Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix Hands-On

We just received the latest build of Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix, one of the last great PlayStation games and a prequel to the original.

The original Fear Effect sent ripples through the PlayStation community with its unique graphical style, gritty storyline, and subject matter targeted squarely at adults. Kronos has been hard at work on the sequel, hoping to improve on the original in every respect. At a time when most companies are shifting their development resources to the next generation of consoles, Kronos is taking the time to make sure its last hurrah on the PlayStation is a memorable one.

Taking place before the original Fear Effect, Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix serves as a backbone to the franchise by providing insight into the personality makeup of the three original characters. Hana, the Asian mercenary, Glas, the ex-CIA special agent, and Deke, the ammo-toting heavy, all make a return for this, the second Fear Effect outing. You begin the game as Hana, who is working with her old partner the new character, Rain. As the story goes, Hana found Rain on the brink of death and nursed her back to health. Hana then discovered that Rain possessed a sharp intellect and a keen understanding of electronics, and the two became partners. Without giving too much away, Rain and Hana's partnership steps outside the boundaries of a traditional friendship. Deke and Glas, the two male characters from the original Fear Effect, must be encountered before they become playable. Aside from the obvious lesbian undertones, Retro Helix's plot fails to break any new ground. It consists of the typical sci-fi story staples such as human DNA manipulation and an antagonist who is closely related to one of the main characters.

Like the original Fear Effect, Retro Helix plays similarly to survival-horror games like Capcom's Resident Evil titles and Konami's Silent Hill. The multiple characters are swapped in and out on a frequent basis as characters become separated from one another regularly. While one may be hacking her way through a door, the other will have to venture out to look for a generator or switch. The majority of the gameplay focuses on finding items to open new areas or solving simple puzzles. Rare occurrences of gadgetry usage pop up infrequently, along with some bits of undercover espionage. Combat is relatively light in the sections we've played through thus far as the emphasis, at least in the early going, is clearly placed on puzzle solving and plot progression. Like the first installment of the series, a fear meter determines your health status. The fear meter is adversely affected by taking damage or by viewing gruesome scenes. You'll die when the fear meter reaches its hilt, and the only way to dissipate the fear is by moving forward in the game.

Fear Effect 2 is divided into small episodes that often lead to instant death on the first run through them. But each attempt allows you to garner new clues about the proper method of completing the episode until all the variables have fallen into place. Thankfully, the lengthy, death-induced loading times from the original have been chopped so that repeating the same sections doesn't grate on the nerves. Helping ease the tension levels even further, frequent save points are scattered throughout the levels that allow you to save your game through the use of a cell phone.

The control is identical to that of Resident Evil. Pushing up on the analog stick always makes the character walk forward, while holding left or right causes the character to rotate. The spin-around move that has become essential to games of this sort has been implemented, along with a roll maneuver that allows you to surprise the enemy. Choosing your armament while walking or running is a snap thanks to the real-time inventory menu, and the weapons in Retro Helix make those from Fear Effect seem bland. There are handguns, Uzis, grenade launchers, assault rifles, and flamethrowers, as well as chargeable weapons like the EMP, sonic blast, and taser that do not require ammunition.

It's been said that the visual style of Fear Effect is eerily similar to that of the animated series Aeon Flux, and the same holds true with Retro Helix as well. The blandly textured character models feature a pseudo cel-shading technique that makes them appear like three-dimensional cartoons. The prerendered backgrounds are animated using Kronos' Motion FX3D engine, which allows FMV to stream off the disc with no loading time. The effect is impressive, except that it's blatantly obvious every time the loop resets. The FMV is used for a number of different purposes, including water surface animation, lighting, and reflections. The 2D backgrounds have some scaling problems that make it difficult to navigate the levels when the camera is panned out. The 60 different enemies come in many forms, including mechs, rats, humans, and assorted genetically mutated entities. Retro Helix is inundated with over two hours of FMV sequences. The transitions between real-time graphics and prerendered FMV sequences are muted thanks to the low-poly models used in the FMV. Retro Helix includes ten different levels, and each level has its own unique theme while still falling into a consistently dark and futuristic style.

Aurally, Fear Effect 2 sets the mood with brooding compositions and suggestive dialogue. The music consists of sweeping synth strings with droning Siren-like sounds layered on top. The same voice actors from the original have returned, and the script never seems forced or trite. As Hana and Rain's relationship is more fully exposed, short quips like "I like it when you're bossy" take on new meaning. Sexual tension pervades the sharply written dialogue, setting the tone and making things all the more interesting.

Spanning four CDs, Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix won't be easily defeated, and the numerous unlockable features help give it some semblance of replay value. While it takes the cookie-cutter approach to creating survival-horror gameplay, the decidedly adult themes and twisting plot help to keep things feeling novel. In the most recent burn we received, there are still some collision detection problems and the FMV has a tendency to skip or stall, but these problems should be tidied up before the game's release late next month. Retro Helix still has a few weeks left in development, but it's already playing like a finished product. It's obvious that Kronos has taken the time to nail down every aspect of Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix, and PlayStation owners are in for a treat when it's released in late February. Keep your eyes on this gamespace for a full review coming soon.

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