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So right off the bat, let me just say that this game does a piss poor job of explaining to the player what it is they're supposed to do. The objective is actually very simple - go to each checkmark that's on the map, make sure the coordinates you input are the same as what's listed and take a picture using the machine at the back of the sub. Oh, and do your best not to bang into any walls along the way or it's game over; the radar will alert you if you are close to any. And that's it. But does the game establish this to the player in any clear terms? No, of course not. It has to be bloody obtuse as hell about it. I spent a good maybe 30 minutes just trying to figure out what the hell it was I was supposed to be doing. This is all exacerbated by the fact that the checkmarks on the map are really hard to see. I didn't even know they were there until I accidentally stumbled upon one with my cursor. Was this a problem for anyone else or is my eyesight failing me?
Once I got past that whole stumbling block, what I discovered was a very fleeting but dread-filled exercise in busywork and mundanity. Iron Lung is not a 'fun' game. Survival horror rarely ever is intended to be fun. But Iron Lung is literal demands the player to perform a job, a joyless job under very unusual circumstances. By rights, it should be boring as hell, and it kinda is, but where Iron Lung succeeds is by ratcheting up the tension as you progress. Without going too much into detail, the situation starts to deteriorate as time passes. The game manages to find new ways of making you paranoid and anxious. The audio design can be quite potent, with one particular checkmark leading to the discovery of some thing that gives off a truly unholy sound. Despite the minimalist approach, Iron Lung does a lot with so little, and manages to create a nerve-wracking experience as a whole. You know that something bad is approaching, you know there's going to be some kind of morbid punchline to your playthrough, but the suspense of what it is and when it'll happen is what fuels this dark descent. You'll want to see what it is, regardless of how unpleasant it might be.
I'm as much of a Ubisoft naysayer as you can get. The publisher has done little to impress me in the past decade as their output continues its decline into design-by-committee mediocrity. This game though? I never understood the hate. It's as close as you can get to an open-world Splinter Cell. It feels WONDERFUL to play. The controls are tight, the mechanics are well executed. Shooting feels great, stealth movement is satisfying. Hacking the environment to distract enemies or evade your pursuers while driving is an awesome feature that gets better the more skills you unlock.
And yet people really rag on this game. I think that seed was planted with the downgrade fiasco that occurred in the months prior to the game's release, and a lot of folks had already made their mind up at that point. And yes, the noticeable dip in visual fidelity from that reveal trailer was rather unfortunate. But this game yo. This game fucks. It plays so damn good.
The thing that bugs me about Retro Helix is that it's a prequel sequel when it should've been a sequel sequel. What I mean is, the events in this game happen prior to everything in the first game, which kinda undermines the events of the first game because, well, Retro Helix is even more batshit crazy than FE1. All of the insanity that Hana, Glas and Deke go through in the previous installment, that's not even their first rodeo it turns out, but the problem is that it very much feels like it is. One of FE1's major strengths is that it starts out with some degree of normalcy, but gets progressively weirder and horror-based as the game progresses. And you see that in the reactions and interactions of the three leads as they deal with their world being turned upside down. So it's hard to accept Retro Helix as a prequel. Because this game goes to some very very strange places.
But overlooking all of that, how is Retro Helix? It's very much business as usual, with some quality of life improvements, including less trial and error and substantially shorter loading times. It is just as unsettling, horny and downright nihilistic as FE1, but the story just doesn't have quite the same impact. There are plenty of memorable story moments, visually-arresting (for the time) environments and that same distinctive, creepy-as-hell ambiance that no other franchise has ever been able to replicate. But the story is all over the place and doesn't have the same hook as the first's abduction-plan-gone-wrong premise. It's all very madcap and barely cohesive and, honestly, it's best just to switch your brain off and go along for the ride. Because like its predecessor, Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix takes you to some unforgettable places.