Developed by Screwfly Studios
Available on PC through Steam
Suitable for ages 14+
There’s a certain amount of cred you have to give any project based on quality of idea. I know plenty of horror fans that didn’t like Paranormal Activity, but most of them can still admit that the idea of a first person haunted house film is pretty cool. On paper, Fear Equation is an incredibly cool game. I just wish that I liked it.
I waited a while to come out with this review. The developers have been hard at work adding content and fixing bugs, an earnest effort that makes my distaste all the more difficult. It’s a unique, budget title from an indie developer that actually cares. Its free of the pretentiousness of similarly small passion projects, and is even in a genre I like. I really want to love this game.
As the game opens, you wake up on a ratty bed in a cramped train compartment. Directed towards a manual, you quickly learn that you are the conductor of an experimental train designed to securely ferry people through a dangerous demonic fog. The fog, unknown in intent and origin, attacks people with images of their greatest fears. Those that enter the fog are lost forever to wander hopelessly.
Your conductor’s compartment is protected from the fog, forever safe from the horrors that the rest of the world is subjected to. That doesn’t mean that you’re entirely untouchable, as the people under your stewardship can get tired of you wantonly getting them killed and decide to eject you from your position. Sending you into the fog, this spells game over. It’s kind of how politics worked before democracy was invented.
The game is simple on the surface. Go from station to station, send your people on missions, gather new survivors, equipment, and fuel, and try to make it to the end. Oh cool, so kind of like FTL, right? Well, sure, if FTL got addicted to heavy management realism courtesy of Hearts of Iron. Ooooh fuck yeah, I just made an FTL, Hearts of Iron, and drug addiction joke in the same sentence! That’s nerd BINGO!
There is an overwhelming amount of information buried in various manuals, recordings, computers, and notes. You might go through half a game thinking you have everything in check before failing because of some element you just didn’t know existed. Think your passengers are secure? They’ve been successful on missions so far, but make sure they have the proper defenses built against their nightmares. Read all of their dream journals, figure out what their various fears are, and build up to counter the threat. Just make sure that not too much of the same fear is present in each cabin, or your defenses might not be enough. Oh, also, did you check their political alignment? Because if you didn’t, their conflicting ideals might be enough to start a riot. If you do spread them out, make sure you have enough power for all the cabins. Rinse and repeat up to 8 times, depending on the capacity of your train.
Keep in mind, all of this is buried behind pages and pages of text in an actual book in your cabin. The game goes for a diegetic “hyper realistic” feel, which while great for atmosphere is terrible for intuitive play. I really love the world they’re trying to build, but fucking hell if it isn’t impossible to navigate.
Not to mention that actually utilizing this knowledge requires a three week training course and a private tutor to remind you what all the lever and knobs do. After waking up for the first time, the game briefly takes you to each station, points at the various manuals, gives you your first batch of five passengers, and sends you on your merry way. The learning curve is less a steep slope and more a brick wall you have to scale with your bare hands. Figuring out what time to assign mission, what time to assign jobs, what time to carry out missions, how exactly to pick up new information, plotting courses, what the danger level is, how you’re doing on resources, etc., all have their own different in-game station or display for you to figure out. As I said before, it does an amazing job at building a world, but an awful job at making that world playable.
Aside from twisting knobs and pulling levers, there are two other gameplay elements that provide some excitement. The first is the nightmares that attack your train and attempt to make off with your passengers. As you are secure in your cabin, nightmare attacks are witnessed by looking outside of your window in a trippy cutscene. These segments are remarkably spooky and well rendered, and are the biggest selling point of the game. There’s no active “defense” mode, and you’ll instead find out the next day in one of your manuals how your passengers weathered a series of modified dice rolls. Once again, looks cool, plays poorly.
If the train is stopped and you’re feeling particularly brave, you can send your people out on missions, which is what passes as Fear Equation’s action segments. The display for this is an old school yellow line display, where your characters are all just dots and the rooms little boxes. I actually like this system, as it captures the essence of your safety versus the real threat to your passengers. Like the rest of the game, it’s hard to decipher what all the things on the display mean, and how to translate that into a successful mission. You’ll lose passengers over and over again and have no idea what you actually did wrong and how to improve.
By the time I was done with Fear Equation, I had basically figured out how everything works. With all there is to track and do, it feels like one of those insanely detailed oldschool submarine simulators. I actually enjoy the level of complexity here. There’s a lot to manage, but it isn’t impossible, and properly managing all of the functions is immersive and rewarding. The world it builds is stylistically great, and the management sim that makes up the gameplay is rich and complex, but the two don’t translate well from one to the other. It’s just too hard to actually play this game. With a more intuitive and quick interface, I’d love playing this game. As it is, I can appreciate it as a concept, but would be lying if I said it was enjoyable.