Horror by Numbers: FEAR EQUATION
The plot setup for Screwfly Studios' Fear Equation sounds like the ultimate wet dream combo of Snowpiercer, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Stephen King's The Mist. The world has been overrun by a thick fog, and the majority of humanity has vanished into it, never to be seen again. The survivors, clinging to holed-up buildings, are plagued by terrifying nightmares, and if the fog gathers too thickly, those dream visions become real. Plagues of spiders, zombies, demons and more come creeping out of the fog to tear survivors apart. In the midst of this chaos, you, the player character, have somehow constructed a fortified train to gather together the remnants of civilization. Together you travel across the fog-covered landscape, seeking a safe haven from the terror and madness. Yet the fog may not even be your worst enemy. In the carriages of your train, passengers form alliances, factions, and cults, each with their own theories and beliefs about the state of the world. And outside of the train, the military, gone mad with plagues of nightmares, roams the landscape, menacing and ominous.
As the engineer of the train, you occupy a position of ultimate authority and power. Holed up at the literal top of your tiny capsule society, you live a quiet, solitary existence, only communicating with the people you save by radio and by vacuum-tube messages. Via these tools, you determine the route of your train, and also assign teams to scavenge and prepare defences against the fog-spawned monsters. As far as the passengers know, these tasks are given out by a lottery, to fairly distribute the horror. The truth of the matter is, you can rig the pool to send out the people you want to. Maybe because they're the best option for survival. Or maybe because you don't want them to come back.
So all of this probably sounds pretty amazing, right? And, well...it is. Conceptually, Fear Equation is unlike anything I've ever seen. But it's definitely not what you'd expect. It boils down to a rather complex, and yet also somehow very simple, strategy game of numbers upon numbers. Indeed, the graphic scene of your train's engine is kind of extraneous. It basically serves as an in-between point for managing those numbers. You click around the confined space, reading notes, sending out messages and picking options on a computer monitor. The impact of your choices is seen in messages that are sent back. That's the game. Which isn't necessarily a BAD thing. It's just that, in the hands of a larger studio, with a bigger budget, I feel it could've been much more.
As I said, the setup for the game is tremendously good, and there's a lot of neat touches in the passenger AI. The characters all have stats the incline them not only towards certain skills, but towards certain factions. As you progress, those factions grow in strength and voice, to the point where if you aren't careful to play them against each other, they'll actually rise up against you. But this fairly limited threat is nothing compared to the tension of watching your passengers embark on a scavenging mission. This is one of the rare occasions where the game switches into a real-time kind of view, with each person represented by a dot on your radar, and their status shown as a blinking coloured light on top.
On one mission, a character ominously intoned "Ahmed won't be coming back." Moments later, a siren sounded and I watched with growing dread as Ahmed's light flashed yellow, then red, then turned off altogether. Ahmed did not make it back. In that one moment I felt far more appreciation for the politics and balance of the train than in a dozen recorded message tubes. I think that was also where I sincerely wished the game featured more moments like that. It's all just very distant and removed. While that static atmosphere does give you a real sensation of having a god complex, it also means you don't really get an intimate feel for the power in your hands or for the people on the train. Yes, they do have different stats, portraits, and names, and yes, there is even a custom character feature so that you could, for example, put your Facebook friends into the game to die horrible deaths, but I still felt very little empathy for the situation.
Even the moments when the fog attacks the train hold little in the way of real tension. All you get is a hazey glimpse of whatever nightmares the fog has generated outside of the engine's windows. Beyond that, you simply wait it out; your passengers' struggles remain unseen. Then you carry on plugging in more orders and seeing what messages pop back out. I really feel that there could have been more here. Maybe it would involve the player actually going on missions, trying to quietly bump off troublesome fanatics in the confusion of the fog. Maybe it would involve actually having to take up arms when the train was attacked. Maybe it could've been squad-based XCOM style tactics. But these are probably unfair complaints.
If I'm assessing Fear Equation for what it is, it's still fine. What it is is a strategy game for numbers geeks. For anyone who likes strategy games that focus on balancing a careful set of variables, Fear Equation has a lot to offer. The kind of people who like micromanaging and complex, cranial thought will like this style of gameplay. The kind of people who come looking for an experience more like Amnesia: The Dark Descent meets the ghost train from Final Fantasy VI will be disappointed. You can guess which camp I fell into. Hopefully a future game lets me physically kick someone off a train into a horde of zombies, instead of just sending a mean letter. NO TICKET.