Indie Wonderland: Appointment With FEAR

A few hours in

That same wooshy thing!

While The Wrinkled Breakfast’s final fate felt like an incredibly contrived way to end his adventures, I still didn’t feel good about just hitting the magic undo-button on it. What happens, happens, right? Besides, there were still three other power sets I could play with!

So, I moved on. I rolled a new hero, gave her psionic powers, dressed her in a funky purple-yellow outfit, and called her the Might Bella Donna.

The Might Bella Donna does not fry eggs with her bare hands. She does, however, make telekinetic toast.

The Mighty Bella Donna’s career was… mixed. I know I disparaged the back button not two paragraphs earlier, but when the random number generator gave me such poor results while fighting a giant shark that the creature decided a helpless child was a more pressing target than me…

You can also choose to not fight the shark, and quote phrases from Jaws while it eats the kid. This nets you an achievement.

…you can bet I hammered the hell out of my time machine button. No shark’s going to eat no kids on my turf.

The Mighty Bella Donna fared a little better than The Wrinkled Breakfast. She even managed to obtain half of a clue about the whereabouts of the F.E.A.R. meeting!

“I’m almost good at my job!”

But half a clue is half a clue less than I’d need, and at the end of the three days, F.E.A.R.’s evil schemes came to terrible fruition as The Mighty Bella Donna ran around the city, checking airports and sea wharfs and random addresses in vain.

Five minutes later, I was the technical genius Overhead One! Overhead One met with even more successes, including fighting off the bank-robbing Alchemists, stopping an assassination on the president, and fighting off the Resurrection, an eternal undead monster.

Wasn’t good enough, though.

Three strikes. Guess I’m out.

Five minutes after that, I was The Puncher, super-strong and super-flying champion of justice!

I think I’m in love with this name generator.

The Puncher broke up a domestic dispute, yelled at a dog, brought down the Tormentor’s plane, and ended the Scarlet Prankster’s madcap funhouse-of-death.

Then she ran into a random trapped dead end and died.

“Oh, you chased this obvious murder van? Well GUESS WHAT.”

I can’t be sure, but I think this might have been the moment I yelled out ‘holy shit, this game is garbage‘ for the first time. It may also have been the second time. It wouldn’t be the last.

“Wow, Jarenth, why don’t you tell us what you really think?” Yeah, readers, I’m sorry: it pains me to say this, but I think Appointment With FEAR is not very good. While its graphical style and light-hearted tone of writing do a good job of setting the mood it’s going for, and while I certainly had my fair share of chuckles while playing, Appointment With FEAR’s mechanical choices and choose-your-own-adventure-style narrative conspire to replace any and all emergent fun with frustration, forced replays, and the growing realization that there are other things you could be doing with your time.

Man. You know how there’s people worried that, if you get a game directly from the publisher, it might make it difficult for reviewers to honestly report they don’t like it? Try having a game honestly recommend to you by someone who liked it. How can a review accurately capture the sentiment of ‘I appreciate that you enjoyed this game and I’m grateful for the recommendation, but simultaneously, if I had this game on an actual physical disc, that disc would probably be lying in a bin somewhere by now’?

Ouch, my Hero points!

Appointment With FEAR stumbles on four interconnected point: its deterministic nature, its random-deterministic nature, its random nature, and its bullshit.

“…Jarenth, have you legitimately gone mad?” No, no, stay! I swear this makes sense to me. Here, let me try to explain what I mean.

Appointment With FEAR is, at its heart, a very deterministic game. Linear, almost. Every playthrough goes through many of the same motions. You start by overhearing the F.E.A.R. meeting. You get one clue from your Crimewatch. You go to work, at which point you get Decision Point A: Break up the fight, get the paper, follow the cars, or go to work. You do one of these things, and then the story continues. Decision Point B: tackle one of two crimes, picked out of the pile. On Day 2, if you missed work, you can go to Disneyland Wisneyland or you can go to the theater. You can go to the police station or you can go to your aunt. You can go to the president’s parade or you can go to the future exhibition. And so on, and so forth.

Appointment With FEAR is made up of a bunch of these connected decision points. And each point has associated with it a few events that can play out. Some seem random, but most are set: if you visit your aunt, you either get the Resurrection-fight in the graveyard, or the muggers outside. If you take the subway to work, you can stop a mugger, or you can take the Crimewatch alert. If you visit the police station, they’ll tell you about the mysterious dead guy. If you go to Wisneyland, every ride you can go on has a little check associated with it.

Bumper carts are *dangerous*.

Every decision point has choices. Every choice has outcomes. Every outcome has consequences, ranging from very good (finding more anti-F.E.A.R clues) to plain good (Hero points and F.E.A.R. cards) to bad (loss of Hero points and wasted time) to death (which is to say, your death). This is what makes up Appointment With FEAR’s deterministic nature, and a large part of ‘being good’ at this game involves knowing which choices lead to which outcomes, remembering which variables influences which successes, and figuring out which path takes you to success.

Except it’s not as simple as rote memorization. Simply remembering everything works for some choices: the subway mugger always holds the Kareem clue, you can always get the best ending from the Snake by lying to him, don’t trade goddamn quips with a shark when it’s about to eat a kid, you get the idea. And certain choices actually interplay with your chosen powers in interesting ways: while most heroes can ‘talk down’ the Tormentor’s plane, for instance, the flying hero can take the fight to the skies — which actually nets you better rewards than doing it the alternative way.

But many, many fight outcomes depend on the Clue system.

And that’s where the problems start.

In many situations, your hero will muse ‘maybe I can SOLVE something’. You can then look at your clues, and check to see if any of them help you in your current predicament. So, if you’re trapped in a dark carnival funhouse, remembering that ‘this is the kind of place the Scarlet Prankster holes up’ gets you a different ending from just smashing your way out. And if you’re trying to save the president, you better have the clue that tells you that ‘the real assassin is on the roof’, or you’ll be wasting your time like a chump.

Clues are vital to the success of your hero, and they’re frustratingly random.

“None of these clues tell me *anything*.”

You start with one random clue at the beginning of each game. If you’re lucky, it’s a useful one, like that Scarlet Prankster clue. If you’re unlucky, you get something like the three villain identities you can see in the previous screenshot. Which, listen, game: this clue is worthless. It’s beyond worthless. You can’t say that ‘Sylvia Frost is the Ice Queen’ counts as a clue when a clue I got earlier explicitly mentions this. And I’ve never found a place to use my ‘Richard Storm is the Tormentor’ clue, not even when fighting the Tormentor in person.

Er-hum. Sorry about this. My point is: some clues are useful, and some clues are not. And if you’re saddled with useless clues at the behest of the RNG…

It gets worse, though. Not only are clues random, but (as mentioned earlier) so are certain events. Which events your Crimewatch hands you at which times seems to be entirely up to Nuffle’s favour, as far as I can tell.

Can you see where this diatribe is going? You can, can’t you?

Clues are random. Events are random. Even if you have perfect, photographic-memory knowledge of which clue solves which crime, you might still not actually get that event. I know Illya Karpov is the Creature of Carnage, but I’ve never ever run into that creature. And I once carefully hung onto a clue about Mustapha Kareem, only to never be sent to the museum where he works.

And so, even if you know what you’re doing, a significant part of your victory is up to luck of the draw.

Which segues nicely into…

On the micro level, the combat level, Appointment With FEAR is all random number generation. Fights are… well, let’s not mince words. Fights are garbage. You push a button to perform an attack, it hits or misses, the enemy attacks, they hit or miss… nominally, there’s some strategy involved here, with heavy-hitting attacks being less accurate, and you trading certain slow damage for possible high damage. Your Stamina value determines how many hits you can take, so do you want to take it slow and steady and risk absorbing a lot of punishment yourself? Or are you going to go for the flashy, instant-combat-ender, that’s much more likely to miss.

And miss. And miss. And miss.

In practice, however, it doesn’t matter. You can always reset everything, remember? If a fight doesn’t go your way, there is nothing at all stopping you from re-rolling it. Over and over, again and again, until your two heavy attacks land in a row and you win without taking a scratch.

Then again, even if you don’t, Stamina hardly matters. I’ve had one game in which my Stamina was brought down to 1. Once.

The combat system’s intrinsic super-randomness does it little favours. The combat isn’t fun. It’s a dull time sink, a battle of dice rather than wits.

Oh, yay. More *combat*. That’s just what I wanted!

So, to recap: Appointment With FEAR is a deterministic, linear game, that requires you to study its many permutations before you have a chance at winning. But it’s also semi-random, which means that even the best set of knowledge need to necessarily be able to win. And the combat sequences are entirely random, meaning that if you play ‘fair’ — without rewinding — you could still lose in perfect circumstances.

And I haven’t even mentioned the ‘bullshit’ category yet.

I get mad again just linking this screenshot.

True to Choose-Your-Own-Adventure form, Appointment With FEAR has so many bullshit insta-deaths. You’ve already seen what happens if you fight a bunch of random muggers. If you try to stop a shoplifter, you get shot at point-blank range. If a flying hero chases a kidnapping van, it turns out to be an elaborate trap. And this goddamn mummy…

Okay, so: you encounter a mummy in a dark basement. So far, so good. You have two options: attack the mummy, or look around. If you pick that second one, hoping it means ‘look around for circumstantial help’, tough luck: it actually means ‘you are now afraid of the mummy’. You’re given a second set of options: ‘take a swing at the mummy’, or ‘back up the stairs’. Option 1 results in… well, the screenshot you see up there. And option 2 sees you bolt from the museum, leaving the curator behind to get murdered by the mummy. Only option 1-1 — immediately attack the mummy — drops you into actual combat.

Yes: if you attack the mummy, you fight it. But if you hesitate for a second, and then attack the mummy, your reward is instant death.

Appointment With FEAR is a game about wrangling with a random hand of cards overlaying a mind-numbingly static larger world, all the while remembering to avoid gotcha-style death traps. Its gameplay experience is basically identical to Solitaire, if every Solitaire deck had three claymore mines disguised as regular cards shuffled in.

Oh, look. Another explosive death. Yeah, I think I’m going to go be somewhere else now.

Final thoughts

I did actually defeat F.E.A.R.’s evil plans on one occasion. After rewinding The Puncher’s idiot trap death, I lucked out in enough challenges and clues to find the correct time for the meeting. And when I say ‘lucked out’, I mean, ‘rewound a whole bunch of stuff to get optimal outcomes’. Remembering that the airport segment actually asks you for a time, I made that place my priority on the F.E.A.R. day. And sure enough:

Victory!

I dunno. I feel like I could have had more fun with Appointment With FEAR? The visuals and the writing are neat, and I particularly like that every combination of power and gender seems to have its own unique silhouette. I’m also pretty curious how some of the storylines I’ve failed to resolve to far will turn out.

But the reality of the situation is that I didn’t have the fun I was hoping for. The semi-random narrative, the luck-of-the-draw clues, and the frustrating do-it-again-stupid nature of certain choices and deadly ends just frustrated me, to no end. I may play one more game after I finish this review, just to get it out of my system. I predict I won’t actually make it to the end.

Appointment with FEAR is currently six bucks on Steam. It’s not that pricey, so if you’re more resilient to random bullshit than I am — or if you’re looking for a quick way to raise your blood pressure — you could always check it out. But don’t come complaining to me when your character trips over their own feet and dies, somehow; let me go on record here and say that I warned you. I warned you about Appointment With FEAR, dawg.

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Jarenth is the hero Titan City deserves, but not the hero it needs. Trade crime fighting tips with him on Twitter or Steam.

7 comments

  1. After-the-fact comments update: I actually went back to Appointment With FEAR in the space between writing this review and posting it. I… feel like I really want to like this game. It’s teetering so closely to the edge of being fun to play, and the theme and the writing all resonate with my interests.

