Fear Effect is a game of great concepts, great atmosphere and great aesthetic sense, but marred by finicky, stiff control and inconsiderate design.
It is also a game of mixed heritage. The control scheme, and the basic layout of 3D characters moving in a series of static 2D backgrounds with the illusion of depth, is lifted directly from Resident Evil. The game does have some horror pretenses - there are zombies and the inevitable skinned dogs, and you wind up taking on the forces of Chinese Hell. But it is far from straight survival horror; it gradually gets more horror-y as you proceed into it, but the opening sequence is instead Gibson-esque cyberpunk taking place in the stock Neo-Tokyo sort of environment, and that influence remains well into the game. Your enemies are also just as often armed human soldiers as they are monsters, and when this is the case the game pilfers a little "tactical espionage" style as it allows you to sneak up on them for an instant kill.
You control a team of three mercenaries as they set out to kidnap the runaway daughter of a Hong Kong billionaire, in a totally amoral plot to make some quick millions. At the outset, the goal is no more complex than that, but massive complications quickly ensue, not the least of which is supernatural involvement. The story is totally linear, but it often switches perspective between the three main characters, sometimes extremely suddenly.
The titular "Fear Effect" is simply the way in which the game manages your health bar. You certainly take damage from gunfire and monster bites, but your health also takes a bit of a dip when you get spotted by the enemy, fire and miss them several times, or end up running and hiding from them. Your health is not restored by items or refresh points, but is simply refilled for you at random points, usually right before a boss battle or tough sequence. It makes for a neat sound effect, as your character's pulse rate increases and breathing becomes more labored and frantic as they dip nearer toward death, but in practice it really doesn't have much of an effect. When you die, it's always because you got shot or clawed or whatever too many times.
The game ends up actually feeling like something between Resident Evil and a Western PC adventure game, just with a lot more gunplay than either. The game is fairly cutscene-heavy, throws the occasional logic puzzle at you, and relies on a lot of "walk over this tile only when it is safe" type sequences. The unique style of implementing background graphics also contributes to this feeling; instead of static paintings, as with Resident Evil, you get a short video loop that gives the environment a more immersive, living and tense feel than the usual survival horror game of this mold. While this loop does wonders for the atmosphere, it also weighs the game down in some ways. Even though the video is dark, grainy and pixellated, since we are dealing with the humble Playstation hardware here and stretched low-res video was the only way to pull this off, it still exerts a pretty massive toll in terms of resources. It is the reason why the game comes on four discs, yet each disc only offers up two hours of gameplay at absolute most, and also why the game frequently takes long breaks to load the next scene into memory.
If you dislike the infamous loading times of Playstation games, you will absolutely loath this game. This is part of the "inconsiderate design" criticism I opened the review with; the game gleefully kills you in a lot of ways, it is very easy to screw up the somewhat cumbersome controls in a tense situation and there's usually little room for error, and the game also throws some instant death scenarios at you here and there just to keep you on your toes. Point being, you do a whole lot of dying, and that two-hour trek through each disc starts to feel like an eternity as you die, re-load your save, wait a loooong time for it to load, die, repeat, etc.
The controls actually suit the main bulk of the game decently, if not perfectly. Unlike Resident Evil's pause to access your inventory, you do it all on the fly here with the Square button, which takes a bit of getting used to and will probably lead to at least a few early deaths while you learn the unique button layout. You have a more versatile range of moves than any Jill Sandwich ever has, though; you can creep noiselessly up on foes, crouch to hide behind boxes and such, about-face on a dime, run and do shoulder rolls during which you are mostly invincible. A green target that pops up at the top of the screen indicates that you are "locked on" to a particular enemy; get close enough without arousing their attentions and the target will turn red, meaning you can execute a one-hit kill (ostensibly silent, even though it usually involves the guards yelling and gurgling loudly, other guards right nearby never seem to notice.) Most of the human guards are conveniently facing the other way when you approach them, so you are free to creep up on them and execute a stealth kill to both save ammo and trouble in shooting it out with them.
The two problems with the game that I cited at the beginning of this review are illustrated perfectly by the two types of boss battles that the game puts you through. This is where the layout and controls of the game really start to feel like something you are wrestling with rather than sort of mind-melding with (as the best games do.)
