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Consistently arbitrary

Fear and Hunger
a horror rpg/roguelike by orange-
original format here



What's fear and what's hunger?

Fear & Hunger bills itself as a rogue with horror and RPG elements, although the only thing roguelike about it really is an inability to save. The player controls the nameable protagonist "Mercenary" while attempting to survive the Dungeons of Fear & Hunger. The only narrative is the one supplied by the player -- the game's heavy on atmosphere, not plot.

This is a review of the teaser demo, which features four levels and about half the planned cast. The scope of the full game looks to be a lot bigger (five playable characters for one thing) but there's a decent amount of content here, maybe one to three hours. I played to the end of the maps, I believe, but probably missed some other content. The review is mostly spoiler free but I'd probably skip the last section.


Aesthetics


Add some wavering and ghost fever chants and you've got the full effect


While visuals might be the first immediate draw of Fear & Hunger, the sounds is what jumps out first in the game itself. The intro has some really well-fitting music, and simple as it is, it sets the tone for the rest of the game. The background music might not be custom for the game but it sure is employed well. There's a lot of sfx, and as it turns out, just something like low chanting or drip ambiance can be as effective if not more than bgm.

As for the visuals themselves - the painting and pixels work together really nicely, with a unique pixel style I can't quite put my finger on. The special effects on the maps (dim lighting, fog, torches) all complement it well. With at least four distinctive settings, it's always rewarding to get to the next zone just to look at it. It's a compelling reason to keep pressing forward. The map layout itself has a neat feeling where the Dungeons of Fear and Hunger feel less like a series of interconnected maps and more of one big environment -- rooms link together vertically in many places, around curves, or at diagonals allowed with the painted environments. Not your blocky RM game.


Some more visually interesting areas


The subject matter is a bit of a different bag. While pixeldick isn't exactly something novel in "dark" RM games, F&H includes multiple explicit sexual scenes, a mountain of corpses and guts, and sprites for the playable characters in various states of armlessness. The standouts are probably the interior of a toilet hole and a twenty person orgy, located about thirty seconds away from each other. I've played other games that have gone for this sort of thing as shock value (and yeah, there's some shocking stuff) but usually there are standout elements that come across as "this was done to be edgy" that break immersion. F&H feels like a coherent whole, if a coherent whole that I would want to stay far, far away from.


Gameplay

I mentioned there was a really appealing intro. I was less enthusiastic around the 20th time I saw it. My experience in my first game was to take a few moments to come up with a fitting character name (important in jRPGs and RLs alike!), wandered inside the first room, scavenged a pinecone, then got killed by a on-touch encounter with a prison guard. Then I watched the intro again. Next time I didn't spend so much time on a character name.

Expect to die in F&H. "Unforgiving" would be one way to put it, but this implies the player has to make a mistake to die. Let me break down the combat system: F&H advertises a "strategic" dismemberment system, where the player aims at a body part with each attack. I attacked the prison guard's right arm at first, destroying it. Then the guard's so-called stinger began pulsing, so I attacked it, destroying it. Then the guard approached too close, clinched, and instakilled me. This is how guards work -- kill them in two turns or face the prospect of immediate death. While I eventually figured out that attacking the head usually kills the guard (at the cost of one of my own limbs) there's still a 33% or so that in any fight with a guard I'd miss an attack or two and end up dead. The combat is more akin to a survival horror in that fights should be avoided because resources are limited. And with extremely limited resources, expect to live for two to four encounters... And it's not like they can be run away from either.


If there was a 'run' button I'd be jamming it


I play a /lot/ of roguelikes, so I want to expand on some of key shortcomings of F&H versus pretty much any modern RL. One core principle is that death is always the fault of the player. With an accuracy that feels around 60%, this is iffy to say the least. Not to mention the non-combat deaths. F&H is one of those games that likes to drop the player into unwinnable scenarios. "Climb into the toilet hole? Y/N? Oops can't get out." That one is probably my fault, but it's the equivalent of getting oneshot by an out-of-sight enemy. While it's technically avoidable, it has an unfair aftertaste.

Keep in mind F&H does not allow saving. This means every time The Mercenary misses a guard twice, it's time to watch the intro again, play through the same early game again (potentially getting unlucky and losing to the first encounter, again) and spend another ten to twenty minutes playing through an area of the game that rapidly loses its novelty. In a roguelike, after losing a character, the player is free to pick a different class, explore a different area, etc. In F&H, there is no redeeming grace here. Playthroughs are virtually identical. Loot is randomized, but this is actually counterproductive -- it's very possible to not spawn an early key to recruit the second party member (The Girl) or find any helpful items at all (maybe 80% I could find no use for). Enemies are vaguely randomized, but this is also annoying -- I would sometimes just restart the game if there were too many guards in the first area.

The way this adds up is that death turns into an annoying time penalty. Having this punishment for every action induces a sort of paranoia that negatively affects the game's core loop. Most RPGs have an explore vs exploit metamechanic built in -- once I've found an effective strategy, how likely am I to keep using a strategy I know works vs keep searching for a strategy that works better? F&H skews this. If I'm paranoid about combat, I will never aim for anything but the head, because I know this wins me the fight 75% of the time, so I'll never explore the depths of any limb targeting system. If talking to NPCs triggers a fight 30% of the time and that fight could cost me 20 minutes, I will never talk to NPCs. I'll never take a yes/no decision to touch some viscera (spoiler: unwinnable fight). After I found talking to prison guards and priests just gave them an extra turn to attack me, I never explored talking to any further in-combat NPCs because the cost of failure is just too extreme. F&H heavily penalizes exploration and favors exploitation.