    But it’s no good. The only way to be successful at Appointment With FEAR is to memorize every single decision path, recognize every clue for value, and try every single unintuitive choice. You have to explore the game’s narrative fully to get to all possibilities, and unless you do, you’ll never know when you’re being punished for taking the logical choices over the seemingly silly ones.

    Example: on day 3, the first choice you get is either ‘go to a robot expo’ or ‘go see the president’s cavalcade’. At this point, it’s highly likely you’ll have been tipped off about the president’s assassination. So you go there… right?

    Wrong. If you go to the president event immediately, the day ends afterwards. If you go to the robot expo, you can still go save the president immediately after. But wait, there’s more: if you go to the robot expo, then/i> go to a friendly ballgame, you’ll still get the president’s event as a third choice! Going to the president first is objectively the wrong choice on day 3… and you’ll never figure this out unless you decide to take the silly-sounding options instead.

    That’s Appointment With FEAR in a nutshell: randomness, dead ends, unintuitive choices, and at the end of it there’s still a major chance you won’t actually get the clues you need to win. Because hey! You stopped the rampaging Android, good job! But because you weren’t a flying-type hero, this doesn’t get you the clue you needed! Should’ve intuited that an energy hero like yourself should have gone after the Creature of Carnage instead! Better luck next time.

    I want to like Appointment With FEAR, I really do. But Appointment With FEAR seems dead-set on making me loathe it.

    1. I would feel bad about recommending a game that you haven’t liked, but we’ve got a great article out of it, so I’m pleased that I’ve avoided what I’d consider to be the biggest sin, that of wasting your time.

      A note on the combat and the skill checks: in the original books, you’d roll dice to determine Strength, Skill and Stamina stats, and then roll dice in combat to determine hits and misses. I wish they had kept this system in the game. Skill checks feel especially limp. I do love the ‘do [move] on [body part]’ combat text though. Grapple that dog’s eyeball? Sure, why not.

      “That’s Appointment With FEAR in a nutshell: randomness, dead ends, unintuitive choices, and at the end of it there’s still a major chance you won’t actually get the clues you need to win.”

      That’s pretty much all Fighting Fantasy novels in a nutshell. I put part of my enjoyment of them down to nostalgia, but I do still get actual pleasure from reading/playing them, so it’s not all in my head. For other FF fans out there, I should also add that the main body of the text and the art in AWF is faithfully recreated from the book. As a bonus, they’ve added terrible quips for your character in combat so you no longer need to shout out your own like a crazy person. Not that I ever did, of course.

      1. I do really think these books would be more fun as books. I’d probably be a lot more forgiving about strict linearity and dice rolling nonsense in the context of a book, where I can accept that — once printed — not a whole lot of it is going to change.

        Video games, though. I have different expectations regarding video games.

  2. Well at least it sounds true to it’s Fighting Fantasy origins. I grew up with those books too and while I loved them I do recognise that they were terribly designed. My favourite one I think was called The Crypt of the Sorcerer and it culminated in a boss fight where you had to have found 5 or 6 specific items from throughout the branching world in order to beat the sorcerer. And to make sure you couldn’t cheat they often had ‘turn to the number inscribed on the ring’ and such to make it difficult. I don’t think I ever fairly beat that book.

    I think you’re right Jarenth, these things are fun as books, as these kind of relics that had their limitations and were sometimes ridiculously, preposterously unfair so no-one ever judged you for keeping your thumb on the previous entry. Maybe that’s just the nostalgia element at play, but I’m young enough that we also had games like Baldur’s gate around and I do remember that I’d rather have played these books at that time. So in conclusion, I had terrible taste as a child.

  3. I couldn’t stomach that combat system. If you don’t know what the probabilities of hitting/missing actually are then how can you work out the expected value and try to make decisions? It’s like the game is asking you to guess which number it’s thinking of.

    1. That’s basically all of Appointment With FEAR in a nutshell, honestly. “What am I thinking about right now? Wrong! You fail everything.”

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