Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix

Year: 2001
Platform: PlayStation
Publisher: Eidos
Developer: Kronos Digital Entertainment
Genre: Action/adventure
Rating: ***

The highly anticipated prequel to the very cool "Fear Effect" (2000), and possibly the last great game to come out on the original PlayStation. The story begins as the two leading ladies, Hana Tsu-Vachel and Rain Qin, begin a job to steal some genetic codes. They also meet up with Royce Glas and Deke Decourt for the first time along the way. Of course, things get WAY out of hand and our weary little band of heroes ends up getting a hands-on lesson in Chinese mythology as they face the fabled eight immortals on another plane of existence. Hopefully we'll see Hana and Rain team up again on the PS2 in the near future...

The game manages to maintain the same look and feel as the original, and is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The characters also look a lot better - they're more stylized, more attractive, and more expressive, and the lip syncing is spot-on (a serious problem with the original). The gameplay mechanics are the same (including the annoying real-time inventory selection) and the two female leads sport about a half dozen enticing costumes. The game maintains the "mature" rating from the original, and even though it was marketed as a very naughty game with the promise of some hot lesbian action, it's all rather tame. In fact, from the ads you'd think you were purchasing porn, which likely turned away a considerable portion of the people who would appreciate this game. And the people who were expecting a porn title will be seriously disappointed by the false advertising. (that's marketing for you!) Of course there's no sex and no nudity in the title, and any suggestive themes are cleverly subtle. The raciest (and possibly most absurd) scene in the game involves sneaking into a men's restroom and lifting a security card off of a drunk security guard who's vomitting in a urinal. Additionally, the writing is very slick and the voice acting is excellent. It's so refreshing to hear female dialog that's well written and actually reflects how real women speak (or at least the women I know...).

Unfortunately, the game also has plenty of problems (like the most annoying main menu screen I think I've ever seen). First of all, "Fear Effect 2" is a hell of a lot harder to play than the original, and I was hopelessly stuck less than ten minutes into the game. Kronos didn't include any cheat codes this time around, so I was forced to buy a GameShark in the hopes that an "infinite fear" code would turn up. It took a few weeks, but it finally happened and I was able to continue playing. (only to get hung up on the rat sequence for about two hours...) The game is strewn with puzzles that range from simple, to tedious, to diabolical, to downright mean and sometimes impossible. (take Hana's colored tile game for instance, which has no instructions and no discernable objective) There are even little mini-games like a simplified chess game, a "Simon says" pattern game, and a dice throwing game. While these games are neat, they're more often just an irritating waste of time that you pray you won't have to endure again once you're through with them.

Surprisingly, the second biggest flaw with the game is the story. The story is very interesting, but too complicated and disjointed for its own good. The editing and continuity are partly to blame, and too many things are left unexplained. The things that are explained go into such convoluted detail that you're left completely bewildered. (much like reading a techno-thriller from Masamune Shirow) Every time a cinematic cut scene plays, you're assaulted with so much information that you have to record it on video tape and play it back several times while taking notes. And even so, there are enough holes in the story to leave you scratching your head in frustration. Sadly, the weakness of the story-telling doesn't inspire as much wonder and fascination as "Fear Effect" did, and you don't feel as compelled to continue playing it. The last thing that bugged me about the story was how it ended. Based on the ending, "Fear Effect 2" takes place literally just days before the events in "Fear Effect", creating an awkward and unbelievable continuity gap - especially since these characters have only known each other for a couple of weeks. It was nice and nostalgic to see the crew accepting their next fateful mission (although why they would ever work together after what happened in FE2 is beyond me), but also sad since you know how it's going to turn out. Ultimately, the ending makes about as much sense as the rest of the game, which isn't a whole lot. Still, it's a fun game with great characters, and fans of female action and Chinese mythology should be pleased.