Review: Fear Equation

By Alex Connolly 29 Jan 2016 0

Screwfly Studios, makers of my 2014 pick in Deadnaut, are back. Rumbling through the fog-ridden End Times in a diesel-powered goliath, Fear Equation continues the studio's enthusiasm for parsing the human condition within the confines of creeping dread. Nightmares, ghost towns and the strategy of survival keep you playing the Engineer-God; not just of the train, but of the social fabric aboard. It's a fascinating, highly atmospheric premise, though not entirely successful.

I'm still trying to work out how to sell the damn thing to people. Isolated player commands rolling stock through dying world, pursued by fog, military and wasteland stragglers? Sentient fog causes psychosomatic damage to survivors aboard train by preying on their fears, manifesting them as physical events? Player rigs passenger lottery for special scavenging missions, either to take advantage of skills or to purposefully arrange their demise, on account of their influence on other passengers?

The above tells of Fear Equation's curious mandate. It's equal parts survival strategy and human resources simulator; you plot a course across a pastiche of a fallen America-like, running your railborne caravan between townships and cities to forage for survivors and supplies, organising personnel into work parties and away teams. Survivors will form alliances, gravitating into de facto parties that each have their own particular needs and demands.

Fear Equation plays like a turn-based Silent Hunter of the End Times. Players traipse between carriage management arrays, the communication rig, train operation and bed. Split in four phases -- Lottery, Orders, Work and Guard -- the player wakes up each day to plot the next destination, dish out work details and oversee foraging if the train has arrived at a location. After that, to sleep, perchance to dream.

The incorporeal antagonist and impetus to keep on keeping on is the fog. Intangible, somewhat Tarkovskian in its intent, the fog is both an independent operator and appears as an externalisation of passengers' phobias. The fog, along with mortal enemies, will attack and kill passengers sent into townships for supplies. However, more insidious is the way passenger dreams can manifest themselves and cause real harm via the misty conduit. Based on a particular survivor's recurring dreams, accessed in self-reflective logs, unsettling events occur during the nocturnal hours.

These range from arachnid swarms to a bizarre sense of temporal reversal and curious figures lurking outside, to name a few. To repel the physical damage these manifestations have, survivors can be tasked with building a range of carriage defenses, specifically designed to counter particular nightmares. A 'web cutter', a simple creation made from the bare minimum of materials, can counter the effect and damage of spider-related dreams. If many people aboard report spider-related dreams, there's a good chance the cumulative effect will invite a hefty nightmare event, requiring much more elaborate constructions to fend off the creepy-crawlies. Hence, the importance of scavenging.

The away missions have a group of passengers, preferably with good hauling and foraging attributes, roam from anywhere upwards of one building per stop. The fog is ever-present and the severity features on a pre-mission readout. Players can manually plot the passenger's course through the various rooms of an establishment, feeling like a pared-back Rainbow Six planning module. There's no combat to speak of, and the foraging process is entirely hands-off once the go-ahead is given. It's admirable in its simplicity, in-keeping with the isolated and arms-length communication between passenger and driver. And, more often than not, passengers die.

What the fog, marauders, or the military doesn't kill, mismanagement will. Food and supplies become stretched with each survivor brought aboard. Each survivor also increases the chance of a particular nightmare event, events that drain supplies in preparation of defenses. It's an interesting balancing act, and one in which I found myself engineering suicide missions to thin the herd. Fear Equation requires a kind of ruthlessness to keep the train running, protecting the useful and culling liabilities. Ones that don't disappear when you run out of fuel and the locks disengage, that is.

Were that your position as player wasn't so hermetically-sealed, because that's where I come away slightly ambivalent.

Screwfly Studios have done well in modeling interesting abstractions of connective social tissue with their prior games. Granted, zombie apocalyptica and interstellar soldiering isn't exactly The Sims or Persona, but within each saw group dynamics under pressure, internal and extraneous. Both also features that distinct Screwfly hands-off approach; an intentional distancing that kept - especially in Deadnaut - a sense of agency at the expense of immediacy. Much like Fear Equation's commuters, Deadnaut's derelict hunters weren't distinct or memorable. But where their demise had an interesting cloning and mutation mechanic, you never get close enough to the survivors to think of them beyond currency. To paraphrase Rick Deckard, they're either a benefit or a hazard.

And perhaps that's what the folks at Screwfly are going for. A human being as merely, distinctly, output. A consumable. An asset or a risk. They swirl in groups, leaders float to the top, push and pull and will revolt, if the situation presents itself. But at the end of the day, they are statistics with a Polaroid veneer. In Deadnaut, your team of hard-vacuum safecrackers were blips on cathode-ray, but their spooling commentary was dynamic. Living. In Fear Equation, you pour over dream logs to see what's gnawing at the minds of your passengers as they sleep, but it may as well be the diaries of the dead.

Fear Equation is the team's loneliest effort yet, despite touting a potential NPC assembly far bigger than Deadnaut and Zafehouse Diaries combined. The limited communication between carriages via vacuum tube - that compressive suck-and-THWOP - deposit terse updates into your armoured engine, listing off the dead or conclusion of work details. I never cared for the names, just their situation. Whether they were worth keeping. What hell they dragged aboard my train when a crew found them cowering in a garage. Build my defenses, scout my fuel, if you're still here when we reach the horizon, count yourself lucky. Whatever your name is.

Screwfly Studios' third is an interesting affair. Not entirely successful, but certainly a fair tilt towards most unique survival management sim in some time. Sweet dreams.

Tags: Horror

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