Fear Equation (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Screwfly Store , Steam

The Fog hates you. Nobody really knows what happened. Nobody really knows what caused it. After all, The Fog just… Happened. But there is hope. A slim hope, in the form of a train. It may be… Just may be… That The Fog can be escaped, and the nightmares can end. And Screwfly Studios are quite fine with helping you achieve that.

The map is one of three tools you'll be looking at a fair bit.

The map is one of three tools you’ll be looking at a fair bit. This is how it looks with Maxed Radio. :V

A little backgrounder before we begin: Screwfly have experience with strategic, procedurally generated survival horror games, with their first game being Zafehouse Diaries (Zombies!), and their second being Deadnaut (Eldritch Horrors From Outside Space-Time, Bug Hunts, Super-Soldiers Gone Wrong, among others.) Their games generally involve interpersonal relations, unorthodox control schemes that are nonetheless quite atmospheric, and hidden mechanics. Fear Equation is possibly the most atmospheric yet. Fortunately, I remain a filthy lucker. Let’s go through my first game to show both this, and why the game is worth checking out.

It began with a train. A steam train, from the looks of things, a junker… But thankfully, a sturdy junker with an emergency flare. This is always the first step: Summon some survivors with the beacon. It’ll generally be between 2 and 5, and the first group, at least, is generally cohesive. From there, the ride truly begins. A hellride through an unreal fog that makes nightmares real, with no guarantee of survival. I get three this time.

I look at the map… There’s a few buildings nearby, and so long as we go slow, we won’t run out of fuel doing so. I can plan where to go at any point in the day, but when we reach it determines whether we’ll have to stay the night. So I decide to hit up a small village along the way, with a Pub, a Supermarket, and a School in easy reach. My radio defaults to “Looking for Signs of Survivors” (HELP), but I switch it to Supplies. Believe me, survivors aren’t too tough to come across. Fuel, on the other hand, is going to be a constant worry.

Always keep an eye on the dreams of each carriage. Preparedness means less visits from... THE SALESMAN.

Always keep an eye on the dreams of each carriage. Preparedness means less visits from… THE SALESMAN.

Having decided my destination, I set up The Lottery. This train isn’t a democracy. I, The Driver, secretly control what’s meant to be random chance. I have to, because if people are sent into the Fog too often, or don’t get what they want, or just decide they think they can run the train better, they’re going to try and rebel. And I want them to survive… Even if they’re idiots. Right now, though, there’s no point. Starting survivors, with whatever skills they have, are going to have to make do until we find more.

With the lottery over, I can order them to do several things. They can move supplies between carriages, move people between carriages, and either build defenses against the coming nightmares, indicated by their dream diaries, or upgrade the train. The first night, I opt to improve my Radio. The bigger my coverage, the more of the map I can get a handle on ahead of time. I could have improved fuel, carriage strength, the amount of power my train generates, or even medical facilities… But I go for radio.

It takes two days to get to the village, and I’m attacked on the second night. This time, it’s spiders. Folks are injured. Not a good start. But the fog is, thankfully, still weak, and I try to explore. The school has survivors, and… The first group doesn’t want any of them. All four go to different carriages. Carriages with neither food nor defenses. Sadly, I can neither move them or give them food until the morning (One of the few flaws with the game), but, being both brave and foolhardy, I explore the other two buildings, and food is obtained for them. I don’t lose anybody, although I come damn close.

They're going to die. At least one of them died that very second. And all because I was too gutsy.

They’re going to die. At least one of them died that very second. And all because I was too gutsy.

Much like Deadnaut, I don’t have high tech equipment. Some LEDs, a barometer (Which shows how dangerous the Fog is getting), and a greenscreen CRT are my window to the survivors, and, like Deadnaut, it’s surprisingly tense to watch those little radar blips move around a building plan, with the radio occasionally telling me things (Mostly plans of sedition and cries to shut up about said plans.) I will never know what they face, and, in a sense, I’m glad. As it is, the Nightmares make me cower in the head carriage… I don’t want to know.

