We’ve gone seventeen years without a Fear Effect game but with Fear Effect Sedna, we’re getting the first of two within the space of a few months.
Set four years after the events of the original game, Fear Effect Sedna is a true sequel featuring original characters, a fresh storyline and new mechanics. Much like with Battlezone: Combat Commander, patience is clearly rewarding gamers in 2018. Or so it might seem.
Being a big fan of the original Fear Effect I wanted to love Sedna. Really, really love it. I’ve been in the vocal minority calling for a sequel all these years. Instead, I’m bitterly disappointed.
Sedna isn’t terrible, but it’s also one of those games when you’re on the tipping point of putting it down and permanently shelving it so many different times, only to squeak through that irritating section by the skin of your teeth. Then the game carries your interest for a little bit longer only to do it to you again and again and again.
For example, late on in the game there’s an underwater section where you’ll regularly fight creatures to the verge of death, only for them to run away and heal themselves back up to full strength time after time. Meanwhile, you have no healthpacks, you’re about to die on your lonesome and you’ve only got one set of weapons to fight with. The creature barely gives you the chance to get a shot off without jumping down your throat with its razor-sharp claws. This means you’re spending most of the time on the run, having a split second to fire off one shot to make a 15% dent into its health bar, and usually still get caught with a cheap shot.
But here’s the thing, the game does such a poor job of introducing you to these beasts – they just kind of start appearing after a short cut-scene – that you can’t tell if this is supposed to be a creature characteristic – if it is, then the dev team are seriously morbid – or a badly timed, irksome and urgently needed to be patched out glitch. On the balance of play, I’m guessing the latter as it is grossly unfair.
To top it off, it’s also one of the most atrociously guided sections in the game. There’s no clear signposting of where you are or what you’re actually supposed to be doing. Sedna just expects you to figure it out for yourself. None of that is helped when you sometimes have to strain your eyes, even on a 47″ HD TV, to see small details on the map. I reviewed this on the PS4, but I almost wish I’d played it on Switch as Fear Effect Sedna feels like a game designed for a handheld. It genuinely looks like it’s been uncomfortably stretched to hell on a big screen.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore puzzle games and adventures and I like to figure things out for myself. In a game, nothing quite beats that sense of satisfaction. I did occasionally get a fleeting trace of that when completing one or two puzzles in Sedna, but part of its problem is that half the puzzles result in death screens. These often feel random as you’re quite literally thrown in at the deep end every time without any sort of clue what to do. You have time to experiment a little bit without really knowing what you’re doing, then suddenly you’ve moved something into the wrong position or pressed the wrong button and you fail.
Another portion of the puzzles are just poorly implemented and designed. While I understand the game is trying to be dynamic, it fails quite miserably as each and every time you die, you have to hold a button – no, seriously, hold it – in order to skip to the game over screen, then tap another button which leads you to a load and quit screen. Not just that, but because Sedna is so insistent on you figuring everything out for yourself without so much as a hint or a clue, you’re liable to spend more time on those screens than on the puzzle itself.
It’s galling because when I actually had a chance to sit back and think about some of the puzzles in the game, I enjoyed them a lot more. On the same token, I also like and appreciate the death screens as they actually show off some of the game’s best creativity, are an important homage to Fear Effect and gave me those 80’s Sierra adventure game vibes. But they have their time and place, and as much as we enjoy being nostalgic and revisiting our gaming yesteryears, some things really are best left in the past.
You will eventually muddle your way through, but that can come as a result of a random happenstance. More than a few times, I beat a section in the game without fully realising exactly what I’d done or having a clear idea on how to move forward. For instance, I make no exaggeration in saying Sedna features one of the most convoluted, confusing, overly long and tedious sequences I’ve ever seen in order to get a character out of a set of handcuffs. Even thinking back on it now, I’m scratching my head thinking on how someone even sat down to script it!
This is just one example of many, many times I grunted and grumbled through my playthrough. I had to really power through large chunks of Sedna. And it is incredibly frustrating because Sedna actually has some great traits which should be celebrated, but it became very clear from the opening minutes through to the conclusion that the game refused to shift the drawbacks of its predecessor, even when it was massively to its own detriment. Sometimes, it even comes across as a desperate attempt to pay homage to the originals, but in doing so Sedna often feels dated and held back from its potential.
Then again, some of the new additions don’t quite hit the mark either. For instance, I found the much touted tactical mode, for the most part, ineffectual. In my ten hour playthrough, I barely used it. I actually preferred not to use it because, for me, Fear Effect Sedna plays better as a Diablo-esque real-time shooter as opposed to a slowed-down XCOM. The pace and flow of the game just seems to go against that notion entirely, though admittedly in certain sections, it did make managing my team of six characters a lot easier.
I mean, it’s nice that you have a choice and it does create the benefit of synergy when you combine attacks but it is by no means essential. Which is concerning because I can’t remember the last game I played where one of the core mechanics could be rendered completely obsolete. The Tactical Mode basically enables you to stop time, switch between characters and place them at different points on the battlefield. You can move them in real time without enemies attacking you, have them set up defenses or flank an incoming force to gain an advantage. You can imagine how this would be beneficial with a bigger team, but the problem is you spend a lot of the time in Fear Effect split up into smaller teams. Where it becomes less useful.
In general, the combat and shooting also feels a bit flimsy with guns lacking the desired impact and the aiming prone to going a bit wild and directionless. For example, if you’re in the middle of a firefight and your enemy happens to go off the screen – even though you’re still being shot at – you can’t target them because they’re out of aggro range and thus you can’t fire back. Sometimes, you’ll target an enemy through a wall instead of the one on your left blasting chunks out of you. In those circumstances, it’s often better to roll away a few times to give the game a chance to reset then you can lock onto the right person. But, really, you shouldn’t have to do that.
Each character has a different weapon type which is a nice touch. There’s your base guns-akimbo which most characters have, some bullets hitting harder than others, but then you can alternate between teammates to get flamethrowers, sentry guns, bouncing bullets, grenades, and at a later stage, even morph into a creature. There’s also diversionary skills you can use like confusion bullets and cloning. Fear Effect Sedna does a great job of making each character feel like they have a purpose on the battlefield and importance to your teams’ overall survival.
That said, early on the game hints that each character has a specialized skill which is imperative to the mission. The problem is that this isn’t used as a mechanic, rather a plot device. So outside of combat it appears as if you can all do the same things. Also, considering you can switch between characters at any point, there’s never really a call to split your team mates up to complete a puzzle. Personally, if it was a choice, I would have valued these opportunities over a tactical mode.
Which brings us to the narrative where, you’d hope, the game would start to shine. And at times it does, with the plot doing a good job of exploring the characters psyche while creating a mystery which regularly throws up questions needing answers. Yet sometimes you’ll find that the voice acting will occasionally fail the lines and likewise, sometimes the lines fail the voice acting. There’s never a clear point where they marry up successfully with some actors sounding louder than others, some jokes leading to bizarre – and in some cases, cringeworthy – punchlines. And then there a few questionable throwaway comments which raise an eyebrow or random outbursts which feel out of context.
Sedna also has this habit of pausing the action with these full-screen character exchanges which could just as easily be done while you’re still controlling the character. As lovely as it is to stare at the games’ art, It just breaks the flow and pace up unnecessarily which is odd based on the game’s insistence on creating life or death puzzle-solving.
Fortunately, the cut-scenes are really lovely to look at, capturing a cyberpunk, futuristic universe beautifully. Actually, the vignettes are the one thing that kept me going in this review. I found my eyes glued to the screen wanting to digest more of the world and see the characters up close. When you’re gazing at a top-down view for so long, you like to have something life-sized to connect with and Sedna has done a great job of harnessing that. There are some frame rate issues in the cut-scenes, with the motion-blur on animations sometimes tricking you into thinking it’s that, but when there’s a lot going on in the screen the game does expose itself and stutter a little bit.
And because of some of the line-delivery and direction in the game, certain scenes lack a desired impact including one in particular which I can’t talk about due to spoilers. I’ll just say that it didn’t bring the intended response out of me. Quite the opposite, in fact. Still, for me, the art is definitely the main selling point of the game.
That, and the gripping, grisly, gritty soundtrack. This feels like hard, authentic sci-fi, with tones and beats reminiscent of the likes of Minority Report, Total Recall, Pacific Rim and Blade Runner. It’s been lovingly put together and really gives the game a beating heart while helping to build tension in certain scenes and likewise tone it down in others. Bizarrely, though, I noticed a distinct absence of soundtrack in some battles and areas. There was just this quiet and silence with only bullet sounds and voice acting filling the void, which almost lends itself to the idea that this game feels unfinished. Possibly even ran out of budget.
It may not sound like it, but I do like parts of Fear Effect Sedna. Like there’s one section where you have to listen in on conversations and serve drinks at the same time in order to get the clues you need to help out another part of your team in another area. I also appreciate some of the relationships and dynamics set up in the game and some puzzles were actually fun to solve and get through.
But sadly, this is the worst part of reviewing, especially if it’s a title you’ve been wanting for so long. The truth is Fear Effect Sedna is not a good game. It’s more frustrating than it is satisfying and it will test the best resolve in the world if you are determined to see it through to the end. In this case, sadly, patches and fixes can only paper the cracks of what is an inherently flawed sequel.
+ Fantastic art
+ Gritty soundtrack
+ Some entertaining puzzle solving and narrative ticks
+ Character weapon variety keeps action fresh
– Combat flimsy and aiming off balance
– Enemy scaling and aggro issues
– Bad frame rate in cutscenes
– Line delivery and script at odds
– Tactical Mode feels inessential
– Lots of bugs and glitches
Fear Effect Sedna
5.5 out of 10
Tested on PS4