seconds of the camera wobbling out of focus. Sanity can be restored with pills, but I spent most of the time not needing them as the meter recharges to a quarter full very quickly. The same goes for Ian’s health, making health packs almost unneeded.
Past Cure does feel good to play. Ian’s movements are smooth and responsive, though if you’re playing on PC it feels like it was designed more for a controller than a keyboard and mouse. Combat is also fairly unique, as shooting requires the use of a secondary reticle to pull off a more accurate shot, making precision more of a priority. Of course all of that is rendered moot as the gameplay is rudimentary and barren in its variety. You’ll keep shooting at the same three enemy types down the same corridors for half the game, while being forced to take a more stealthy approach through the other half for fear of being one-shotted by enemies or instantly failing the mission when you’re spotted.
The Unreal Engine helps make Past Cure look like a true AAA title, but it’s all just icing on a pretty bland, technically flawed cake. Several times AI scripting caused opponents to get stuck on the level or on each other. The graphical sheen of the Unreal Engine, making everything look great at quick glance, only magnifies the uncanny valley of the character’s faces. Dropped dialogue cues, repetitive music, and sparse, lifeless levels all help to drag down what is supposed to be a thriller.
I could accept Past Cure’s lack of variety and the repetition by itself–I’ve often played through titles with derivative gameplay if I liked the story enough–but Past Cure spends a lot of time wandering in the fog of its own narrative and does a lot of telling without much showing. Within the plot of Past Cure, Ian meets other psychics, finds super drugs which could enhance his powers (spoiler: he never uses them), and has nightmares about where he was experimented on. Yet Past Cure, for all of the plot elements floating around, does nothing to answer its own questions. After two clunky boss fights at the end of the game, Past Cure leave you with little to nothing answered.
Past Cure wanted to be creepy, action-packed, and mysterious. But after playing this very short title, I feel just as lost as Ian. Past Cure is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam.