Eidos' latest PlayStation adventure game blends cinematic elements of media like Blade Runner, The Killer, and Aeon Flux, with gameplay devices of titles such as Resident Evil and Heart of Darkness, yet somehow manages to come off as a wholly original experience. In Fear Effect, you play as one of three mercenaries attempting to retrieve the daughter of a powerful Chinese businessman who has disappeared into the mysterious Shan Xi Protectorate. Your intentions are far from heroic; your goal is to reach her before her father's men do, so you can make a bundle of money by providing her safe return.
The game's environments are 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. The game also controls much like RE; however, the characters can run and shoot at the same time (and when they hold a gun in each hand, John Woo style, they can fire at multiple targets). You actually play as each of the three characters (covert operative Hana Tsu-Vachel, general all-around mercenary Royce Glas, and Australian toughman/explosives expert Jakob "Deke" Decourt) throughout the course of the game, as the story changes to focus on events happening around them. This happens quite often, in fact, and you might find yourself acting as two different people over the course of one save point to the next. The game's title is a reference to its adrenaline meter, which is like a health meter though with a few differences. If you've taken fire or been clawed by a creature, your heart rate will increase and your meter will turn red. If you defeat a horde of enemies in a blazing gunfight, sneak up and take out a guard quietly, or solve a puzzle, you'll gain an adrenaline reward, and the meter will return to normal. It isn't totally clear in a given situation what you should do to bring the "fear effect" back down, but the stress provides a nicely heightened sense of anxiety during play.
Fear Effect's look is one of its main strong points; it has a distinct visual style that sets it apart from any other game out there, really. It's true that many other titles have used prerendered backgrounds in the past, but the constant pulsing video effects make you feel like you're actually a character in Fear Effect's filmic world. What holds the game's graphics back is that the camera angles, while very cinematic, sometimes make it difficult to judge distance. This can unnecessarily complicate the process of picking up items or opening doors, something that can be deadly if a room full of monsters is attacking you at the time. Also, while some environments look simply stunning, there is the occasional visual that just looks muddy and washed out. Still, the graphical positives far outweigh the negatives and result in a game that is just great to look at.
The Fear Effect learning curve is a little steep at first. Though not extraordinarily difficult, the game plays out a bit like the old laser-disc arcade game Dragon's Lair until you master the controls (which are like those of Resident Evil but slightly more complicated). For example, at one point on the first disc, you have to cross a small rooftop without being shot by a nearby helicopter. Until you figure out what you have to do to accomplish this task, you end up watching a short movie sequence in which you're riddled with bullets over and over again. At one point though, you suddenly learn the control setup, and the game ceases to be frustrating and starts becoming remarkably fun.
There are many cases where you need to make a split-second decision once you enter a room, as in Amazing Studios' Heart of Darkness, or die. Though these "puzzles" are never too obtuse, the lengthy loading times you face when you fail them do detract from the game. Save points are sometimes placed quite a distance from a particularly difficult passage, causing you to go back and cover ground as another character before you're able to confront the tough spot again, much like having to sit through an intro sequence before a boss in an RPG. Another drawback is the lack of additional modes once you beat the game. Basically, once you're done, you're done, and you have little reason to replay it. Fear Effect takes longer to beat than Konami's Metal Gear Solid and clocks in at roughly the same length as a Resident Evil game, but it's missing the extras we've come to expect from both of these genre standards.
Like Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil though, the overall experience that Fear Effect provides is hugely entertaining. It's one of the few games that creates a story compelling enough to make you want to play through it in a single long sitting. There are so many twists and turns in the plot that you want to continually play just a little further and the storyline's mature tone is refreshing, enough so that it makes you look past the game's few warts, going a long way toward making Fear Effect one of the best PlayStation games to come out in the US so far this year. Here's to a PlayStation2 sequel.