By the time I’m halfway across the map, I have lost some survivors, but gained quite a few more. Mostly, when I lost them, it was because I ran out of fuel. Running out of fuel is Bad. Not only are you defenseless, you have to send your survivors out to gain fuel in the middle of nowhere, and they are much more likely to die. I’ve had attempted rebellions, things are tense… And there are flags on the map. I find out what the flags mean in short order…

…They’re the military. And, for some reason, they don’t want me to leave. They bombard the train. Luckily, nobody is injured… But there are more flags on my planned route.

There’s more, of course, but this is the game. You grab what survivors you can, make compromises and enact dirty tricks to manipulate the survivors… Sometimes, you deliberately send people to get killed to quell rebellion. The Driver is an Old Testament God. Maybe this ark will save humankind… But you can guarantee that sacrifices will be made.

Nightmares... Are real. I only hope we propitiated the dead enough.

Nightmares… Are real. I only hope we propitiated the dead enough.

If you like strategy games with unorthodox UI, atmosphere out the wazoo, and the feeling of commanding lives from a distance, maybe Fear Equation is for you. It’s definitely not for everybody, but it’s worth at least a look in. There are lots of things I haven’t mentioned, like the variety of fears (from Soldiers, to Chinese Ghosts, to the SALESMAN and The Engineers, each with their own atmospheric touches), special crew (Who fully upgrade a section of your train as thanks for rescue), and other fun stuff.

The Mad Welshman sighed as he looked at the lottery card. Taking his eraser, he rubbed out the name of the new folks, and added in the troublemakers. There were four buildings here, a rare opportunity. Either they’d prove themselves, or they would die after bringing in some useful supplies. So long as The Train survived…

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Going Back – Deadnaut

Screwfly hate you. They love you, but at the same time, they hate you (Well, not really… But it seems that way when you play sometimes. ;D ). They want you a gibbering wreck on the floor, babbling about the dark between the stars, or, in the case of their first game, Zafehouse Diaries, about how the dead won’t stop moaning and scrabbling at the walls outside. Screwfly make Legit Hard Games. And I want to celebrate this, by talking about Deadnaut, and how the game supports the mood it wants to invoke.

Deadnauts do not have a high survival rate.

You can create your own crew, but monitoring and equipping them from then on is up to skill *and* luck.

Deadnaut is not a game I’m good at, and I don’t think I’m meant to be good at it. The game, in a sense, resists it. But this is one of the rare cases where I find myself more immersed in the experience because of obtuseness, not less. Why?

Because in Deadnaut, I’m a Lieutennant Gorman, watching my own maladjusted crew of misfits and criminals attempt to board supposedly long dead alien ships that, you guessed it, aren’t long dead after all. Not for me the experience of directly seeing what’s happening through amazing Commander Vision. Oh no. That would imply we’re valued, and have the technology. No, we, the characters (And, by extension, the player’s unnamed and invisible character) are the dregs, the people Humanity would rather throw in a meat grinder. So we have three screens we can switch between. And, bad commander that I am, I’d rather get fucked than micro manage anything.

Yes, you can turn off weapons. It isn't always recommended.

Pictured: Me suffering because I was weapons-free in a heavily damaged hulk.

The three “screens” are pretty simple in theory: The left shows the team, their equipment, their stats, their quirks and flaws, and their health, mental and physical. Being a Gorman, I don’t really look at that too much in missions, and panic when the suit-breach alarms are going off. The right shows information we’ve gathered, giving me clues as to the threats we’re experiencing, the ship and crew logs we’re salvaging, and the security/power status of the ship we’re entering. I only look at this between missions, even though it could give me early warning that no, our guns won’t work in this situation.

