Ever wanted to deliver upon the masses the ultimate terror from urban legends, myths and conspiracies? Well, want no more. The Fabulous Fear Machine is here, chock full of terrifying legends and monstrous delights to subject the unwitting world to. Wrapped up in a gloriously bright pulp horror art style and with a series of stories warning of the depths of human sin, perhaps this machine is worth your coin.
It’s a delightful setup, drawing on a host of inspirations and tapping into a wealth of old wives’ tales to deliver a strategy game with a unique persona. Does the machine hold up to scrutiny or will it sell your soul out from under you? Push the coin in and take the controls, if you dare.
The Fabulous Fear Machine will have you taking control of the animatronic, mystical entity machine across three campaigns. In each, you’ll be tasked with bringing one of three rather sinister characters to their ultimate goal. The first, a hell-bent scientist who wants to create the ultimate virus with the only patented vaccine. The second, a nervous, goofy buffoon who needs unlimited pills. The third, a religious zealot determined to bring about the holiest of Godly ascensions (read: a death cult).
Story and characters are delivered in a charismatic and delightful way – through the medium of a comic book. Making your way through the levels, you’ll fill in their stories, learning of their history and their ambitions. Spoiler alert, they’re pretty bad people, who knew? The titular machine will frequently mock them, hinting at their hubris or debased desires, which is always fun.
The comic panels are rendered slickly and they look great. I often took a bit of time to appreciate the details and the dialogue is handled surprisingly well. As you might expect, the overall narrative is a bit predictable, but the inspirations and execution are delivered with aplomb. Plus, paying attention to contextual events in-game will also reward you, as you’ll have a better grasp of what’s happening.
I didn’t expect much of a story at all from The Fabulous Fear Machine but what it has it delivers in spades.
Fake News and Tall Tales
Upon selecting your evil-minded maniac, you’ll begin the process of converting the population to your cause. Naturally, you achieve this through rational thought, articulate argument and respectful debate. I’m joking, obviously. You’ll be spinning more conspiracy theories than a tinfoil hat convention and delivering your message as pleasantly as a nail in the toe.
Starting out, you’ll need to deliver your “messages” – splendid fake news stories to corral the populace into a frenzy. Some messages will have certain requirements, such as a necessary level of fear, or will need to be placed in certain regions to meet a headquarters requirement. The strategy starts immediately, as you tinker with which messages to place where, planning your course of evil destruction.
After planting your… seed… (I know, stop it), fear will begin creeping across the nation. The Fabulous Fear Machine is then all about using four categories of legends to spread that fear far and wide. Each legend will build up their corresponding fear complex, though you need Orleum (fuel) to place them. You also need space in cities and essences to plant and upgrade them.
It’s a cool system, one which stumped me a couple of times as I placed the wrong legend in a region, which meant I couldn’t spread my message properly. Each legend has a card with multiple layers shown with each upgrade. They’re lovingly, and horrifically, artistic and they all reference some kind of mythical terror. From Slenderman to UFOs to plagues of frogs, The Fabulous Fear Machine has it all.
Fuel For The Nightmare
In order to send your urban nightmares across the lands, you’ll be mining more Orleum than a Gulf state. Placing legends, exploring areas of cities and completing activities all requires the oily stuff. As a mission ticks on, your Orleum supplies will become increasingly drained, which you can only replenish through refineries and expending essences to boost output.
Quite seamlessly, this simple mechanic adds a natural time pressure, as running out of Orleum will end your quest for total evil. On a couple of missions, this did actually catch me out, as I failed to expand my fear early enough to get new refineries in (you’re only allowed one per city), meaning a straight restart. I found it a bit frustrating early on, but you’ll quickly learn how to be efficient when starting out.
Essences are the other commodity you’ll need to worry about. Unlocking cities provide slots to extract items (blood, politics and the like) which are used for upgrading legends and completing tasks. You’ll need virtually all of them during a mission, creating a rapid-fire dash to get enough slots to have access to them all.
Some of the essence requirements were a bit on the excessive side (16 pop essences?!) if I’m honest. However, the mix of essences, Orleum and handling rivals when you only have two agents available creates The Fabulous Fear Machine’s core gameplay cycle. Time is effectively the most precious resource you have to spread terror and it’s very compelling.
