Fear Effect: Retro Helix

   Released in early 2000, Kronos' Fear Effect was marked as "average" by nearly every critic. While the title's story, presentation, and puzzles were superb, the long loading times, poor controls, and invisible save points held it back from excellence. But, for once, a developer has taken criticism to heart when crafting the sequel. Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix fixes nearly every problem of FE1, resulting in a fully-realized package that is sure to be one of the year's most memorable titles.

   The biggest improvement is obvious right from the beginning: Fear Effect 2 offers players a Metal Gear Solid-style alternative ("3-D control") to the dreaded Resident Evil control scheme. The 3-D style is quite effective; not only does pushing the D-pad in a given direction actualy move the hero in that direction, as long as the pad is held down, the character keep running in the same direction even if the camera angle changes. In both control schemes, a handy green targeting icon appears whenever a weapon is "locked on" to an enemy, eliminating any aiming woes. With the 3-D controls in place, FE2 becomes one of the most playable games in its genre.

  Expect to see this a lot
Each area has its own "Game Over" screen

   Much has been made of the ease with which the protagonists can be killed. While it's true that death awaits around nearly every corner, so does a save point. In another huge improvement over the first Fear Effect, post-death loading time has been completely eliminated, as it only takes a few seconds to get back into the action when you perish. Dying and reloading thus becomes part of the gameplay; instead of bombarding the gamer with a long series of simple challenges, the game presents a smaller number of more difficult obstacles. Indeed, no-holds-barred firefights present a welcome change from the ammo and health conservation in most adventure games.

Geometric lock

   That's not to say Retro Helix is nothing but gunplay, however. The game contains at least as much thinking as it does fighting, a welcome feature in the puzzle-starved console world. Most of the puzzles are of the standard "disarm the electronic / magical lock" variety, but there's surprising variation within this category. From creating geometric shapes point-by-point to repairing broken circuits, FE2 keeps a steady stream of interesting new challenges coming. The majority are fairly simple to solve, but some will take a few tries to work out. Are they illogical? It's true that no one would ever create such locks in real-life, but that doesn't keep them from being fun to solve.

  Super Baby Method
The triumphant return of Mr. DNA

   Between the battles and puzzles, the game also manages to weave a reasonably entertaining story. While the plot elements themselves -- zombies, genetic manipulation, ancient ruins, etc. -- are almost as worn out as Zero Wing jokes, the characters and presentation are generally entertaining enough to compensate. Though the game earns its mature rating, it never abuses it; this story is about techno-mercenaries facing supernatural forces, not lesbians.

   Fear Effect 2 re-uses its predecessor's "MotionFX 3-D" graphic system: Jet Grind Radio-style "2D-in-3D" characters atop looping FMV backgrounds. While this system allows for much more lively scenes than the static pre-rendered backdrops of Final Fantasy and Resident Evil, it forces them to run at a visibly lower resolution. The FMV backgrounds also pause slightly after each play, which is rarely noticeable but sometimes results in such oddities as ceiling fans that pause after every spin. Both these aberrations are understandable given the limits of the PlayStation, but it doesn't keep them from being occasionally distracting. The character animation, on the other hand, is excellent. While the characters tend to look odd in still frames, in motion they seamlessly blend 2-D art with a 3-D world.

Eidos Wetsuit
Let's see them do this with a static background

   Fear Effect 2 isn't without its idiosyncracies. Turning on save beacons and switching to 3-D control every time the game boots is an unnecessary nuisance; some players may give up on the title too early if they only experience the extremely frustrating default settings. Some of the areas also drag on too long, suffering from an excess of keycards to collect and doors to open before anything interesting happens. For the most part, however, the game keeps enough entertaining new ideas coming that it's easy enough to forget about its quirks. The frequent switches between the four characters, each of whom has his or her own weapons, also keep the action fresh.

   Kronos has done an outstanding job in turning an average franchise into an excellent one. Gamers put off by the first game's control issues should give the sequel a chance anyway, as most of their complaints have probably been addressed. And since Fear Effect 2 is a prequel, players new to the franchise will have no problem jumping right in.

Review by Fritz Fraundorf, GIA.
Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix
Developer Kronos
Publisher Eidos
Genre Adventure
Medium CD-ROM (4)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date  02.20.01
108 screenshots / 8 movies
4 wallpaper images
Box art