I called tails so I actually won't find anything


Overall, the gameplay just feels arbitrary. If there's a strategy to the fights, I wasn't afforded the freedom to discover it (too afraid of dying and watching the unskippable intro again). The stealth system doesn't add much as enemies spot the player from out of sight, and I only managed to once or twice escape after being spotted. To drive this point home, F&H even features a visual onscreen coinflip. Call it right, and find critical loot, evade the guard, etc. Call it wrong, and find squantus, get oneshot by the guard, etc.


Themes

"Theme" seems like something dumb to call this section, like trying to look for the "moral," but the way the game is marketed doesn't shy away from posing moral questions. The gamepage seems to present at least two. First, the question of what is or is not suitable to depict in a game. It sounds pretty edgelordy, but I didn't get much of this feeling in the game itself, and was pleasantly surprised.


The exceptions... gratuitous??


There was also another question presented -- what is or is not acceptable to do to survive? This is a little more interesting but almost self-defeating within the first few minutes of the game, by two elements. First, the prison guards that try to actively murder the player. Killing them is a matter of self-defense, not morality. Second, without any exposition, it appears that The Mercenary voluntarily arrived at the Dungeons of Fear Hunger. Combined with lore admonishing the player to "turn back now" and so on, it seems like a choice to continue exploring the dungeons. There is no escape or survival element, instead, the dungeons feel like a tribulation. What am I trying to prove by putting myself through this hell?

There was only one time I actually stopped to consider the implication of any in-game decision. At a certain point in the game, the player finds a magic circle. With the second character, The Girl, in tow, the player is asked to perform an "act of sacrifice" or an "act of love" to obtain favors from the old gods, or walk away with the girl unharmed.



The first time at this choice, I did nothing. Fine. I'll try to win without killing/raping people I rescue from a cage, thanks. Then I died to a prison guard and figured I needed an edge in combat to get anywhere and this was going to be one of "those" games where power comes at the cost of moral taint. Okay, fine. I sacrificed the girl. The screen went dark, she's beheaded, and Gro-Goroth granted me a virtual ohko-ing "Hurt" skill. After depleting my MP using Hurt once and then dying, twenty minutes later, I found the magic circle again, and casually chose the second option, "act of love." After a confirmation, the message simply said "No." And I was presented with game over.

That's probably the moment that's stuck with me the most after playing through the game maybe a week before writing this review. I couldn't get why the game would reward the player for killing her but punish the player for attempting sex with her. At first I thought F&H must have some inbuilt if questionable moral system -- they're both abhorrent acts, but F&H only wants to encourage a *certain kind* of abhorrentness. I did go back and question what exactly made me think it was permissible to take that second option, and it's probably the old explore/exploit question -- the skill from option #1 wasn't actually that great, so I chose option #2 in the sense of "I went left last time, this time I'll go right." Replaying the game so many times and freeing the girl from the cage so many times did a lot to cheapen her life. When I initially sacrified her, my thinking was that if this was the wrong decision, who cares, she'll be back in that cage in about five minutes when something else in turn murders me. That self reflection was probably the deepest thinking I got in this game, but it did stick.

But then after reexamining the gameplay, it became clear to me that outside of my reasoning behind making this decision, this whole sacrifice setup was just another cointoss. In F&H, punishment and reward are arbitrary, and life and death are arbitrary. Hell, the courtyard level consists of hanged men in one map and then an orgy in the next. What did the hanged men do differently from the revelers? There are bestial prison guards and ghoulish prisoners, but without context, no reason those roles couldn't be reversed. Maybe they failed a coinflip somewhere.


Moving forward...

F&H is just a demo at the moment. I'll probably remove the score when the final version is released, but at the moment it's hard to recommend. The game is a unique experience, which makes it a shame that it's so frustrating having to replay the intro so many times to actually access the stuff in the back. I'm sure I missed out on content because I ran out of patience with Level 1 and stopped engaging most NPCs or taking questionable dialog choices.


God I hope so


Was the demo successful? Well, it succeeded for me in painting a picture of a foul hellhole where life is capricious and death is up to fate. That's a compelling effect. Except it makes for a frustrating, ungameish game. There's dissonance between this master effect and the gameplay itself, no, but it's just not a good experience. Adding more content would just compound the problem -- adding just one more dungeon level would mean I have to spend twice as long replaying the rest of the game to get there. I haven't put much thought into what would improve the game per se, but it needs *something* altered in its core loop to make it actually fun and not an exercise. I really hope this game can find a synthesis with gameplay that is less aggravating but still supports its unique effect.

Posts

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Thank you for the review! Really appreciate it! I can totally understand the criticism here and many of the things mentioned here will be addressed. Few are already tweaked in the latest version of the teaser demo (like skippable intro, run command and making love with the girl for example)
Haha, I'm glad the intro was addressed. The girl I have no idea how I'd handle, though. I hear this game is a thesis of some sort? I'm interested how it's presented in an academic setting.
author=psy_wombats
Haha, I'm glad the intro was addressed. The girl I have no idea how I'd handle, though. I hear this game is a thesis of some sort? I'm interested how it's presented in an academic setting.

The girl thingy just doesn't end to a sudden game over now. It just says she is not willing.... <_< ... >_>"

The game was only a part of my thesis work, practical part to be more precise. (the thesis is divided between practical and theoretical works) I study graphic design - so I was looking into horror aesthetics and thematics, especially in video games. I threw in few dead baby jokes and pictures of the rape scene and called it a day.

nah, I'm actually pretty proud with all the theory I was able to come up with and learn from different books, etc. It's done now and I got fairly good feedback from it. I haven't gotten the grades yet for it though.
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