Who knew Hell could be this cool?
It starts with the sweat. Beads of moisture slowly accumulate on your forehead. A greasy film emanates from your palms, a cold, clammy wetness that stands in stark contrast to the dryness of your throat. Your pulse quickens, your heart working overtime in an effort to meet the steep demands of your 'fight or flight' instincts. Your breathing grows loud and heavy. Your eyes dilate to take in more light.
This is the moment before the terror. This is the breakdown of the will. This is the Fear Effect.
Fear Effect is also the latest from Eidos and developer Kronos Digital. With an emphasis of story over action, this is one of the best single player games to come down the pipe in a while. Plus, it's freakier than a three-armed bearded lady.
The scene: a futuristic Hong Kong. It seems that the daughter of a prominent businessman has turned up missing. As an elite trio of mercenaries, you must battle your way through the armies of your enemy to save the girl and uncover the secrets behind her disappearance. Along the way, you'll witness enough horror to turn your hair a permanent shade of white.
Fear Effect is a third-person, fixed camera adventure game reminiscent of the Resident Evil series. But don't be fooled, Fear Effect does some very different things.
For starters, take the graphics. Words like "wow" and "cool" will hardly be sufficient. May I offer "innovative" and "inspired?" The characters are polygonal, with anime textures pulled over the bodies to create an astonishingly 'real' cartoon effect. The pre-rendered backgrounds brim with life - they're actually looped movies. This produces some very chilling moments; lights swaying in the breeze, flames dancing in the distance, and shadows crawling across the ground.
Occasionally, you will notice the slight hiccup as the background movies loop, which sort of ruins the effect. But for the most part, they're pretty seamless and well designed. Fear Effect is just a gorgeous game and quite a technical achievement considering the somewhat limited power of the aging Playstation.
Where many games focus on action or adventure elements, Fear Effect focuses on cinematic ones. The game plays and feels like a movie. The plot is engaging and dark, with very adult themes and mature ideas. The movement from FMV to in-game action flows gracefully. At times, you'll stop playing because it looks like a cut-scene, only to realize that you have to press 'up' to climb the stairs after all.
In fact, this movie-like quality is just what raises Fear Effect above the pretenders. The fixed camera occasionally becomes 'un' fixed, arcing around your character as you enter a new location. You still have full control during these cinematic sweeps, which leads to some brilliant gaming moments. Just imagine: you've got a pistol in each hand and enter a new area...the camera slowly pulls back to reveal two armed guards standing with their backs to you...you unload your clips into the unsuspecting enemies while the camera is still in motion. The result is priceless and memorable.
Another cool concept is the 'Fear Meter,' which replaces the normal health bar. When your character undergoes enough stress, he/she will take damage from shots. Taking out enemies is a slick fashion rather than just running into rooms guns-a-blazin' will keep your Fear Meter in the green. Interesting, though in the end it functions much the same as the old health indicator.
The sound is excellent. Top-notch voice acting and a truly eerie soundtrack set the tone for what might be the creepiest game in town. Is that a tortured soul wailing in the background, or just my imagination?
For the most part, the gameplay and control is familiar. You move around the pre-rendered backdrops shooting enemies with your guns while solving the occasional puzzle. There's nothing particularly new here, though the game takes on an episodic quality ala the classic game Flashback. The linear plot unfolds scene by scene, and by virtue of the three different characters, you'll uncover the story from different perspectives.
The action is pretty solid, though the control could use some refining. Assigning the Square and Circle buttons to scrolling through the inventory is a bit silly, and the 'auto face the other-direction' button is just useless.
There's also a bit of a bias towards rolling. You can pretty much avoid all damage by incessantly rolling around on the ground, evading round after round of enemy fire by somersaulting like a schoolgirl. Not the most advanced AI, to say the least.
The puzzles are occasionally interesting, but for the most part exist solely to break up the action. Most of the solutions are in the game itself, which is a shame. Good puzzles should require real-world thinking, not simply backtracking one screen to get the answer.
I have some other small gripes (like the awkward save game feature), but these pale in comparison to the tremendous overall experience that this game serves up. A class act from start to finish, Fear Effect is that rare game that moves toes the line between game and art. The effect is truly unique.