Probably a cause for confusion more than anything, Sedna, the even-more-obcsurely-than-usual named third major entry in the Fear Effect series, is coming out next month. It looks exactly like its two predecessors, both released on the original PlayStation console way back around the turn of our glorious abysmal millennium, it’s got the cel shading, the in-your-face sexuality, the lesbian fanservice, and the strong gore, and yet it looks nothing like Fear Effect. The classic Fear Effect look and feel is somewhere between old school Resident Evil and full CGI anime, and you might be thinking “well thank fuck it isn’t like that!”, but what they’ve gone with for the latest instalment might not be any better.
“What’s popular right now? MOBAs, squad tactics, Infinity Engine inspired RPGs… Yeah, let’s do that!” Though I have just made this quote up for illustrative purposes, it could well have been transcribed from a preliminary meeting of the dev team. But why not do that? Can tank controls and fixed-camera perspective really offer anything but a nostalgia trip for jaded young oldsters who just want to see cel-shaded underboob again but in 4K, like it was for the first time? In all likelihood they’re just going to become frustrated by the frankly awful controls and look-up “The Movie” supercuts on YouTube instead, wherein minimalist accounts of gameplay serve as transitions between one cutscene and the next.
So then, in an age of remakes and reboots and remasters—a treatment which, by the way, the original Fear Effect is currently undergoing (also slated for release this year)—shouldn’t we be glad that the developer has decided to brave a different path in order to give the player something new? Well, “different” and “new”, much as I might nominally prefer them to “same” and “old”—and disregarding the fact that in marketing terms they are largely synonymous with each other—don’t guarantee “good”. A cursory glance at Sedna‘s pseudo-isometric real time tactics gameplay can be added to the Everest-sized mountain of supporting evidence for that statement.
It’s not that tactical action is a bad idea, or that old series can’t be reinvented with radically new gameplay, but feast your eyes on this demo footage and see what comes to mind. People of a certain age, old enough to remember the PlayStation 2 as an exciting new thing, will probably be reminded of the curious quality possessed by a good many of its more cut budget titles, especially the slew of superfluous and terrible character action games such as Tekken’s Nina Williams in Death By Degrees (and yes, that is the actual title), in which impactless hits and slow gameplay made slower still by bullet sponge enemies were the stale bread around a rotten meat filling of badly written, acted, and directed cutscenes every bite of which delivered a story that actively disincentivised continuation of play.
Obviously Sedna is not a character action game from the mid-2000s, cheapo or otherwise, and more’s the pity, for the campy high-octane style of a Devil May Cry would suit Fear Effect‘s B movie silliness to a tee. Alas, our oversexed assassins/secret agents/softcore idols are to be contained like ants (and they are about the size of ants on the screen) in an isometric farm. The tone is appropriately clinical and rote, and while the dialogue aims towards the knowing daftness of its predecessors, it too is rendered clinical by the presentation, consisting of two or more light-up cardboard cut-outs like the very worst movie tie-in games.
Even though the old games could not really be called good as games, what they did have was great visual style and fully animated cutscenes that helped bring the characters and story to life, in turn making the often tedious action or obtuse puzzle gameplay less intolerable. Sedna does appear to have some proper cutscenes, but either I’m overestimating the quality of Fear Effect‘s presentation, or the simple passage of time has made what was once novel and interesting far less so, because it just seems kind of bland. Without a doubt, something is very off about the proper cutscenes in this demo.
Looking back at the old games, the real problem seems to lie in the 3D models and skins. Previously, characters’ facial expressions were handled through manipulating the skins themselves to create less fluid animations that had a sort of Harryhausen-esque charm to them, offsetting the smoother 3D animation of the models while static camera work contained the action like a comic book, each shot its own panel. Sedna‘s cutscenes look like they could have come from just about any game of the “cinematic” era, they’re slicker and of a much higher fidelity than those of the originals, but what they have gained in overall image quality has come at the unnecessary expense of character.
Now, the demo footage I’ve seen came out going on a year ago, and a lot can change in a year’s development. Games get cleaned and polished, stodgy mechanics are reworked and fine tuned, look and feel is made snappier, at least in an ideal world. But the games industry is not an ideal world, it’s an industry, and like any industry its focus on profit and machine-like creation of product often means that a game which starts off being developed misguidedly keeps on sucking because there simply isn’t enough time to fix problems tantamount to the game itself. Politics may lead to some minor, superficial changes, like JonTron being removed from the voice cast of Yooka-Laylee, but that’s all. In terms of game design, if you start off going the wrong way you will end up in the wrong place, not necessarily because you didn’t realise you were heading in the wrong direction, but because even if you did realise it, trying to turn back is like trying to change the course of a ship on an ocean that has suddenly turned from water to molasses.
It comes as little surprise then that the trailer for Sedna published today looks exactly the same. The characters move around the isometric space slowly, shooting things which seem to be able to take a lot of bullets, fire damage, and whatever else, no matter whether they’re some beast of Chinese mythology or just a regular guy in a shirt, before even getting hurt at all, let alone being killed. The cutscenes on show also offer no hope of improvement in terms of direction, they all have the same bland “cinematic” feel, and for all the facial contortions the character models are forced to make, they do not have anything of the expressive quality of the simpler, lo-fi aesthetic of the older games. The classic Fear Effect games were not masterpieces, but they were unique, and having the latest addition to the series throw away almost everything that made them what they were seems like such a waste.