There’s a scene in Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix that perfectly sums up the game’s approach to storytelling. Hana and Rain — the game’s female protagonists — enter into an elevator and embrace. They’re looking for attention, and as guards race to gather around a security monitor and watch, the most cliched possible adult film music plays in the background, and the camera cuts to the ladies in various states of undress.
Before things can get too steamy, though, Hana acknowledges her audience on the other side of the lens.
“Sorry boys — this is private.”
A jacket covers the lens, and the feed goes black.
The above story beat was, of course, a ruse; a means to block video surveillance so Hana could gain access to the elevator shaft and Rain could continue to a different area of the building. But it was done using all the hallmarks of the Fear Effect franchise: cheesy dialogue, a bit of innuendo, and the desire to at least tell a decent story.
Most of which seem to be missing from Fear Effect Sedna, a reboot of the franchise from developer Sushee and publisher Square Enix.
Fear Effect Sedna is billed as a “perfect starting point for newcomers,” which should mean characters are fleshed out to the point where those unfamiliar with the franchise can develop an affinity for them. But we don’t get much to work with in terms of character development. Hana and Rain are quickly introduced without much of a nod toward their history together, and when characters from past games (Zeke, Glas) are brought into the fold, you don’t get the sense that they’re all old friends who’ve been through literal Hell together, but rather, random folks thrown together to complete a mission.
And that’s just for the newbies. If you’re someone who’s been waiting for a new Fear Effect game ever since the cancellation of Inferno, the stars of Sedna may still feel like strangers to you. This entry into the series goes its own way on many fronts, but the most jolting change in direction may be in its tone, which now feels more mature. Hana is a shell of her former innuendo-fueled self. Rain lacks the underdog girl-with-the-brains personality that made her endearing. Zeke is a bit much, and not in a good way. And Glas isn’t sure whether he wants to be clever or emotionally distant.
Oh, and there’s a new character — a Frenchman named Axel who is added to your team early in the game and is stale to the point that I almost forgot to include him.
As far as dialogue goes, previous Fear Effect titles weren’t known for being standouts in that category. But if it was bad, it was bad in a campy way — the way that might cause you to roll your eyes, like when a friend tells a lame joke. In Fear Effect Sedna, the dialogue — and the way it’s delivered by the game’s voice actors — is bad to where it takes you out of the experience entirely. The personality isn’t there like it was in the older games, and the narrative suffers as a result.
And the narrative! The overarching story in Fear Effect Sedna, the thing that should keep you playing through the game. It’s fast moving, but in such a way that is nearly nonsensical. Hana and Rain start out on a routine mission together, but a new job soon lands them in Tokyo, and before you fully grasp what’s happening, you’ve added three more people to your squad and are in Nuuk, Greenland battling monsters. The story centers around a missing ancient artifact and a shadowy group intent on using it for evil, but because the characters are so underdeveloped, it’s tough to care about what motivates everyone’s actions.
All the above will likely come as a disappointment to those who’ve eagerly waited for Fear Effect’s return. And unfortunately, I haven’t even touched on the gameplay yet.
A Lack of Control
Bringing an older intellectual property into the modern day usually means some changes have to be made. After all, we aren’t playing first-person shooters with GoldenEye-style controls anymore, and thank goodness. When innovations and new best practices come along, all games can move forward as a result.
Fear Effect Sedna ditches the tank control scheme it shared with the older Resident Evil titles, which is great news. But instead of sticking to the close-view action shooting style it was known for, Sedna instead decides to put a whole new spin on the franchise: stealth action with real-time-strategy elements, paired with a new isometric view. It’s Metal Gear Solid-style sneaking around guards mixed with pause-able gameplay that allows you to move your characters around and instruct them on their next actions.
Sometimes, it works. Most of the time, it doesn’t.
The stealth elements aren’t entirely friendly to start. Many guards are moving and have intersecting paths, which limits those “feel good” moments of sneaking up on someone and taking them out. What often starts as a move to dispatch someone quietly often turns into loud gun battles, which you’ll often lose.
Which leads to my next gripe: enemies are a bit too tough, and friendly AI is a bit too stupid. Yes, difficulty is something the Fear Effect franchise is known for. But my bullets seem to hurt a bit less than the ones I’m being hit with, and no matter how much I try to babysit the other members of my squad, they’re intent on leaving cover and being shot to bits.
And finally, character abilities are largely ineffective. Each of the characters under your control is blessed with a few special abilities; Rain has a taser, for example, and Glas can set up a turret. But it’s difficult to find areas of the game where these weapons make much of an impact — if they work at all. Axel, for example, has a crossbow that I’ve not managed to hit anyone with. And Hana has a ricocheting bullet that seems like more trouble to use than it’s worth.
You’ll probably just stick to sneaking where you can and shooting your default weapons. And, despite your attempts at assembling a strategy, you’ll probably find yourself in all-out war more often than you’d hoped, with teammates who don’t do you any favors. For Fear Effect to make such a large change and not pull it off — well, it’s disappointing.
Our Worst Fears
All these issues combined make the game, quite simply, not fun to play. There’s no satisfying loop pulling me back in. There’s no carrot on the end of the stick enticing me forward. Puzzles, a saving grace for Sedna, are few and far between. Instead, I load up each level knowing I’m probably going to die a lot, and when that happens, I’m treated to the longer-than-necessary process of exiting a “Game Over” screen and loading my checkpoint to try again. And because I’m not hooked by the game’s story, and I’m not invested in the characters (as much as I’d love to be), doing so feels even more like a chore than it should.
Perhaps those “Game Over” moments will allow you time to ponder in between goes. You can ask yourself, “Is it worth continuing?” as I did while playing through for the review. In the end, I determined it wasn’t.