Fear Effect (PlayStation) review
"At the nexus where Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Blade Runner and Big Trouble in Little China meet, there is Fear Effect (FE), one of the toughest, darkest and most lurid survival horror outings to arrive late in the Playstation's career. In FE you control a team of three mercenaries, the intriguingly named Hana, Glas and Deke, seeking out a runaway girl in a neon-lit future Hong Kong with plans to ransom her back to her millionaire Triad-leading father. Awful complicatio..."
At the nexus where Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Blade Runner and Big Trouble in Little China meet, there is Fear Effect (FE), one of the toughest, darkest and most lurid survival horror outings to arrive late in the Playstation's career. In FE you control a team of three mercenaries, the intriguingly named Hana, Glas and Deke, seeking out a runaway girl in a neon-lit future Hong Kong with plans to ransom her back to her millionaire Triad-leading father. Awful complications ensue, pitching your 'heroes' headlong into a supernatural netherworld of mercenaries, zombies, prostitute demons and paper fetish dolls. Striking cel-shaded manga-styled visuals, a growling synth score and a punishing soundtrack mixing up gunfire with the heartbeats and heavy breathing of the game's much vaunted Fear Meter, make FE one of the last great sensory innovators for Sony's original console.
FE is also one distinctly rough ride. For a newcomer to this genre, the game's internal logic, the order in which it prioritises gaming elements, and its favourite tricks - constantly provoking shock responses to one-off situations, Dragon's Lair style death cinemas, leaping from character to character within moments - might seem baffling and nasty. At a certain fundamental level, FE is really one for the faithful - this is a survival horror game for survival horror geeks, who can perceive and participate in its gleeful narcissism as it turns a mirror on the whole genre. A great deal of FE's technical design is an intense and specific response to players' reactions to past survival horror games. That doesn't mean that others can't penetrate it, but if you find you don't like FE's bizarre strenuousness, the odds are that you won't like it with a vengeance.
Players baulked at or joked about having to pause to hit the inventory screen in Resident Evil and its cousins ('Look, I can stop the boss fight while I decide which gun to use!') so FE rolls all inventory management and weapon reloading into real time. FE's fixation is on attempting to make the action continuous in all areas, and to undo the 'pauses' and transitions which had evolved in previous survival horror games. You can now shoot whilst walking, running or even rolling, and do so with a weapon in each hand. You can even aim at and track two different targets at once.
Nobody said this would be an easy goal to sustain. The fact that all of these actions must be initiated from the one mode of play makes FE a controller demon: all of the buttons need to be used all of the time. It's pretty daunting when you start playing, but ultimately it can become second nature to you, at which point you really appreciate the number of things your character can do, and the beauty of their unbroken physical execution. To have Hana roll clear of a halo of gunfire whilst simultaneously stowing her assault rifle and unsheathing a knife is to enjoy that kind of cool hyperrealistic spectacle that action-adventures do so well.
When we think of survival horror, we also think of its static backdrops. FE responds to the standard idea with its polar opposite: Fully and constantly animated scenery cinemas 'loop' to create the background of each scene - the 'Motion FX' technology - and the reason for FE's whopping four disc size for an adventure not significantly longer than other survival horror games. And what has been achieved with these backdrops is stunning. Refusing to waste even a moment's footage, Kronos Entertainment have made FE a sea of searchlights rolling through venetian blinds, Chinese lanterns spiralling endlessly in the wind, twinkling neon skylines and frightening masses of shadows broiling overhead. The microscopic details of a fully animate world shimmer in every part of every scene, yet the processor draw remains minimal and unvarying, letting FE pour its energies into the characters and the combat. I've never experienced anything quite like it. The hesitant moments when the cinemas must 'reset' aren't invisible, but whenever possible they're embraced as a design element. The sad irony is that this whole amazing aesthetic, which was both a product of and response to the technology they developed, may never be seen again (outside of FE's Playstation sequel) because the 128-bit consoles have enough grunt to not even have to try to achieve certain effects this way.
This fluidity of action and imagery is matched to an ambitious fluidity of narrative and emphasis on forward velocity in the gameplay. FE focuses on what each character has to do right now, and on the 'fight or flee' instinct evoked by the game's title above all else. The game alternates brooding passages of skulking around in the shadows with shock set-pieces in which you're often given just a moment to perceive a whole situation or wind up dead: Emerging onto a rooftop which is suddenly strafed by helicopter fire, sprinting atop a train to jump clear of an inferno, hopping off a boat to find the wharf crawling with zombies. Swift FMVs produced with the in-game engine roll directly in and out of the action (FE never drops the widescreen frame) and the idea of playing one character for hours before switching to another is often thrown out. An escape sequence in a Chinese restaurant-come-brothel involves rapid alternation between characters who are breaking out of cells, breaking into cells, setting off alarms and stumbling into gunfights. So too do the puzzles emphasise the here and now. Until some arduousness on the last disc, FE almost completely avoids the typical adventure game model of 'carry found items around for ages until you find a use for them' in favour of a 'grab what you can see and use it now' one. If there's a problem, it's either solveable on the spot code-wise, like a computer or fuse-box, or the necessary helpful item will logically be found within a stone's throw. In short, the staccato dynamics and difficulty model in FE are very unlike those of most action-adventures.