Like a viral horror story, you only have a limited window before it disappears into obscurity.
Spy Me A River
Unlike in most games or movies, we’re not the good guys of the story. On the contrary, we’re the nerve-shredders and demon deliverers. Which also means, the good guys are out to stop your reign of fear, by any means necessary. During each level, one or two Rivals can appear, ranging from do-gooder politicians to mafia gangs.
Rivals will install their own cards to eradicate your influence, and if left unchecked, can assume control over an entire region. To neutralise them, your spies can infiltrate and dig up dirt from their history. These interactions have some element of RNG as they’ll be based on your spies’ stats. If it’s less than 100% chance, you can fail it and have to wait double the time if you re-attempt, which can be monstrous.
I really enjoyed the core premise of expanding while managing events and threats, however, it can become over-burdening at times. On one mission, I had multiple damaging events occur one after another while I was also handling a particularly nefarious Rival. I only had two agents and I needed multiple essences… and I was running out of Orleum.
In those moments, it felt like The Fabulous Fear Machine was stacking all the odds against me. Funnily enough, I worked out quite fast that if you prioritise Orleum and getting rid of a Rival, you can canter to a win regardless of your position. Most levels then boil down to a single strategy – expand as fast as possible in the early game, hoover Orleum and wipe out the Rival, then chill as you build out fear – leaving things feeling a bit one-note.
Fabulous Pulp Style
As you can probably observe from the screenshots thus far, The Fabulous Fear Machine has an awesome pulp aesthetic that permeates every inch of your monitor. The legends on each card are fantastically detailed and seeing each progress to new stills was always exciting. Gleefully watching on as your purple fear creeps over the world is manically satisfying and Fictiorama Games absolutely smashed the unique style of the game.
This extends to the audio cues, with dramatic piano drops and lung-busting screams flying out at all times. There’s a perfect balance between a cartoony and vibrant colour scheme with the unnerving pictures of a night-time ritual or hailing bloody Mary. It’s all achieved with such a charming appeal, I couldn’t help but just lap it up.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is a visual splendor to play, as a result. Animations are smooth and the interface, while slightly on the more cluttered side and a bit clunky in terms of moving the camera, works effectively. My only real gripe was a comically vague and unexplained objective which stalled my progress for a good 30 minutes, and can lead to a soft-lock state requiring an entire mission restart.
Hopefully that can be ironed out with a patch or in-game manual entry that explains it a bit more. Otherwise, the game ran superbly and I spent a lot of my playtime gorging on the bloody and inventive legend stills. Did I mention you get bonus fear for matching a label term with the myth correctly each time you level the legend up? This game is just entertaining, for real.
Insert Coin To Continue
The Fabulous Fear Machine surprised me with its wonderful art style and engaging time management strategy gameplay. It took me roughly 7-8 hours to beat all three available campaigns on Normal difficulty (no higher settings, sadly). However, I hadn’t filled out the in-game collectable list of legends or usable cards.
There’s not a whole lot of replayability value, simply owing to how there’s only one way to really play and no branching paths, for example. Yet, I still find myself compelled to recommend it. Not every game needs to have dozens of campaigns or hundreds of hours of content to be a good time. The Fabulous Fear Machine is a fun game that’ll last a weekend or a few sittings, which feels about right.
I found so much to appreciate in its deliciously bloodthirsty attention to detail and its use of urban legends to create a compelling outbreak simulator, similar to Plague Inc. It’s also one of the more unique and creative games I’ve played this year. In a year of blockbuster hits it’s – miraculously – managed to stand out and differentiate itself from almost everything else.
Be careful what you wish for though, The Fabulous Fear Machine will likely want something in return for the reward… Your soul of course.
Fictiorama Games have blended a wonderfully unique cocktail of pulp-horror aesthetics and charming yet brutal depictions of violent myths and legends. The strategy gameplay can become a little one-note and there are some teething issues even Dracula may cower at, but spreading the tale of Tall Man or inciting a conspiracy of UFOs never failed to entertain my sadistic mind.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is available October 4th on PC (review platform).
Developer: Fictiorama Studios
Publisher: AMC Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.