Retro Review: Fear Effect (2000)

Square Enix hasn't forgotten about this PS1 Era gem, and neither have it's fans, for good reason. Well deserving of it's eventual remake and spin off title.

If you haven’t heard the news about Fear Effect: Reinvented or Sedna, I urge you to go and complete the original game right now, I can wait, go on, it’s not long. Done? Good. Now you can finally feel the same chills as the rest of us when that haunting, taunting little tune plays.

With Fear Effect finally getting it’s turn on the HD-Remake bandwagon there’s never been a better time to re-familiarize or introduce someone to one of the most underrated Playstation 1 games ever made.

Fear Effect had the shortest, strangest legacy of the PS1-era Survival Horrors. Unlike it’s more successful cousins Resident Evil and Silent Hill it came out only a matter of months before the PlayStation 2 release and you could even be fooled into thinking it’s not a Survival Horror at all for the first stretch of the game, until it reveals it’s Chinese mythology roots. It’s cancelled sequel Fear Effect: Inferno would have picked up it’s “down the rabbit hole” plot on the PlayStation 2 had Kronos Digital Interactive not gone under in 2002. Had Fear Effect: Inferno found a publisher and been given the same love and effort as the original, we may have seen the start of a unique, unsettling franchise.

But enough of what could have been, what was? Frankly, bloody good game. One that more than deserves it’s nearly-two-decades-later revival, both in Triple A remake and Kickstarter indie spin-off.

With the popularity of FMV games dwindling with the 90s, Fear Effect wore it’s 2.5D pre-rendered backgrounds proudly and was, appropriately, lovable. Combined with cel-shaded models that hold up surprisingly well, Fear Effect’s once cutting edge graphics and art direction successfully compete with even juggernauts of the age like Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Like the aforementioned entries, Fear Effect came across four discs, even pulling a quick one towards the end of the game and suddenly requesting you put Disc two of four back in right when you think the game has ended 20 minutes short.

Fear Effect starts off deceptively simple. Two of our three admittedly stereotypical mercenaries are introduced, Glas and Hana, on their way to a building in futuristic Hong Kong to get a lead from a semi-reliable old “Friend”, Jin, who manages to immediately get himself kidnapped. We find out from the opening cutscene that the lead is the whereabouts of a young girl, Wee Ming, who has fled her overprotective criminal father Mr Lam, the leader of the Hong Kong triads and a suspiciously successful businessman. Our oh so saintly leads hope to find her first and charge a finders fee.

Starting atop a Neo-Hong Kong skyscraper Hana attempts to find and rescue Jin while Glas waits to make an escape. We alternate between both characters as things quickly go downhill. Their transport is blown up, Jin is killed and Mr Lam arrives to make his disapproval clear. Some vague hints are dropped about Hana’s past with Jin and the Triads and Wee Ming makes some equally vague allusions to her supposed fate, to serve as a sacrifice to Yim Lau Wong, the King of Hell. Just in case you thought the game wasn’t going to go absolutely mad. By the end of the first disc we also meet Deke, our third playable mercenary who, while lovable, can only be summed up as “Australian”. Perhaps more importantly, we do get a glimpse at almost everything Fear Effect has to offer.

Combat is era-standard tank controls with a simple 180 turn and a combat roll mapped to the bumpers, but rather than the incredibly clunk high/medium/low aiming of most other games, Fear Effect has a simple aiming reticle at the top of the screen. Green means you’re locked on, red means a stealth kill. Nice and simple. Ammo management is important and many guns can be dual wielded to target two enemies at once at the cost of rapid ammo expenditure. The puzzles range from deceptively simple, like finding a fuse for a fuse-box or walking an electrified floor that turns on and off in a certain pattern to a bizarre bomb diffusing puzzle that will quickly teach you to scour your surroundings for items and clues. Unfortunately it also gives a glimpse at Fear Effects length.

As mentioned before, every background in Fear Effect is completely pre-rendered and as anyone who knows their old games will likely be well aware, pre-rendered backgrounds are colossal space hogs. Even pushing the PS1’s disc space and hardware to the limits, Fear Effect ends up short enough that I completed the game in just three sittings for the sake of this review, with little memory of the puzzles or enemies and no guide. Certainly short enough I’ll be going back and playing it through on Hard before Fear Effect Reinvented is released.

While I’ve yet to do that, hard is by all accounts the appropriate word. At the time of release, Edge Magazine gave Fear Effect a comparably meager score of 6/10, the average being just shy of 9/10, claiming “The boss battles (were) absurdly difficult”  and  “In such a beautiful cinematic game, featuring clever plotting and scripting, such deficiencies are even more offensive.” That’s right, mainstream reviewers were always bad at video games. Shade throwing aside, the game does get increasingly difficult as it goes on. Enemies become unpredictable, ammo becomes scarce and puzzles become downright uncanny.

Despite playing games my entire life, I will forever remember Fear Effect as the first game I ever needed an online walkthrough for. Almost halfway through the game I was completely stumped by a puzzle that had you placing flowers and vases symbolic to life and death. After days of pacing and begging friends and family for a second opinion I finally did something almost unheard of at the time. I unhooked the phone, sat through awful AOL Dial-Up and printed off an online walkthrough to sit in front of me while I played. In my defense, that walkthrough was the authors first of the millennium and credits a good old fashioned cheat hotline for helping.

Even over a decade later at least one puzzle actually succeeded in making me put down my controller for the night and dreading the idea of history repeating itself. Yes, this game can pretend to be a nice normal shooter about a group of three mercenaries, but it does follow a perfect difficulty and sanity curve from nice and straightforward to completely insane. While Edge does specify the bosses in particular gave them trouble I have to be contraire and say they are almost disappointingly simple. Most of the bosses are as simple as memorize the attack pattern, roll away or into cover and shoot them whenever you get the chance. With the clunky old controls that’s easier said than done, but with save points so frequent and usually right before an encounter, no boss took more than half a dozen tries. Perhaps the developers knew this though, as bosses escalate from regular mooks and vehicles to downright disturbing and memorable.

In the end Fear Effect holds up on the same grounds as most games from the era. A mechanically and graphically unique foundation for a genuinely interesting and bizarre story that can get you excited for even the slightest news over a decade later. There’s a reason I’ve spoiled as little as possible about this game while insisting the main reason it holds up is the story I’m not talking about. Fans are excited for Fear Effect: Reinvented for the same reason they are Final Fantasy VII’s remake. It doesn’t matter if they need to change the controls or play-style to update the game for modern players, we’ll always have the originals. People are excited because it’s so damn good, we just want another excuse to go through hell all over again. Perhaps literally.


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