Fortunately, Hana and her two ruthless buddies are well-equipped to deal with the chaos. You can creep, roll, stealth-kill, knife, bludgeon and sharpshoot your way through black-suited mercenary and demon alike, with a slick engine which mixes up Metal Gear Solid AI and and a higher speed version of Resident Evil's gunplay and fixed camera angles. A green targeting icon indicates lock-on, turning red to show when you can execute a one-hit kill on the unaware. All the while, your pulse rate as measured by the Fear Meter bumps along at the top of the screen. The meter is hardly as deep as the game's promotional material screamed it would be, but as an extension of FE's shock-ridden gameplay, it is an imaginative success. Rather than measure your flesh health, it reflects a dynamic combination of psychological state and physical distress. Just becoming aware of foes nearby starts to bump up your pulse. Actually being spotted by them 'hurts' you, as does running out of ammo or dodging or fleeing excessively once the shooting has started. Of course, being plastered with gunfire takes its toll in some very un-psychological ways. Perhaps the system's best trick is to make you genuinely distressed as a player by magnifying your character's galloping heartbeat and gasps of pain and panic on the soundtrack, as the Fear Meter slithers into the red.
Hana and company have a reassuringly solid presence onscreen. The flat-toned cel-shaded character models allow for the expressiveness of hand-drawn animation, capturing Hana's stencil sharp eyebrows, lips and heart-shaped jet hair, Glas' unshaven swagger and Deke's portliness and leer. The attractiveness of this style is most evident when the characters speak, when emotions are discretely visible and alive across the face - it looks and feels just like a manga film. It's really impressive when you note that even five years into the Playstation's life, people were still finding new and interesting ways of achieving previously unseen effects for the console. The vocal performances are worthy too, and crucially all the characters engage each other with great naturalism as they bicker about Han Solo-esque deals that just keep getting worse all the time; no lardy monologues here. Hana's coldish, even voice is well cast for the nihilistic void supposedly worrying at her insides ('I've killed so many people!'), Glas (the Han Solo stand-in himself ) is a great roustabout, and even though Deke, the balding coated assassin from 'New Australia', commits the typical ignorance crime of delivering what is actually cockney London dialogue with an Australian accent, he's entertaining enough that even self-conscious Aussies won't care.
Your foes are equally well-performed by the game. The guards sauntering about in their suits and goatees really do exude the air of belonging to an organised crime syndicate, and there seems to be plenty of authentic casual Chinese banter amongst them. But these guys are really only the warm-up material. As the game's trajectory becomes nastier and stranger, so do your enemies. By the time you confront a roomful of prostitutes splattered with occult blood which turns them into screaming ceiling-demons, you're almost ready for it. Already impressive boss fights with machine-gunning bodyguards or helicopters earlier in the game make way for such highly original encounters as having to protect a young girl from continuously summoned zombies whilst collecting paper 'hell' dolls which erode the forcefield shielding a demoness. The mythology of Chinese hell(s) gets quite a workout in FE, and while I'm unsure of its accuracy here, it certainly opens onto some scary ideas and imagery. The game's macabre visions of groggy fly-blown zombies nailed to bamboo walls, or of evil spirits drifting silently around a lake in which corpse-heads bob, are highly memorable.
Finally, I also think that FE distinguishes itself amongst the Playstation's adult-themed games for relishing in the greatest sense of genuine miscreant nastiness. Wherever something could be a little sleazier, less comfortable or more blackly amusing, FE reaches for that something with the necessary conviction. This is the kind of game where a limb removed by machete inevitably leads to thoughts of - 'Damn it, I can't put a gun in both hands anymore.' Hana as heroine manages to make one of the wildest debuts possible in the ever-growing pantheon of sexy/ confusing/ progressive/ exploitative videogaming babedom. While you're invited to empathise with her troubled past life as a 'working girl' at times, you're also invited to leer at her in shower, changing or towel-dropping sequences at others. Such lame-ish inconsistencies look positively benign in the wake of the sick lunacy which results when the game sends you as Hana, disguised as a prostitute, into the brothel (giving you a major stealth advantage), ultimately resulting in some major prostitute ceiling-demon carnage. This sequence mixes up enough bizarre spectacle, inspired bad taste and identity confusion to mash all of anyone's buttons.
FE defines itself as a love or hate game, and probably revels more than a little in its excesses, but justly so. The edgy sense of dynamics and shocks which govern its approach to everything ensure that it opposes most models of gaming that players are comfortable with: A regularly graded difficulty curve, long-term health management, spread-out puzzling, and clearly separated play amongst characters. Sometimes the first time you do something in FE will be as hard to pull off as the last time you do it. The game makes a spectacle of almost every death and the loading times are guaranteed to get on even a fan's nerves in passing. Of course, these elements are the confident vehicles of the game's purpose, and that driving sense of facing the threat present in every moment is what assures FE's place as a true original and an extremely important game for the genre. The boldness in design and technology, both of the cel-shaded artwork and the dazzling Motion FX scenery in perpetual widescreen format, also make this an important game for the console. FE is a thrilling, beautifully put together piece of danger and nastiness whose brooding tensions and atmosphere will stay with its fans, and whose innovations may yet influence future games.
Featured community review by bloomer (December 16, 2003)
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