Cross a 4X game with an episode of The Twilight Zone, and you’ve got The Fabulous Fear Machine.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is something of a unique game in that it’s quite hard to place its genre. If I had to pigeonhole it, I would broadly describe it as a strategy game, but that does it something of a disservice due to its narrative and RPG elements. The closest thing that comes to mind is Plague Inc, the game where you would evolve and spread a disease across the world, and I feel this is a reasonable comparison. It’s just that the disease you spread is Fear Itself.
As I mentioned, there’s a narrative here, focused around the titular fear machine. Looking something akin to Zoltar from the movie Big, The Fabulous Fear Machine draws wayward souls into its clutches, with the promise of making their wish come true whilst they are masters of its controls. Of course, those wishes tend to have unforeseen consequences for the supposed master, but they don’t know that until it’s too late. All this is told through 50s-style comic book panels that work really well throughout the game’s various campaigns. It’s a great aesthetic that actually serves double duty as it downplays some of the horrific events that your characters enact.
The campaigns are split into a number of missions in which you need to spread a certain amount of fear within each region of a map, amongst other objectives, allowing you to spread your message. The idea is that your protagonist — or perhaps antagonist considering the role you play — is controlling the population through fear. You’ll do this by implanting myths and legends in cities throughout the region, and as news of this legend grows in its scope, the region will fall into panic and allow you to spread that message. Once enough regions are under control, you win the mission and move on.
Mechanically speaking, you play legend cards within cities, each representing different horrors or conspiracies that people may have some background knowledge of. In real-time, that can be paused for you to plan, these legends become implanted up to a certain point, when you have to evolve them using specific resources. The more evolved they are, the further your influence spreads. This in itself is actually quite enjoyable, as there are quite a lot of legends to play with, each of which has its own mini-tale as you evolve it. From conspiracies like climate control and chemtrails, to urban legends such as a Slender Man-inspired character or Bloody Mary; There’s plenty to tinker with.
There are a few that I found a little unsavoury though, such as ones that imply sexual violence and terrorist attacks. I’d have preferred if the game had steered clear of those and leaned more heavily into urban legends or historical conspiracies, if I’m honest. Your characters are often portrayed as being manipulated by the machine to carry out horrifying acts, but these were a bit near the knuckle for my taste, even with the comic book motif.
You aren’t free to do as you will in a mission though, and often you’ll have opponents trying to spread their own influence, whether they be rival companies or those looking for the machine itself. You’ll need to take these down by using your agents, of which you have at most two. Now, your agents tend to be an even more important resource than your legends. Agents are used to gather essence to evolve your legends, explore areas to play new legends, or find ways to take down your rivals. Each city only has a limited number of slots to place legends or gather essence, and if your foe takes up one of those spaces, it limits your options. Your agents can investigate though, and find ways to destroy these inconveniences. Should you destroy enough of them, you’ll wipe out your enemy’s organisation altogether.
If you play The Fabulous Fear Machine from a purely mechanical perspective, I could see it getting quite samey. Ignoring the narratives and focusing solely on winning missions is missing the point though. Yes, each mission plays out in a similar way, with maybe the odd curveball thrown in, but it’s the stories that crop up along the way that make it worthwhile. Your character has a history and a reason that has drawn them to the machine, as well as an ultimate fate to discover, whilst your agents also have their own tales to tell as you level them up. That’s not all either, as those rivals you take on are quite diverse, although they clearly pull from political and industrial figures in the real world, and have a story and reason for doing what they do. It’s all well put together for the most part, although sometimes those enemies fall a bit too far into caricature territory.
Sadly, those narratives only really play out one way, and there’s little in the way of choice for how things will progress. Decision points really only change what benefits or hindrances you’ll encounter during that mission and won’t change anything long-term, nor will the fates of you or your agents be altered. This does mean that this is a bit of a one-and-done game, and beyond collecting all the different cards representing the legends and other effects, I didn’t really feel a huge urge to replay it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the campaign can take a good eight hours depending on how efficient you are, and it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome with each campaign being just the right length to my mind. I wouldn’t say no to a few more of them though.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is a very enjoyable experience, with lots of decisions to make in a single mission. Often you’ll have more than a few options that you need to complete at a single point in time, and picking the route that you think will be most effective is fun in itself. It reminds me of a worker-placement board game in that regard, which is a compliment as far as I’m concerned. Whilst there’s not as much content as I might like, and there are themes that I found a little distasteful, this is a fun and unique experience that strategy gamers should absolutely give a second glance to.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is available now on PC.