The first type of boss battle is Metal Gear Solid-esque - you are usually in a room with some obstacles to duck behind to avoid gunfire, and you sort of chase each other around looking for openings to shoot each other. Thing is, these bosses always know exactly where you are and make a constant beeline for you. So there's no sneaking up behind them - the only way to avoid getting plugged is to either exploit glitches in their AI routines that cause them to shoot the wrong way when they encounter you from a certain angle, or to spam the "invincible roll". Now here's the major problem - the "invincible roll" often goes in random directions, totally not the direction that you were pointing the stick in and intending to go. If you do it near a wall or other solid object that you can make contact with, the results get even more unpredictable. You can eventually learn the weird nuances of it enough to get by in most cases, but it is really more finicky and random than it should be.
The second type of boss battle is where the boss is not an actual polygonal character, but just a part of the video clip background that spews bullets at you. In these sequences, you simply have to observe their pattern of fire and stand in the right place at the right time whilst mashing the X button to automatically fire back. The thing is, to learn the patterns, you usually have to get mowed down by their hail of gunfire at least a few times (and re-load your save, and wait for the looooong loading screen, and then re-tread some ground to get back to the boss fight.) This "try and die" philosophy also extends to a number of non-boss areas of the game, where you face either an instant death if you stand in the wrong place at the wrong time, or fail to move quickly enough.
Exacerbating this second problem is the weird, seemingly thoughtless distribution of save points. First of all, save points are not visible in any way - in certain (totally random) areas, you hear your phone ring, and can then use the phone item in your inventory to save. The positioning is really finicky, though, and even when seemingly right on top of one it will disappear when you go to use the phone, causing you to dance around trying to pick it back up again. The save points are also totally inconsiderate of your time. You'll get one after a short, fairly easy sequence, which then requires you to go on through a fairly tough sequence, a lengthy cutscene (to be fair, can be skipped with the Start button) and a boss battle before the next one. Or, you'll get one right before a boss battle, but then after the battle there's a long and tough sequence to go through before the next one, and if you accidentally walk into a trap or something you are back to doing the boss battle you just won over again.
The game almost makes it worth your while to put up with all this frustration. The gameplay can be satisfying at times, mostly when you are given a string of guards to sneak up on or otherwise fairly painlessly dispatch, and the story and characters are both actually reasonably interesting. The game looks really great, despite the constant darkness and graininess, with characters looking like something animated out of a gritty graphic novel. Unfortunately, the story eventually just starts leaning on shallow Secks and Gore to keep you coming back; the female character, Hanna, is clad only in a wet towel for the entirety of the second disc, and gratuitously gets naked a few times, presumably in an attempt to make you forget about the jankier moments of what you just played through. Bare ass and a little nipple-less side boob isn't quite enough to buy my favor, however, and unless you are the horniest of polygon pervs I doubt it will for you either.
So what you end up with is really a game that is almost better to watch on Youtube than to actually play, and even then is only really totally enjoyable if you are a fan of horror flicks and softcore polygon T&A. I get the sense that the video backgrounds were what really mattered to the developers here, and everything was basically tailored to cater to that, even if it meant sacrifices in fidelity and quality of gameplay. The setting is actually not bad at all; lord knows we could use more cyberpunk-themed games than we actually got, and there's a consistent sense of tension and immersion here that works much better than it does in many other games. Even the layout and gameplay could have worked pretty well and consistently, if handled with a little more care and given a lot more polish. However, it seems that the development became a case of rigidly cobbling in these pre-conceived concepts, chiefly the video loops, but also the "fear effect" system and the survival horror conventions, just sort of hammering it all together in any way that it would fit regardless of whether that fit be disjointed or not. Really, this was a game crying out to be released on the PS2 or PC rather than the belabored old PSX, and aside from the graphical enhancement, it probably would have been easier to implement an engine that would have been more friendly to the player - maybe something from the stealth genre that the game already borrows a little from, something like the Thief, Tenchu or even the Metal Gear Solid engine which would have allowed it to retain the cinematic presentation while being more compatible with the focus on gunplay and action.
But this is what we got. The Tarantino/Rodriguez nihilist-noir style will appeal to the 13-year-old boy crowd (and all the men stuck in arrested development at that mental stage), and I'm sure they'll worship the game regardless of how frustrating or clunky the gameplay gets. If you're one such, well, enjoy. For everyone else, give this one a little thought before you shell out any bucks for it.
* Gameplay Video