In any work of fiction, dreams should appear sparingly, as they are one of the trickiest devices of the storyteller’s toolkit to use effectively, often seeming heavy-handed or disengaging. Distressingly, Past Cure has an untoward affection for dreams. Almost every moment and mission contains elements of nightmare, imbuing the game with a distracting sense of unreality that mystifies the suspension of disbelief. Over-reliance on the technique results in a narrative that cannot hold itself together, and Past Cure commits a number of additional sins that make it a poor game to match the poor story.
The feelings of disappointment are exacerbated by the project’s successes, the most powerful of which is the atmosphere. Having been created by a team of eight people, Past Cure predictably lacks the polish of most AAA games. However, the developers also seem to have ignored the focus-tested approach to level design in favour of making environments feel as authentic as possible. The layouts incorporate some concessions to facilitate stealth, as well as locked doors and other artificial barriers to set a path, but the locales generally reflect the more aesthetic-led principles of real-world architecture and interior design. Overlooking the established tenets of pleasurable play environments gives the title a palpable sense of place that the carefully constructed artifices of many other games cannot hope to match. Unfortunately, repetition quickly dulls the wonder of the spaces.
Past Cure feels like one of most obnoxiously padded-out titles of recent memory, managing to turn the otherwise satisfying gameplay loops into drudgery. The game combines pop-and-cover third person shooting with gritty melee combat and limited supernatural powers intended to help with both stealth and combat. Using the weaponry can sometimes be cumbersome and imprecise, but clearing a room of enemies harbours a thrill equal to almost any other game on the market. Unfortunately, access to the protagonist’s special abilities is typically too brief to be enjoyable, even though the blue pills that restore the reductively-named sanity meter appear liberally throughout the levels. The skills to slow time and scope out areas as a ghost are hardly novel (appearing previously in Max Payne and Beyond: Two Souls, respectively, among other titles), but they add a layer of agency that can stave off tedium for a short while. “A short while” is key, as a recurring issue within Past Cure is that most missions are considerably longer and more repetitious than they need be. As satisfying as it may be to clear a parking garage of enemies, the process begins to grate by the third iteration and becomes almost painful by the fifth. To be fair, the levels have delightfully varied atmospheres and objectives, but even a change for the worse would be a welcome reprieve from the monotony. Exacerbating this central issue is the lack of narrative pay-off.
Mystery is treated as a hook from the outset, beginning in a nightmare house populated by porcelain demons before moving to a realistic realm that continues to ask questions and provide no answers. Ostensibly, Past Cure is about an ex-soldier’s quest to uncover why years are missing from his memory and why he has these strange abilities and nightmares. However, aside from a brief mention of the CIA’s Project MKUltra early on, few other clues emerge across the campaign. Instead, the story meanders, exploring dreams and unclear plot elements. More frustratingly, the title refuses to clarify the positions and purposes of the various side characters, even while hinting that each of them is both more and less than they appear to be. With more adept storytelling, Past Cure could have been one of the more intriguing game narratives of 2018, but the absence of answers to its central questions makes it, instead, one of the most obtuse.
The problems with the story extend to the characterisation and portrayal of protagonist, Ian. Similarly to many previous video game heroes, Ian has a tendency to talk to himself in both short quips and more extensive pontification. Disappointingly, he lacks both the charming cynicism of Max Payne and the endearing joie de vivre of Nathan Drake, leaving Ian as a bland soliloquist with little to recommend him. This inability to engage with the protagonist is amplified by the poor quality of voice acting. That each character speaks with a faint accent is not a weakness—particularly given the indie nature of the project and the development team’s base in Germany—but the lines frequently feel forced, throwing the player out of the experience. The game also has a tendency to drop or misalign audio cues at points, which can be distracting and off-putting.
The team at Phantom 8 should be proud of what it has achieved in terms of atmosphere and core gameplay. Past Cure, similarly to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice before it, is a testament to the idea that small indie developers can produce a quality of content matching that created by blockbuster studios. However, the excellence of these aspects makes the flaws in design, audio, and storytelling more glaring. What looks like a sterling experience feels amateur. Past Cure is ambitious, which can be a fantastic quality, but the developer’s effort is misplaced, leaving the game incapable of surviving its own confusion.