I’ve never been one to place a lot of stock in learning the inner workings of the games industry. It doesn’t matter much to me; I’m not the one laying out the cash for anything but the finished product, after all, nor do I ever plan to be. NPD discussion is, at best, idle chatter from an industry that’s not really beholden to tell me anything it doesn’t want me to hear. These days, though, I’m an outlier, and armchair sales and financial analysis has become a sort of sub-hobby for many fans involved in video games.
Games like Past Cure, then, are interesting because of how they don’t fit into the traditional idea of how the industry works. We’ve got a ten-person team here, many of whom are new to the industry, aiming to create an indie game with near-AAA production values. That game is then available for $30, or half of the usual MSRP. Suffice to say you shouldn’t expect a masterpiece here – really, calling it “good” is a stretch – but Past Cure is a more coherent and palatable title than many more expensive games I’ve played in the past few years.
Ian’s had some hard times lately. Well, a little more than hard. He stepped out of a plane one minute; in the next, he woke up on the side of the road. The intervening time lasted for years but Ian can’t remember what exactly happened. What’s more, he’s been plagued by nightmares ever since. The one benefit of his strange experience has been the supernatural powers he’s developed, including time dilation, remote viewing and telekinesis, but even these eat away at Ian’s sanity. Still, they might be the one thing that keeps him alive as he searches for the truth, fighting off gangsters, soldiers and his own hallucinations along the way.
There was a period during the PS2 era where psionic powers and ESP were the “in” thing; this resulted in games like Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy and Second Sight, third-person shooters with mind-bending twists. Past Cure feels like a relic of that era combined with a touch of The Matrix. Ian’s got martial arts skills, guns and the aforementioned powers. Thus armed, he’s going to fight his way through parking garage after parking garage. Better hope you parked somewhere else.
Yes, Past Cure loves its parking garages, and this serves as a sort of theme throughout the game – it gets hooked on an idea and refuses to let go until you pry its clammy fingers off. What at first appears to be one parking garage shootout spins off into three. One reasonably-sized mandatory stealth area blooms into several. When the game throws you into Evil Within-styled nightmares where you have to run around, dodge evil mannequins and solve puzzles, you can be sure you’ll be there for awhile because Past Cure doesn’t ever want anything to end. It’s like the video game version of a clingy ex.
The nitty-gritty of what you’re doing in these unending levels is…adequate, at least. As mentioned, you’ve got a few options for dealing with enemies, but in reality you’ll mostly be gunning your foes down. While Ian is passable in melee combat, he doesn’t magically become bulletproof while pulling off some sweet kicks, so nearby opponents who aren’t getting beaten up will be more than happy to ventilate him. As for the psychic powers, you’ll quickly come to love time dilation, which synergizes well with the range-focused combat by allowing you to effortlessly land headshot after headshot. Remote viewing and telekinesis, meanwhile, are used primarily for stealth sections and puzzles respectively; there’s also some value in using telekinesis to shut down the many “gotcha” cameras strewn all over the place.
In terms of gameplay that’s really the whole game; run around, hide behind cover and kill everyone with bullet time headshots when you’re allowed to do so, otherwise sneak around and shank people when you’re forced to do that. Ian’s powers run off a “sanity” meter, but because the powers are used for puzzle-solving it’s always got a portion that regenerates. In other words, you never need to stop using bullet time to headshot everyone and the sanity-restoring pills the game sometimes offers lose a lot of their value. None of the game design is especially offensive, though the boss battles that occur toward the end of the game could have used another pass…or another three passes…or five. They’re lame, in other words, and they tend to be far too short on checkpoints given their tendency toward cheap deaths.
Past Cure was made by a small team on a limited budget so I didn’t come in expecting anything graphically stunning; with that in mind I was a little surprised. This isn’t a gorgeous game by any means but the environment design and cinematography, such as it is, can be somewhat impressive by video game standards. There’s a big focus on bloom and everything looks just a tad too shiny. Despite this, on the whole this is a nice-looking game that’s often well served by a stylish presentation. We’ve seen all of these places before – the surreal mindscapes, the minimalistic hotel, the many parking garages – but they’re presented in a striking and clean-cut style.
Well, it’s nice-looking when things aren’t moving. Certainly Past Cure’s development involved team members who cared a lot about making a solid experience but were somewhat constrained by what they were given to work with. Contrast the beautiful environments with the unintentionally hilarious animations; in particular, I was fond of Ian’s special stealth attack, the “butt-shank,” where he absolutely just sneaks up and shivs someone right in the rear end for whatever reason. Likewise, Past Cure’s voice acting is a bit of a disaster and it hurts the moody presentation the game is going for.
Past Cure is, in other words, a C-list game in an age where those are rapidly becoming less and less common. That doesn’t mean Past Cure is a “bad” game; it’s goofy and weird, often in ways the developers clearly didn’t intend, but it’s absolutely memorable on top of that. “Memorable” isn’t enough to get a recommendation at $60. This isn’t $60, though. It’s a $30 game that will almost certainly be available for half that much within a couple months. Past Cure has enough unique moments to merit that price. Just wait until you open the safe, for instance. You’ll see.