It sets out to do something and it does it amazingly. Between its wonderful artstyle, engaging puzzle-like scenarios, and surprisingly sharp-toothed narrative, The Fabulous Fear Machine is a fantastic, spooky outing from Fictiorama that is happy to be pulpy.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is an outbreak-sim strategy game, a love letter to pulp-horror comics, and Fictiorama’s best game yet. In it, you play through several scenarios as one of several ambitious, perhaps less-than-moral agents and assume control of the titular Fabulous Fear Machine.
Immediately, the art style and tone make it clear what kind of game you are playing: one that evokes all the feeling of old pulp-horror comics like Swamp Thing or Tales From the Crypt, but on a more global scale.
You are introduced to the concept by an animatronic medium that promises to fulfill one wish for the character you’ll be playing as, and makes it clear that it will come at great cost.
And the aesthetic doesn’t stop there. As the game continues, you’ll use its many cards to summon forth fear-invoking Legends, each having that same gruesome, lovingly-drawn, comic-book artstyle, as well as the animated comic book panels that you’ll uncover over the course of each campaign.
The game is all about revealing the full frights behind each, and it is glorious (or should I say fabulous?). The atmosphere in this game drips with pulpy horror delight.
And so, with the tone properly set, you might think you have a pretty good idea what to expect, especially after the tutorial introduces what, at first, seem like fairly simple, disparate systems. But those quickly complexify.
You will be simultaneously trying to place and upgrade your horrifying Legends around a map, while also harvesting resources, countering rivals, exploring locations, and dealing with events, all in the service of meeting the criteria to broadcast a message into each region.
By the end of the tutorial, it seems simple enough, if a bit convoluted due to some slightly clunky UI.
The Tutorial is deceptive, though. Because, while the game is indeed a puzzle-y strategy game where, ultimately, you are trying to fill bars and color in maps, the interconnected systems end up demanding much of you. Your most limited resource in The Fabulous Fear Machine is not Essences or Oleum – the game’s currencies – but rather time.
You see, you have a very limited number of mysterious agents, usually only two or three per level. They are necessary in order to complete most things, requiring a time investment for each action, and, with only one to three agents at your disposal, there never seems to be enough time. Rivals make moves, the fire burns away your fuel, and events spring up.
The real challenge, then, is dealing with the puzzle of prioritization: this game is made for those that want to optimize their play and not waste a moment. No sitting on your laurels for this one; while there is a bit of a steam-roll effect that strategy gamers will be familiar with, even the most brutally effective fear machine can still be sabotaged by a poorly-timed wrench and a bit of inattentiveness.
But all this talk about mechanics and gameplay puts aside what is really the best part of the game: the narrative and commentary. Let’s be clear: most strategy games aren’t exactly marvels when it comes to storytelling or social critique, but The Fabulous Fear Machine is an exception.
Let’s look at an example: the first campaign you play after the tutorial introduces you to a cutthroat scientist who is happy to put morals aside in order to become the CEO of the most powerful pharmaceutical company on the planet. And, by using the Fabulous Fear Machine to stoke terror in the hearts of the populace, she will ensure she can accomplish all the animal experimentation, corporate sabotage, and plague manufacture required to accomplish that goal.
As she broadcasts her messages and completes scenarios, animated and well-written comic panels will fill in, revealing her depraved and cold-hearted origins and activities.
The entire time, excellent art and pulpy-but-authentic dialog drives the story. By the end of that first campaign, I was fully engrossed in both her success and her guaranteed downfall. It is truly a blast to play doomed evil, giving the game plenty of room to deliver messages (something Fictiorama is excellent at) while still letting the player rain hell down upon the world. Catharsis seems to be this game’s raison d’etre.
And if that wasn’t enough, the social critique elevates the project to something a bit deeper than its pulpy origins. Ever wondered why so many news stories accentuate crime, terrorism, and disaster? Well, this game provides a reason: so that somebody gets more powerful. Legend cards are drawn from real-world scares and folklores, and the snippets that play each time you upgrade a Legend card accentuate just how fear drives people to desperate solutions.
And, despite the art style evoking 50s-and-60s era comics, the commentary couldn’t be more barbed and modern (or perhaps some fears are simply timeless). Like I mentioned, the first campaign sees you stoking fear in a populace using things like robot rebellions and chemtrails in order to convince them to go along with your increasingly unethical pharmaceutical practices. Even better than the Fictiorama’s Do Not Feed the Monkey’s before, the humor and sarcasm hides deep cynicism and cutting satire, elevating the game above those predecessors, not to mention its many inspirations.
Ultimately, this all comes together to make The Fabulous Fear Machine one of the most stylish, fun, and surprisingly smart games I’ve played this year. The puzzles are tricky, the gameplay is engaging, the art is distinctive and striking, and the narratives are pulpy yet clever. Some slightly unintuitive UI and a few systems that could use more depth hold it back from perfection, but it comes closer than anything else Fictiorama has done before. It really is Fabulous after all.
The Fabulous Fear Machine gets a 9/10 from me. Make sure to check it out.
This article is a transcript from a YouTube video review.
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Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he’ll try. When he isn’t working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.