Fear Effect was a subtly frustrating game for me. I don’t mean that in the sense that it was difficult to beat (I still have Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest fulfilling that role), but in the sense that it’s difficult to write about. Given the nature of Fear Effect – its unabashed use of Hollywood action movie tropes, its blatant racism and sexism – you’d think the game would be easy to dismiss. But at least where that first point is concerned, there’s a sense of purpose to the game that makes me reluctant to do so. In fact, when you consider those tropes in context, Fear Effect’s combination of action and horror conventions is incredibly clever and meaningful. Or at least it would be if the game didn’t commit so heavily to the action side, depriving the game of a powerful impact it might otherwise have.
As its name suggest, Fear Effect is largely interested in how we might face and conquer our fears. The plot itself is relatively simple: a group of mercenaries, led by a woman named Hana, are tasked with rescuing Triad daughter Wee Ming. At first glance, this looks like little more than a vehicle through which the game can enact all sorts of action movie tropes, and you’d be justified in thinking that. However, I’m not as interested in the plot as I am in the contrast between Hana and Wee Ming, and how it makes those tropes more meaningful. Although they both have to deal with less than ideal situations in their lives (Hana’s troubles rescuing Mee Wing, Mee Wing literally being a demon from Hell), they do so in very different ways.
Hana is more pragmatic: she fixes her mistakes by taking immediate action. Mee Wing, meanwhile, for all her idealism, does very little to make that idealism come true: she only ever makes things worse by either running away from her fears or resigning herself to whatever circumstances she finds herself in. Their disparate attitudes are even reflected in their identities: we learn that Hana actively abandons her past so that she can reinvent herself, yet Mee Wing accepts the fate that was handed to her from birth. Granted, this isn’t a perfect comparison. Both characters approach their specific plight with a sort of resigned pragmatism like this is the only option available to them. Be that as it may, Fear Effect is very clearly aware that this contrast exists. More than that, even; it does a great job of using that contrast to set up its ideas about fear being a psychological phenomenon instead of a material one.
Those ideas are developed much further when it comes to playing the game. Fear Effect has Resident Evil to thank for that, given just how much it builds on that game’s language. It goes beyond using pre-rendered environments (consider just how many non-horror games at the time used them, too) and into borrowing the off-kilter angles and tight corridors that so firmly defined Resident Evil. They’re there to suggest that something’s amiss, or that there’s something around the corner that’s out to get you. Maybe it’s the environment itself. You’ll never know for certain. If the environments reference Resident Evil’s language, then the characters you control do everything in their power to subvert it. Far from the vulnerable STARS agents you’d expect, they’re powerful juggernauts capable of mowing down an entire room of gunmen. There’s very little stopping them from doing so: given how frequent ammo drops are, they never have to worry about running out of bullets.
Combine that with the environments, and you have a game suggesting that fear is a state of mind and the only way it can hurt you is if you let it dominate you. Consider alternate possibilities, and you begin to see just how powerless that initial fear was. The health system only reinforces these lessons. By regaining health either at key checkpoints or by getting away from the fighting, the game shows us that what the characters fear only exists within their heads.
Or at least that’s the intent. As much as Fear Effect wants to empower us in the face of fear, its case isn’t quite as strong as it thinks it is. Cracks start to show when you realize what decreases your characters’ health: not the idea of battling numerous baddies (they can handle that just fine), but the actual bullets those baddies fire at you. Far more damning, though, is just how stoic and invulnerable the main cast of heroes is. While that stoicism allows Fear Effect to capture the Hollywood action film ethos it covets, it also means the characters never express vulnerability or any emotion other than resolute badassitude. And without those other emotions, the game can’t explore how they react to their own vulnerability, relegating the game’s lessons about fear to mere hypothetical. Even as the characters become more desperate as the story continues, the game doesn’t do much to emphasize that desperation. They’re static; they remain the same grizzled action stars they entered the story as.
Speaking of, Fear Effect’s unquestioning depiction of action movie ideals leads to an unfortunate amount of racism and sexism. The former is obvious enough from the shallow stereotypes, like the bamboo villages in the second disc and the villain with a Fu Manchu mustache all throughout, but the racism is much more pervasive than those stereotypes would lead you to believe. The game’s only ever interested in depicting Chinese culture’s vices: its sex, its crime, its squalor, its corruption, its traditionalism, etc. That’s not to say Fear Effect thinks that’s all there is to China. In fact, it tries to portray these more as resulting from Triad influence than as anything intrinsic to Chinese culture. Yet it also marries the Triad with the world around them. The city in the first disc oozes sleaze and corruption, as though it’s nothing more than the Triad’s plaything, and later environments are explicitly under Triad control. They are the lens through which we see the world. Thus it’s only natural that the world we see appears inherently corrupt, wicked, and beyond all hope of redemption. That the the heroes exist largely outside the culture around them only reinforces that notion. This isn’t even getting into the sexism surrounding Hana’s character. I believe that speaks for itself.
Honestly, the game would’ve been better off hewing closer to its action game ambitions. I’m not being dismissive, either; I genuinely believe there’s something worthwhile buried in that concept. For one, Fear Effect is a surprisingly modern game. The pre-rendered backgrounds it borrows from Resident Evil are from static. They emphasize movement, activity, and spectacle, IE they anticipate the wave of post-cinematic games like Half-Life 2, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, etc. in some very important ways. Yet the game also exceeds them. Its fights can be downright poetic if you know where to look. Bouts are purposefully spread apart and varied. One minute, you’re sneaking up behind enemy guards, slowly biding your time, waiting for that final payoff when you take down the guards without anybody noticing. The next minute, you get that payoff immediately in a powerful yet reckless gunfight. There’s a purpose and elegance behind the fights that’s very easy to miss. Fear Effect’s idea of a power fantasies entails not the accumulation of raw power, but using quick wits and tactical skill to overpower your enemies.
So it’s not as though the game’s desire to emulate Hollywood aesthetics is an inherently bad one. If anything, its problems stem from a lack of awareness. Without seriously examining its source of inspiration or its own reactions to it, Fear Effect adds problems that never should have happened in the first place and detracts from its intended goals. All of this is especially strange in light of just how much thought Fear Effect gives on other matters (theme, pacing). In any case, the game requires a surprising amount of nuance to understand. As tempting as it may be to fit the game into a pre-made critical mold, the few notable successes Fear Effect has tell us otherwise.