Over the years of writing reviews for games, both those with codes received from developers, publishers and their PR people and those I purchase myself, I believed I had become immune to press release hype, that I had read enough of these to see beyond the promises and not let them influence me.
Developer: Phantom 8 Studios
Publisher: Phantom 8 Studios
Release Date: February 2018
Played Full story
Purchase At: Steam
Yet, I was excited to sit down and play Past Cure when the review code came along. The press released had some buzzwords for me: action, stealth and telekinetic. Any of those on their own fall into the category I like to call “my thing.” If done right, I can lose myself in mindless action, impossible stealth and even more in anything that allows me to fling things around with the power of the mind alone.
Past Cure seemed to also be much more intellectual and sensitive from what they said and from the introductory minutes of the game. While it opens with a nightmare scenario with our character, Ian, shooting monsters seemingly made of porcelain, some more cracked or corrupted than others. It eventually leads to the character waking up and mentioning the time he lost, the powers he obtained in place of those lost memories and how they were slowly but surely drawing him to madness.
I was in at that point, fully immersed, more so because my mind drifted with the possibilities. Were we going to get a story and game that combined sanity mechanics and an exploration of the psyche with super powers, perhaps with an increase in mental abilities having a negative impact on the character’s sanity, branching out to different potential psychiatric conditions? After all, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice released last year and its exploration of mental illness was superb. With its lessons, would Past Cure be the child of Hellblade and Psy Ops: The Mindgate conspiracy?
It certainly seemed that way, with the James Bond-like presentation for the character and his allies and enemies. He has his brother at his ear, a mystery femme fatale in his dreams and then in the waking world, a strange man he can’t recognise yet feels some sense of familiarity with, and finally a faceless organisation that may hold the keys to Ian’s past.
Within minutes of the opening, Ian’s walking through his house, when suddenly the porcelain men from his nightmare show up, standing still, menacing in their lifelessness. Yet Ian keeps his cool, reminds us that those are only hallucinations. He then takes his medicine and they’re gone. My mind once again went into hyperdrive, especially when the powers come into play and you see that nifty sanity bar, with the explanation that draining that bar will drive Ian insane.
I thought: “Great, that’s awesome. If I abuse the powers, I’ll have to fight the porcelain men as well as any other enemy, not knowing which ones are real.” It was an exciting prospect, a game marrying its narrative on mental illness with the gameplay.
But it seemed like anything impressive Past Cure had to offer was only in my head, for the developers didn’t even consider it and instead released a mediocre action game with wasted potential and a pointless sanity angle. For all that it matters in the game, you can replace “Ian loses his sanity” from the use of powers with “Ian gets migraines.” After all, every time the bar drains, it recharges a bit but Ian’s visions goes blurry and there’s a bit of noise, a tiny screech, as if there was ringing in his ear. You then take a pill as if it were Max Payne, and you’re fine again. In the end, the Sanity angle is there just so they can claim their game is a psychological thriller, when in truth it’s neither psychological nor much of a thriller.
The Max Payne comparison doesn’t end with the pills as there is a bullet time mechanic and your time in the game splits between the waking world and Ian’s nightmares, which change in tone and genre so many times it not only becomes uninteresting but completely shatters immersion and coherence. From an introductory shooter scenario against monsters to a tutorial that feels as if Ian were walking the halls of Aperture Science labs, to an honest to god survival horror nightmare where you sneak around with a flashlight to then a guns-galore final boss fight. They threw everything they had in these nightmares, as if they were experimenting with genres and gameplay mechanics instead of building a single game.
There is no consistency in the nightmares and nothing that explores the character’s psyche, his powers, the relationship between his breaking sanity and the superhuman abilities. There isn’t even a single thing that teaches you about the characters to make you care about them.
Thus, when you reach the final boss—which is riddled with bugs and is definitely in the list for the worst design encounters in video game history—and he’s prattling on about your need to sacrifice things, there is nothing pulling you towards that course of action. You don’t care about Ian, the girl, his nemesis. They’re all cardboard cutouts of characters, premises without the accompanying stories to give them dimension and depth.
It doesn’t help that along with the shallow writing the voice acting is completely lifeless. The performers make it seem as if they’re reading out furniture catalogues and not having conversations about life and death. Ian’s monologue is a monotone and even though he musters some emotion at times it never feels sincere. It never feels as if the protagonist is emotionally invested in his own story, what little story there is.
And that’s the other major issue I had in my short time playing Past Cure. There’s barely a story beyond the starting premise and the game ends without anything significant in the plot. And then they even end it with some sort of cliffhanger that makes it all feel worthless, especially because the truth of Ian’s life is beyond predictable, especially because the writers wouldn’t know subtlety if it smacked them over the head. They had such an opportunity with Past Cure and decided to do the bare minimum, the most mediocre of efforts.
When Past Cure mentions a blend of stealth and action, it’s the wrong kind of stealth, the one where the moment a guard spots you, every guard in a 5-mile radius knows not only where you are but your national identity number and what you had for breakfast five days ago. Even the action is humdrum and the powers do very little to infuse the game with some excitement. Worse still is that much like everything else in Past Cure, the powers themselves were brimming with potential and were ultimately wasted.
Your astral projection power allows you to disable cameras, which is as far as the “telekinetic” part of the game’s press release goes, but then on a couple of occasions you can enter someone’s mind and retrieve secrets, but instead of being something you can normally do and which could be a nice strategic element to combat or stealth, having the guards turn on each other, you can only do so in those 2 instances and they’re essentially cinematics. Trust me, I tried my damnedest to trigger a possession of every guard I found—or it might have been the same guard, they all truly look alike, a veritable army of clones, so much that even a hotel manager shares the same skin—to no avail.
They even manage to make a mess of their user interface, with an inconsistent HUD that disappears on you when least appropriate, minuscule weapon information boxes you must strain to see properly, and one of the worst inventories in the world, which is baffling considering you don’t really need an inventory. You pick up perhaps a few notes and some minor items and instead of moving on, the game stops and goes into the inventory, which is buried under a handful of layers of menu items. It gets tiresome fairly quickly.
And that’s without going into the baffling lack of enemy and weapon variety, a shallow melee combat that is even more boring than the firefights and AI so stupid they have enemies that will rush at you without any weapons or other strategy than to fight you in melee. They just run at you and you’ll pick them off immediately because that is poor enemy and encounter design. It’s not jus the final boss that’s mediocre but every single encounter, both in stealth and action.
Past Cure is one of those games that manages to disappoint on all fronts. Its mechanics are shallow. The sanity angle is pointless, doesn’t even have the depth of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, let alone Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and is there just to add an underserving genre tagline to the game. It’s not even deep enough to consider it a “gimmick.” It can’t even tell a compelling story or make you care about its characters.
It is, overall, a complete waste of time.
1/5 – Oh Hell No!