Kronos' graphically inventive, dark, Hong Kong action-inspired adventure game Fear Effect shipped early this year amidst talk of the PlayStation 2's imminent arrival and the success-to-failure ratio of games on the 32-bit, wearing-out-its-welcome PlayStation. And the game fared quite well, not only offering a relatively novel take on the way PlayStation games tend to look and feel, but also a rich storyline and good gameplay. Now Kronos is generating the sequel, which actually serves as the first game's prequel, called Fear Effect: Retro Helix. GameSpot spoke with the game's creator, Kronos' president and CEO, Stan Liu for the full story on the game that focuses on the events that took place before the original Fear Effect.
"In Retro Helix, we're telling a story about how our original team, Hana, Glas, and Deke, got together through some strange and unusual circumstances. In this chapter, [you'll] get to learn a lot more about the past and see life-defining moments that forged the personalities of our cast. We are also introducing a new character called Rain. Rain is a close friend of Hana. She will bring out a side of Hana that is not evident in the first game. Ultimately, Retro Helix is a story about the destiny of humankind. There are many controversial concepts and subject matters within the game. It will be interesting to see the reaction of the public and critics alike."
Offering a storyline that couldn't really be more timely, Retro Helix is concerned with human DNA. With the Human Genome Project complete, and all but that mysterious, underestimated little 1 percent of the human genetic structure on the books, the game dives into a real-life plot, adding sci-fi and philosophy when applicable. It's that 1 percent that the game's plot is concerned with. In real life and in the simplest of terms, the genes that make up that 1 percent represent the only true variation in genetic traits from one person to another, and Kronos' take on the whole thing is something of a human origin story that is revealed early on in the game's intro sequence and too good to give up here. But as a teaser, a retrovirus of sorts has been planted within the human DNA, and your characters must pull together the whole mystery, tragedy, and what have you - and stay alive doing it.
And the story, which is sexy enough for any hardened cyber-, science-, or techno-fiction reader, applies itself to the gameplay and doesn't just provide dressing for shooting and puzzle elements. "We drive the story along through the gameplay," said Liu. "The story is the ultimate reward for the player, and in order to achieve this reward, the player must experience it through gameplay." Hana, the dark-haired woman from the original game (sort of an Aeon Flux type, if types are necessary), returns to Retro Helix, and her role is heightened through somewhat of a sister character, as mentioned, called Rain. We asked Liu to explain the relationship between Hana and Rain, and its role in the Retro Helix story. "In terms of pure gameplay, Hana is the muscle, and Rain is the brain. However, as the story unfolds, we learn a lot more about what's going on between them, and we also uncover a hidden dark secret of Rain's."
So you're anchored to the story, which you'll hear more of in the coming months. The gameplay is key, however, and Retro Helix will be a longer, more complex game with new controls, environments, characters, weapons, and puzzles. New entirely, in fact. You'll have ten locations to work your way through: the underground aqueducts, the sculpture garden, the atrium party, the research labs, the walled city of Xi'an, the upper and lower tomb of the First Emperor, the twin juniper garden on the island of Immortals, the military base in Afghanistan, the Genesis foundry, and Yuen Ting Ji - the Immortal tower.
GameSpot asked Liu to describe a "typical" level. "That's a tough question! Each area within the game is so drastically different. In the first area alone, there are many goals and objectives that the player will have to complete. For example, Hana and Rain are to infiltrate a corporate party and steal a DNA sequence. In order to do that, they will have to go through sewers to gain access into the corporation. All kinds of strange stuff happens down there. Once inside the corporate compound, Rain has to sneak into the basement and hack their security systems. They will then have to change into their party dresses and work the party to get access to the upper level. Once they get up there, they'll have to avoid security and find the DNA. Then they have to create a diversion to get out alive! Of course, everything goes wrong, and they will have to improvise and roll with the punches along the way. There are ten locations in the game, and each area has its own unique task that our cast has to deal with."
