A title too perfect: A critical review of “Past Cure” (2018)

Every now and again, a video game will come along and do something amazing, something that few games, maybe even no game, has ever done before. “Past Cure” is such a game. It’s a third-person shooter with elements of stealth and survival horror. Not only did it have that fascinating combination of genres, but it was also so buggy I wasn’t able to finish it.

In fact, I almost couldn’t start it. But we’ll get into that.

Produced by a studio in a part of Berlin that seems unaware the Wall came down in 1989, “Past Cure” puts you in the angsty shoes of Ian, a super soldier turned secret assassin. With the aid of his brother, Ian is hunting down the shadowy corporation that subjected him to a series of strange medical experiments. While the experiments gave him amazing powers of perception, they also fractured his mind and shattered his reality, and mysterious and frightening nightmares increasingly invade his waking world.

As a concept, “Past Cure” is fabulous: pulpy gunplay meets mind melting psychological thriller. You’ve got a haunted hit man as your main character, and some reality breaks that might be supernatural, a side effect of drugs or plain old insanity. For gameplay, you’re either solving metaphysics puzzles or shooting people. What’s not to like?

With stylish art direction and intelligent writing, a game like “Past Cure” wouldn’t even need that much of a budget. Well, the good news is “Past Cure” doesn’t look like it had much of a budget. The bad news is it doesn’t look like it had much art direction or quality writing either.

Ian’s world is divided into two realms: the waking world and the nightmare world. His waking world is blandly modern. It’s all generic parking garages and soulless office buildings. His house is pretty cool, but it doesn’t look like a place where someone who is hiding from the world–like a globetrotting killer with a vendetta against a corporate conspiracy, for example–would be hiding out.

The game is mysterious for the wrong reasons. Take that ultramodern house. Not only is it inexplicably avant-garde, but Ian and his brother live on top of an arsenal of guns, cool cars and blipping computers. There’s even a shooting gallery in their basement. Where did they get these wonderful toys? Who built everything? How were they kept quiet? The game never even attempts to hand wave it, and therefore, never earns it. As far as I know, Ian is just an itchy trigger finger with a tendency toward psychotic breaks. I guess he’s a multimillionaire too.

The nightmare sequences aren’t any cleaner. The first one is probably the best. It’s essentially a shooting tutorial set in what looks like an abandoned hotel. It’s trippy and it gets the job done, although it explains nothing about who Ian is. That’s fine. After all, it’s only the first sequence.

That lack of explanation becomes a problem in later nightmare sequences, set in sterile labs or rusty boiler rooms, where all we get are vague suggestions. Ian should have an idea, even a fear, of what’s going on. Even if he has trouble with his memory, the symbols in his own dreams should make sense to him. If they do, he’s not telling me. All he gives are cryptic hints, and that’s not explanation or even speculation.

If these sequences were structured like real dreams, they’d get crazier and more disconnected from reality with each encounter, but they don’t. Labs and boiler rooms aren’t that outlandish, even if they are spooky. In a good Silent Hill game, these locations would have some connection to Ian’s unique psychology. Here, they’re just spooky for the sake of being spooky, much like the shooting range was cool for the sake of being cool.

Maybe the game explains some of this in retrospect. Remember, I didn’t finish it. However, Ian doesn’t seem fazed by anything in the meantime, so I have no curiosity either. In fact, none of the characters, from Ian or his brother to the nameless thugs being stabbed in the back, sound excited to be in this game. One could blame weak voice actors or a shallow script. Take your pick.

Why didn’t this blog finish the game? Well, lemme tell ya. “Past Cure” didn’t foul up on the first couple levels. I was able to play through all the hand-holding bits just fine. Things really started to mess up when I hit the first level where things allegedly mattered.

It started OK, all crawling through parking structures and shooting at bullet sponges. But once I advanced beyond a certain load screen, all my ammunition disappeared. I restarted from the checkpoint, and I had negative ammunition. I restarted the level, and the room was replaced with a mysterious white void. Was I dead? Was Ian in heaven? Not quite. It was just a glitch.

I uninstalled and reinstalled the game. The system saved my progress, and the reinstall fixed the glitch. I was able to advance beyond the load screen through the shooty bits until I hit Ian’s nightmare realm, which was less shooting and more puzzles. The first one made no sense–how does jamming a crate into a wall supply an system of pulleys with electricity?–and the second one was worse. An endless wave of baddies, and the only thing to interact with in the room were a series of cages of unexplained origin.

Undeterred I looked up a couple walk-throughs of the game, only to find the level I was playing did not exist. Maybe it was a later addition, courtesy of some download, to make the game more “fun”? Anyway, I eventually figured out how to trap my pursuers in the cages, which made a kind of dream logic sense, I guess. I’m trying to cut you slack, “Past Cure.” You’re making me do all the work.

That puzzle was followed by an unskippable cut scene, which was followed by a boss who did not react to bullets or psychic assault, could not be dodged and killed me with one hit. The only way to return to this boss was to solve the puzzles with the cages again. And again. And again.

After half a dozen or so attempts at this, I said “no more” to “Past Cure.” I have nothing against unforgiving games and nothing against slow games, but those that are slow, unforgiving and suggest no psychological or artistic payoff are not for me.

I can’t say what happens next. Maybe Ian’s brother will end up betraying him. Maybe the woman in Ian’s dreams will end up being kidnapped, or maybe she’s already dead by Ian’s own hand. Maybe there’s some great revelation around the corner that will put everything into perspective. But I don’t have a sense of that now, and I have less of an incentive to get there.

When you strip away its thin plot and boring visuals, “Past Cure” leaves you with awkward shooting, an unsatisfying selection of guns, stiff controls and lame puzzles. Maybe I will finish it some day, but for now, I fear that “Past Cure” is beyond treatment.

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