The middle screen, for me, is where it’s at. The buttons sometimes bewilder me, but I know enough to push NET to see the Watchers, automated, roaming antivirus programs gone wrong, as they go about their not-so-merry business of Keeping Things As They Were (to my detriment); LOC , which lets me see how damaged an area is, and occasionally, when the situation demands it, PWR, which lets me see if a turret I’ve noticed is powered up or not. I know enough, being a greedy corporate scumbag, to turn the signal booster dial to SIGnal, and leave it there, even if it dooms my crew because I can’t see what’s happening (VISual) and can’t give them orders (AUDio). The more signal I have, the more KnowledgeBux we get from looting these rotting hulks, and the better I can equip my poor, doomed squad for the future.

Hell, sometimes, I’m nice enough to resurrect one, if I can afford to do so. So, as you might have guessed from this description, there’s a lot to take in, and not a lot of it is in easy reach, having to switch between screens to see things, having to, god forbid, split the group so we can keep the Watchers from resetting that turret that almost chewed the squad up when they opened the door, or use the special abilities of the Shield and Sensor suits to scan ahead, plan, and protect team-mates from the dangerous conditions created by nigh-destroyed rooms (Because our vacuum suits are cheap, and don’t protect against space worth a damn.) This is a game where, if you’re good, you can micro, switching between screens to gauge threats in a safe moment, pair up team-mates efficiently (This one hates this one, don’t keep them close. This one hates open spaces, try and keep them in small rooms. This one doesn’t like open spaces, use them as a rearguard)

Goldurn ancient space ghosts, GIT OFF MAH SPACE LAWN!

This screen may not make much sense… Until you realise I’m being screwed around with by ancient space-ghosts.

But this game, in a sense, doesn’t want you to do that. Watchers and Signal Dampers can mess up your visuals (Leaving you nothing but static) and audio (Leaving you unable to even warn your team of nearby threats, or tell them to get the fuck out of there right now before it collapses). Your guns are useful, but also damage the ship, so sometimes, you will have to order your squad not to use their weapons… And it won’t always help, either, because sometimes the enemy has guns. And sonic shockwaves. And plasma bursts. Melee weapons exist, but I’ve never seen them used very well. And the game’s controls don’t help either, there are very few hotkeys, so nearly everything is “Click shield person, right click this person we want to shield” or the like.

Despite that, I love the game. Why? Because, with its flaws, it makes me feel like a Gorman, and, on a good day, like a Corporal Hicks. The game, through its flaws and hateful moments, creates exactly the feel it’s aiming for: That moment where everything is going wrong, and you have to act and oh god someone’s dead what the hell do I oh god another beep beep beep BEEEEEEEEEEEEE-

I have precisely one criticism of this game: I’d like to actually read logs, instead of being unable to look at any screens the moment I either win (By completing a set number of missions), or lose (By all my squad dying before extraction.) I know the logs, just like the diaries of Zafehouse Diaries, are also procedurally generated, and so lose their lustre if you look at them too closely, but I still want to see. I want to see what I missed, why I failed. I want to reread the last communications. I want to know.

It *really* isn't a good idea, although keyboard shortcuts exist.

All of the buttons on this right screen provide potentially useful information. It is not a good idea to check it mid-battle.

But if you want a good example of a game that accurately creates the feel of being the inept (or life saving) commander giving orders from afar in a sci-fi action horror, then Deadnaut is pretty bloody close. You can even, if you’re feeling particularly sadistic, make your friends in the game as crew members (Although I’m not sure how many people you know who have the drawback of fucking up radio reception randomly wherever they are, as an example), and forever voyage with those instead of procedurally generated crew.

Me? I like the procession of badly mismatched crew. Makes me feel better on those rare occasions I win. There’s even the promise that some Deadnauts can be given parole from their forever deadly duties. I have yet to see it. One day, I may be a Good Commander, and have that happen.

Hahaha no. They’re all screwed, every time. Because I am Gorman, and I love to panic. I’m an asshole that way.

Deadnaut is available on Steam for £6.99. I have also recorded some LP type footage of it here.

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