Dealing's easy when you're well equipped. Besides handguns of various types, knives, and your good ol' mitts, you'll have a new flamethrower, an EMP weapon, a sonic blast weapon, a taser, a grenade launcher, and various types of ammo. "You will never find ammo supplies in trash cans or behind medicine cabinets," said Liu. "Most the time, the character comes equipped with proper ammo. You'll be able to pick up extra ammo after you dispatch various enemies. In Retro Helix, the added "charged based" weapons such as EMP, taser, and sonic blast don't require ammo pick up." In the first Fear Effect, weapon-play usually led to reactions based on a "fear meter," a bar in the corner of the screen that let you know how conditioned your character was to react. Basically, a heightened sense of fear or adrenaline would lead to a different reaction than one of a calmer character. The fear meter will return in Retro Helix in basically the same manner, but Kronos is designing the feature to work more with specific events that occur, rather than with encounters in general. The game is still somewhat early its development, so we'll have more on the meter later.
But even in its beta stages, Retro Helix shows its potential in the graphics department - an element that was pretty noteworthy in the first game. The original Fear Effect's environments were similar to the prerendered scenes of Resident Evil, but with FMV footage streaming or looping in the background, giving each scene a bustling urban look matched with the gritty treatment of light-bouncing and light-catching so common in HK action films. If you like that, it'll be back in round two. "Graphically speaking, the style remains the same," said Liu. "Visually, the environments are cleaner and more futuristic. We're keeping the anime look for the characters, but we did give each [member of] our cast a makeover. Hana is younger, more refined. Glas is edgier, and Deke is more muscular.
"The original Fear Effect has about 2 percent motion-captured animation. You can really tell [the styles] apart. I don't know how to explain it, but [the motion captures] have an 'unnaturally natural' look to them that I don't care for. In Retro Helix, we've decided not to use motion capture at all. All characters and cinematics are hand-animated by our in-house animators. It's the only true way for us to express the sensitivity and style of our cast. The infamous 'Hana wiggle' and her whole attitude are hand-animated. All characters are hand-built with polygons. In order to achieve the specific anime look, we hand-paint each texture specifically for each part of the model. The backgrounds are modeled and animated with NURBS geometry using Alias/Wavefront software running on SGI unix workstations."
We saw the game in action at Kronos' studios recently, and the characters move with ease and react in ways you'd expect hand-drawn anime characters emulating real people to react. How they act in terms of AI seemed quite improved as well. We asked Liu about that. "We have all new enemies in Retro Helix. Each type of AI is specifically designed and programmed to take full advantage of the environment in which it roams. They all have their own unique personality and motivations. Also, for each type of enemy, we have different classes that behave differently as well," said Liu.
A game's environment may be largely, and perhaps most effectively, expressed visually, but audio accounts greatly for its mood. A good voice actor can make or break a character, and the right music and sound effects are key. Fear Effect was in good form in the sound department, but the new Retro Helix terrain offers the developers opportunity for more. "We are bringing back the original cast of professional voice actors to repeat the rolls," said Liu. "Musically, we are pushing the fusion of Western sound and Chinese ethnic instruments. We added a lot more MIDI support to deepen the environmental and ambient noise. This time around, each shot within the game is custom tuned with the right music and sound effects."
While the original Fear Effect earned no shortage of compliments on its style, there were complaints about the game's control scheme and level of difficulty. The controls were somewhat like Resident Evil's, only you could act, such as stabbing or shooting, while walking or moving. That was a positive. The negatives fell in line with the game's mildly unresponsive cameras, which in the case of acting in a fictional world, can be a true curse if they don't act as good "eyes" for you. The game was a bit short, too. We asked Liu if the team has been listening to gamers and the press, and asked him how they've taken those comments into consideration for Retro Helix. "In general, we've gotten a wide (and I mean wide) range of feedback from gamers and reviewers. The strange thing is that all of these comments are to the extreme. People either really like Fear Effect or really hate it. They say the game is either too hard or too easy. There was no middle ground at all!" said Liu. "Some of the comments we've taken most seriously are related to controls, load time after death, difficulty, and replay value. In Retro Helix, we've tuned the original controls so that it's much smoother. We've added a new 3D control scheme (that behaves much like Tomb Raider or Metal Gear, in which the direction you point with the joypad is the direction the in-game character will go) for players that are more used to the third-person, over-the-shoulder type controls. There is now absolutely no load time after each death. We are constantly tuning the game for the right degree of difficulty. Finally, we've added a lot more hidden stuff in the game that will add to replay value of the game."
Eidos and Kronos hope to have Fear Effect: Retro Helix on shelves by the holiday season for the PlayStation. We'll have more on the characters, levels, and missions in the near future.