Past Cure doesn’t look like a game that’s been made by just eight people. There’s a shine to the graphics that feels like dozens of artists have worked on this, an ambition to its third person action that would surely have taken a plethora of designers and animators, and yet it has been made with just the eight developers that make up Phantom 8 Studios in Berlin. It’s also their first game as a studio.
That’s hugely impressive, but it’s another sign that the barriers to game development are coming down faster and faster. While Simon Gerdesmann, Managing Director of Phantom 8 Studios, shies away from the comparison to Ninja Theory and their work on Hellblade, the parallel is undeniable, with a small team striving to hit the same high bar of quality as a AAA action game, but aiming to do so for a fraction of the cost.
That’s the reason for the lead character Ian’s striking resemblance to Ethan Mars from Heavy Rain, something which was quickly picked up when Past Cure was first announced. It’s not actually Pascal Langdale, but rather a similarly white and beardy looking member of the development team – it’s cheaper, after all. Since then, Ian’s become a bit grittier and slightly more distinctive with a scar now jagging down his face. Even if he were to run around shopping malls shouting Jason, he’d do so with a German accent from the German voice actor.
It’s been a journey of learning and discovery for Phantom 8, as Simon describes to us. “You should have seen us in March 2016. We had three computers, we didn’t even know we had to do localisation, we didn’t know how to get a Dev kit from Sony, what QA means or anything like that. We’ve come pretty far and we’re really proud of what we’ve done.”
Ian is a man full of mystery in more ways that one. Not only is he highly trained with an army background and looks good in a suit, but he’s also got a gaping hole in his memory, having lost around 18 months between stepping off a plane in Syria and finding himself out on the streets of London. Where has he been all this time? Obviously, he’s going to try and find out, and thankfully his exceedingly wealthy brother Marcus is there to help him with cash, somewhere to stay and train, as well as hunting down some leads.
“Every since then he’s had hallucinations, these panic attacks and strange nightmares,” Simon explained. “It’s a very stable but strange life; it’s always the same. Now it’s changing, so there’s other characters coming into his dreams, and Marcus finds a clue or link to the people that experimented on him. That’s the mission, where in the real world he goes to find more information on what happened to him, and on the other hand, the dreams are changing and growing together with reality.”
It’s not just nightmarish dreams that now hound Ian’s life, but also some supernatural abilities that can only be a result of these experiments. Astral Projection allows him to step out of his own body and venture through an area to explore, spot enemies and security cameras, and disrupt electronics, while Time Manipulation slows the world around Ian, but lets him keep moving at roughly normal speed. In the 18 months since Ian’s reappearance, he’s already happened upon a drug called Nexus, simply referred to as blue pills, to help him deal with the mental strain of using these powers.
Combining those abilities with a proficiency for both armed and unarmed combat, Ian is a formidable force. Playing a snippet of the game and working through a parking garage to reach a hotel above and a person of interest, you can either take on the armed (and very well dressed) goons stealthily, sneaking up behind them to take them out, go in guns blazing with the sharp and precise gun handling, or a mixture of the two. However you want to tackle it, Ian’s abilities will help out in a rather direct fashion.
Importantly, Phantom 8 know the limitations of what they can achieve. Though Simon would love to have them in the game, snapping to cover and leaning animations would have simply taken too much time to create so they’re not in the game, and though the game looks good, the environments and models are a few steps behind what much larger and more experienced studios can achieve. Similarly, melee combat is designed to be fast, fluid and done with in a matter of moments. There’s no deep nuance to it, but rather a simple counter, button mashing attack and finishing move, and the game ensures that you’re only engaged with one enemy at a time.
This melee system is just one example where the team reacted to feedback given by followers of the game online. Simon said, “We have 120,000 followers on Facebook, and so when we started in Summer 2016 to build up our social media presence, we dropped snippets and short videos and got great feedback. We [thought that] this was a good way to bring in the melee, even if it’s not just a melee game, and then we saw that people liked it and so we focussed on the melee combat more. It’s just a quick time system because we didn’t want to make it too complex with different combinations, but on the other hand we want to make a cinematic, story driven thriller. We had to balance that together, and yeah, we focussed on melee because people loved it.”
While action segments will make up a good chunk of the game, there’s also some more exploratory moments, where you can meander around and search for clues and items to solve puzzles. A rather benign example came from exploring the luxurious seafront house that Marcus has effectively gifted to him, through exploring and interacting with various items, before venturing down to the basement where there’s a number of interesting tidbits of information in an office, a shooting range and a boxing ring with holographic enemies. It’s like a ludicrously modern take on being able to explore Croft Manor, but something that should spin out to later parts of the game as the story unfolds.
The entire game has been a huge learning curve for the team. Simon said, “We’ve learnt a lot in terms of what you should do and not do in development […] We’ve made a lot of mistakes, of course, but I think where we are now, we’re in good shape to make our next game which will be even better than this.”
Of course, before they can move onto the next project, there’s still plenty of work to be done polishing Past Cure for release. Set for release on 2nd February next year, the light is at the end of the tunnel for Phantom 8 and this first game. It might not be earth shattering or genre-defining, but it’s full of ambition and is shaping up to be an impressive debut.