RTS games are a niche market to say the least. There are popular entries into the genre like the XCOM and Civilization series, but they’re generally all around the same formula: place some troops, fight other troops, and become king of the castle. Eat, sleep, rave, repeat.
However, a unique one popped up in Steam’s Narrative Festival recently. The Fabulous Fear Machine is a narrative-based, horror-tinged RTS game where you take on the role as a “Master of the Machine”, and you spread rumours, conspiracies, and urban legends to achieve your goals and create fear across a variety of locations, all done through one of those fortune teller machines you see on American boardwalks and carnivals of yesteryear.
The retro, comic book art style is oozing with personality. It’s reminiscent of the horror comic in What Remains of Edith Finch, and is definitely something to be celebrated. It’s no wonder at all that the game has received some endorsement from Shudder, the visual design is campy horror at its finest. It’s quite muted in comparison, but the design of the machine itself is menacing. These amusement setpieces aren’t pleasant to look at normally, never mind when their eyes glow red and they have cultist agents at their beck and call. The first time I saw one as a child I legitimately had nightmares.
The gameplay is pretty solid, there are unit placement and resource management elements as is commonplace in the genre, however, the narrative focus of the game allows more depth than what is found in genre peers. The variety of legends you can spread range from child-killing clowns to sandbox-borne plagues. It synergises well with the vintage horror tones that the art generates. An interesting feature that appears to replace PvP gameplay is the ability to sabotage rivals who may interfere with your ultimate goal. Engaging in corporate espionage like this genuinely adds a creepy level of realism to the game. It almost makes you believe that this entire scenario is what goes on in the real world.
It’s hard to say what the negatives of this game would be, as only the demo has been released up to this point, the full game is expected in Summer this year. The level of repetition in games in this genre can lead to fast stagnation, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m moderately optimistic that there’ll be enough variety and flavour to keep players engaged for some time.
The potential lack of a PvP mode may also hinder replay value. Games don’t inherently require this, but when genre leaders have options to compete against friends in games, it would be surprising to not see The Fabulous Fear Machine run with this as well.
You get about an hour’s gameplay out of the demo which is more than enough to get a feel for the game. The campy, Goosebumps-esque vibes really give this game a different feel than others in the genre. As a person who has sunk an upsetting amount of hours in Civilization V, this would really tickle the RTS-shaped itch for me. Check it out if you get the chance.
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