An unexpected side effect of the recently lowered barrier to entry into game development is that it dilutes the amount of infamy available for individual titles. While there were plenty of bad games in the pre-App Store and pre-Greenlight eras, the true disasters are known far and wide for their lack of quality alone. These days, true disasters are everywhere, and externalities like dishonest or litigious developers are required to leave the kind of impression that Superman 64 left just by existing. Take Past Cure, for example. It’s a terrible game that will disappoint anyone drawn in by its striking screenshots and somewhat promising description, but it will be immediately forgotten, because it’s at least exactly what was advertised, albeit the worst possible form of it.
If I had to pin down the root cause of the game’s woes, I’d point to its minimal understanding of its own identity. It thinks Unreal-backed production values make it a AAA product, it thinks its story is deep and meaningful, and it thinks that combining gunplay and psychic powers is a totally original concept. In reality, it’s the 2004 title Second Sight, re-imagined as a tribute to Remedy Entertainment’s catalog, using the poor design techniques of The Order: 1886. It tries to mix melee and ranged combat, stealth, puzzle-solving, horror, and symbolic storytelling, ending up as a jerky heap of one-off mechanics, repetitive gameplay, and truncated story threads.
The numbers alone speak volumes about how shallow this game is. The shooter segments offer only four boring weapons and four enemy types (that’s including one that’s just a more heavily armored version of another), and the protagonist’s supposedly “mind-bending” abilities number a grand total of two: astral projection and slow-motion. Even if action games stopped getting points for including a slow-motion mechanic like eight years ago, this would be an especially banal implementation. The enemy AI is so brain dead and the “sanity” meter that governs the player’s ability use is so easily replenished, that there’s never a reason not to go through combat on a cycle of attacking in slow-motion and hiding to regenerate sanity. Taking damage reverts everything to normal speed, so players are practically encouraged to alternate between the two constantly.
Astral projection had more potential, as it’s used to interfere with electronics and invade characters’ minds. However, it too is ruined by totally inorganic implementation. Apart from disabling security cameras, electronic interference is merely an elaborate method of pressing buttons, while mind invasion is executed only twice, in completely scripted locations involving identical quick-time events. It could work as a scouting tool for stealth sections, except that stealth is usually a waste of time. Enemy acuity is extremely inconsistent, and healing opportunities are just as abundant as sanity restoration, making it much more convenient to just plow through any opposition. That is, when the game isn’t making secrecy mandatory in chapters so rigidly designed that playing them is like completing a checklist through trial and error.
The level design in general tends to go for layouts that are as unconducive to gameplay as possible. Missions that progress entirely linearly are set in needlessly complex, circuitous locations. The first level appears to be advanced by moving in a circle through the same few rooms multiple times, but I honestly can’t be certain, because it, like most locations in Past Cure, is composed primarily of identical doors and dead ends. This is especially disappointing for missions that take place during dream sequences (which is about half of them), as those should be working with a licence to ignore realism in favor of pure intuition.
The dream sequences display considerably more imagination than the real-world affairs, in that they display any imagination at all. There’s a thick, otherworldly atmosphere hanging over them, and the droning, anxious soundtrack is a lot more appropriate for them than it is for the action scenes. It would be legitimately creepy if the main character wasn’t essentially John Wick with a German accent. When it comes to gameplay, however, these mental levels are no better than their physical counterparts. To say they focus more on puzzle-solving than action is to use a charitable definition of “puzzle.” It’s frequently just a matter of interacting with the designated object that advances the plot, while attempts to rise beyond that are merely stock puzzles involving sliding blocks or switches with overlapping effects.
Past Cure is more competent on a technical level than a design one, but it’s still noticeably flawed. The protagonist’s movement is governed unusually strongly by his animation – a logical-sounding decision that most developers know to avoid, because it means he lurches forward uncontrollably with every step. It also makes movement in any other direction uncomfortably stiff. The hit detection is spotty as well, which is frustrating when using firearms and downright ruinous when engaging in fisticuffs. The melee combat is already a mindless combination of button mashing and quick-time events, and the total absence of a feeling of impact deadens any entertainment that it could have provided.
The action is further dulled by some oddly muted sound effects, but that’s only the case for about 50% of them, as opposed to the voice acting, which is universally abysmal. I don’t like to dwell on indie script writers and voice actors for whom English is not a native language, because they’re not really at fault, and hiring a whole new cast would be unfeasibly expensive, but this is problematic even by those standards. Every single spoken line feels disconnected from any contextual events or preceding conversation, and the script is full of “as you know” dialogue delivered as often to other characters as it is to the player in the form of boring narration.
This wouldn’t be so devastating to the overall quality if the game didn’t clearly desire to be treated additionally as a film. A large percentage of the running time is taken up by admittedly well-directed cutscenes that are often rendered laughable by the poor performances and inadequate visuals. If you’re confused as to why I previously called the game’s screenshots “striking,” it’s because screenshots don’t move. The in-game camera, on the other hand, can’t get enough of the characters’ poorly rendered facial hair, glassy eyes, and floppy mouths. Whoever was in charge of marketing here must be commended for centering on the hallucinatory porcelain enemies, as they’re easily the game’s most iconic and consistent imagery.
Probably coincidentally, the porcelain men are also the only aspect of Past Cure’s story that feels satisfactorily explained by the end. I couldn’t even tell you what the title refers to. It manages the ironically impressive feat of being both incredibly clichéd and nearly incomprehensible. The protagonist, Ian, wakes up one day with psychic powers, three years missing from his memory, and recurring nightmares and hallucinations. Using medication provided by his brother Marcus, Ian attempts to use his powers to uncover an explanation for his situation and the meaning behind his visions. The plot seems to go in an entirely predictable direction from there – the prologue even ends with a shoehorned summary of MKUltra and similar projects, but whether it’s poorly implemented foreshadowing or poorly implemented misdirection, I’m not sure.
The thing about narrative in Past Cure is that a lot of the statements often used to describe good storytelling elsewhere are negatives here. True to the advertising, it’s difficult to differentiate between what’s real and what’s in Ian’s head, but we’re never given enough information for the ramifications of either to actually become significant. Similarly, while the plot eventually takes an unexpected turn, it’s in the form of a supremely lazy conclusion that not only raises a dozen more questions, but makes all previous ones irrelevant. Sometimes the game doesn’t even seem to realize it’s raising questions; later in the game, characters and objects gain an intentionally glitchy visual effect as they materialize, but no one ever comments on this phenomenon.
Imagine if Final Fantasy VII ended immediately after Yuffie steals the party’s Materia. That’s what the story in Past Cure feels like. I have a theory that at some point during development, “sanity” was an actual mechanic that caused Eternal Darkness-style hallucinations instead of being a glorified magic meter, and a lot of the intended effects were reworked as narrative elements. It helps to explain the state of that narrative, even if it doesn’t improve it. Unfortunately, I have no explanation for the rest of the game. It just seems to be the product of a couple dozen bad decisions piled on top of each other. It’s stagnant, sloppy, and so laboriously drawn out that even though it clocks in at only five hours, it still feels four hours too long.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with by Phantom 8 Studio.
Past Cure is an aggressively meaningless story broken up by astonishingly pedestrian gameplay.