Phantom 8 Studio's Past Cure is a game that we spoke to managing director Simon Gerdesmann about back at E3, one that seems to avoid slotting easily into any genre. There are action, stealth, narrative, and thriller elements all mixed in there, and so when we met with Gerdesmann again in London to actually have some hands-on time with the game, we went in with curiosity, wondering what to expect from the title.
Under Gerdesmann's supervision, the first level we saw took us to a beachfront property, which basically served as the tutorial. Once we'd looked broodingly into the distance as the sun set, we walked back into the lavish property (owned by a relative of the protagonist), to get to grips with the combat. Melee, for instance, consists of your standard combos, followed by a finishing move when prompted, and shooting is very orthodox as well, consisting of L2 and R2 to aim and shoot respectively. Nothing that pushed the boat out by any means, but was simple and accessible enough for a third-person game.
We were told that the purpose of the preview session wasn't to give insight into the narrative, but instead to introduce us to the different approaches to gameplay, so we didn't get much of a taste of what the story is actually about during our hands-on. What we do know, however, is that there's an awful lot of narration by the protagonist, who reminisces and reflects as he inspects objects in the environment and triggers events by moving from one place to another (as such there's plenty to uncover for those who love to explore). Conventional yet again, but we felt that the acting in the narration was a bit awkward and unconvincing at times, drawing attention to itself rather than fitting seamlessly into the experience.
The character models, on the other hand, look and feel extremely polished. The protagonist, for instance, is modelled on someone at the studio (Gerdesmann had to reassure us that this wasn't just Heavy Rain's Ethan, as there was a little resemblance), and the few enemies we saw, especially the surreal ones we'll mention in a bit, also looked the part, whether we were backing away from them or splattering their brains over the walls.
And indeed splattering is an option, should you so wish. The second level we played took place in a car park and gave us a chance to test out the combat, one facet of which lets you use firearms to take enemies down. We were reminded that this isn't a purely stealth game, however, so silencers are out of the window; if you want a quiet kill, you'll have to do it up close and personal. We tried to keep the aggro to a minimum so no firefights would kick off, but from our glimpse at combat it seems responsive and satisfying, as we methodically worked our way through hordes of goons without the alarm being raised. It's nothing new for those who have played third-person action games before, but it all works how it should.
What helped immensely is the power that is bestowed upon you - a part of Past Cure's supernatural side. With a tap of L1 we entered an out-of-body state where we could fly around and survey the area, but what was more useful is that you can also use this to destroy cameras. This power isn't unlimited, and requires drug injections to maintain (it recharges to a certain point, granted), but it was worth the cost, as we could destroy cameras while also distracting guards with the noise, being able to pull the strings and lure enemies where we wanted them, as well as keep track of those wandering round.
The last level took us to one of the protagonist's dreams, or should we say nightmares, and here we were reminded of games like Silent Hill, in the sense that we were introduced to elements of the past, of the protagonist's regular life, twisted into these much darker scenarios. We woke up in a prison cell with the simple objective of escaping, and once we'd done that we were greeted with some exploration and light puzzles to navigate our way through. The shiny, sterile whites of the beach house had given way to darker, rusty corridors illuminated by just our torch alone - a big old shift indeed.
Then we met another enemy, but this one was totally different from the armed henchmen we'd previously seen. This beast was an all-white humanoid with glowing eyes, except here he couldn't be killed; you had to navigate around his glowing eyes and marching patrols while trying to find what you were looking for. Easy enough, sure, but it meant you had to switch up your tactics if you'd been blasting dudes with bullets beforehand.
What rang an alarm bell in our head when we looked at Past Cure is that, because it wants to balance all these different elements, the finished product may well end up being a 'jack of all trades, master of none'. It was made clear to us all the stuff that it isn't, but it was always threatening to slip into certain distinct styles, without ever fully committing, so each felt a little barebones and unsubstantial. Stealth is limited to just crouching, for instance; combat has only a few guns; the horror is too bold to be scary; and the narrative (important for a cinematic game like this) wasn't given a whole load of time to shine in our preview session.
What lies ahead really depends on the strength of the story Past Cure is weaving, then, and from what we've seen we're cautiously optimistic. There's no cause for concern at all here, but all these different strands are rather thin, leaving us a little unsure of how they can all be tied together. With the right polish, though, there's no reason that Past Cure won't be an interesting thriller.