Fear Effect Sedna is a fascinating game. Perhaps even one of the most fascinating games I’ve seen from 2018. At least so far. Not because it’s good by any stretch of the imagination, mind you. A quick little Google search will show you that the general consensus of its quality ranges between “nyeeeeh, okay?” at best and “pppfff, nah!” at worst. With stale combat, so-bad-its-good voice acting, and an unfinished, inconsequential story, I can’t say I disagree with them.
But I’m also not interested in it purely because it’s a bad game either, at least not completely. As you can glean from this article title, I’m not here to inform you of its mediocre-ness. You don’t need me to add to its current echo-chamber of opinions. No, what interests me is the misfortune that led to French developer Sushee’s ambitious Kickstarter project being what it is today, and what it could have been.
Sounds a little schadenfreude-y(?) when I put it like that, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but allow me to spin it another way.
Similar to Fear Effect Sedna, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is probably one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Not for its plot, cinematography, and certainly not for its acting talent (although maybe a little for its acting talent), but rather because of the story behind its creation.
When I watched it for the first time back in 2012, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; that is, if I could see any of it at all through tears of laughter and gazes averted from clumsy sex scenes. After all, how could I be witnessing a movie with a long-haired melty-faced monster that stomped around, mimicking what it must assume are normal human speech patterns as its main character? Why were the people around it not terrified of its very presence? Did this melting monstrosity brainwash them?!
It wasn’t until I read The Disaster Artist that my perspective on the film radically changed. I came to understand that this wasn’t some amateur-hour indie film made by a bunch of bumbling bumpkins who had never touched a camera before. Quite the opposite actually. This was a film with a team of experienced industry professionals behind it. It only became what we see today due to, among other things, unfortunate accidents, blind luck, and the heaving incompetence of its director/writer/producer/lead actor with deep pockets and dreams of Hollywood glory.
I had stopped seeing it for what it had become. Instead, I had become enthralled with how it had come to be.
And while I re-watched gameplay clips from Sedna, preparing to add to previously mentioned review echo-chamber, a similar sensation hit me. Reading through its tutorials and watching early prototype gameplay updates, I realised that the awkward mess I had devoted seven hours of my time to was never meant to be this way.
Hidden in this seven-hour slog were elements of a good game, perhaps even a fantastic one. It had wonderfully animated cutscenes with a unique cel-shaded art style, particularly when it came to its whacky and brutal game overs. Its puzzles were challenging and varied in design, offering head-scratchers requiring problem solving, investigation, and quick reflexes. Hell, it even had a surprisingly well-written lesbian relationship between two of its main characters, Rain and Hana, without a hint of pointless titillation in sight.
I realised that Sushee actually had the skills to pull this off. They were devoted Fear Effect fans, as you can tell from their own website – advertising not only this, but an upcoming project to remaster the original PS1 games. They had a vision, a design document brimming with fantastic concepts and thrilling gameplay mechanics. But, due to either a lack of budget, time, or a combination of the two, all of that exciting potential had to be squandered in order to keep their promise to their Kickstarter backers. And the game suffered horribly as a result.
Which sucks considering what ideas they clearly wanted to implement. Particularly when it comes to the game’s combat – which unfortunately takes up, like…ninety percent of the game.
From what I can understand from the game’s opening tutorial, Sushee seems to have been aiming for something that felt like a combination of XCOM and Transistor in terms of mechanics. Sure, you can use the game’s basic top-down gunplay, but with the push of a button, you could enter a “Tactical Mode”, bringing time to a stop and allowing you to plan out your combat strategy. From here you could command your teammates to take one of four actions: move, take cover, attack, or use one of their limited-use special abilities. Each character’s unique special abilities could also be used in conjunction with another’s in order to create what the game calls a “Synergy”, which would result in powerful combo attacks.
Imagine that! Is heavily armoured enemy about to flank a teammate? No stress! Pull that sucker away with a “get-over-here” style taser and then have another character napalm that sum’bitch with a flamethrower ‘til he’s as crispy as a…well, potato crisp.
On paper, this sounds exactly like my kind of tactical shooter. One that requires quick on-your-feet decision-making. Where you can learn new tactics by experimenting with ability combos, and be rewarded with new, more powerful attack strategies. And since the game would always be changing your team composition as the story progressed, you’d have to adapt your strategies to match who you’re currently playing with. In turn ensuring you don’t breeze your way through the game’s combat with a single “insta-win” combo.
Add to that what I think has to be the game’s coolest idea, the Fear mechanic. You see, as characters get into “stressful situations” like getting hurt or surrounded, they start getting afraid. As their fear increases, they’ll be able to dish out more damage, at the cost of taking more damage as well.
Since the only way to bring a character’s fear down is by letting it reduce slowly over time, or instantly by healing up with a medkit, this would have made for an intriguing “last stand” mechanic with serious risks and rewards.
Players could be put into thrilling situations and nail biting boss encounters. They could risk losing a critically injured team member for a chance to turn the tide of battle. Or alternatively, they could play it safe and heal that character, knowingly losing a potential advantage. It would be left up to the player to decide when or if they should heal team mates, adding even more depth to the intended think-on-your-feet gameplay style that Sushee was going for.
And this all could have worked if they had just that little more time to strengthen the one splintering load-bearing column that ends up caving the whole thing in on itself: The AI.
For starters, your teammates have the survival instincts of a possum with a powerline fetish. Sure, they’ll listen to your commands and carry them out like begrudging teenagers. But the moment they carry out their orders, even if they’re to stay behind cover, they’ll just go off and do what they want to do. And unfortunately for you, that just so happens to be standing out in the open for the convenience of your trigger-happy opponents. All you can really do to remedy this is babysit them every three seconds in Tactical Mode to make sure they’re doing their chores. Well, either that or do what I did and simply give up on them, let them do what they please, and let natural selection take hold while you stick to the basic top-down gunplay and just try to look after yourself.
Hiding behind cover is also rendered completely pointless since every enemy appears to be programmed to find the clearest possible shot instantly. The moment you hide behind anything, you’ll always have some pistol-toting goon flanking your position before you’re halfway through taking a much-needed breath. Leaving you with only one option: scamper away, hold down the “shoot mah guns” button, and hope that your health bar is still intact when the bodies fall and the gun smoke settles.
As a result, you’re left with tactical action game in which being tactical is rendered a monotonous chore and being trigger-happy is the only way to progress without risk your characters’ bodies performing a spontaneous, yet spot-on impression of fresh swiss cheese. Even its most intriguing mechanic is rendered moot with your health rapidly depleting as soon as you enter combat situations, severely reducing that strategic “extra damage” window to the size of a pin-prick before you’re forced into using a medkit to stay alive.
The thing is, you can tell that Sushee really did want to fix these problems with what time and money they must have had left. It’s just that without the resources or time to redesign the combat, it seems that all they could do was pepper the game’s levels and loot drops with enough medkits to keep the player alive until the next checkpoint. And if that’s true, then the fact that they even tried to make that fix, as small as it was, says a lot towards Sushee’s dedication to their project.
I would have loved to have seen what Fear Effect Sedna could have been if the team had just a little more time and money to make they game they clearly wanted to. But I think it says something more to the team’s abilities that they’re able to make me say this much about what could be charitably called a mediocre game. It shows what kind of new and interesting mechanics they’re able to come up with, and the kinds of stories and character relationships they could be able to write. If given the right amount of time and resources I think Sushee could do some amazing things, and personally I can’t wait to see what they do next.