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The Fabulous Fear Machine, out today, is a strategy game of engrossing evil

Who's up for some dastardly machinations?

A screenshot from the Fabulous Fear Machine, showing a story interlude in which characters debate whether certain medical symptoms are the result of demonic possession or epilepsy.
Image credit: AMC Games

Many are the horror games that haunt the dark, but it takes a real gift for creepy-crawlies to pull off a horror game that's set in the light. I'm not sure The Fabulous Fear Machine - devised by Fictiorama Studios in partnership with AMC and Shudder - is quite that horrifying, but it's certainly chewing on my nerve endings in an engrossing way.

It's a top-down management sim, which might not sound very scary, but just look at those colours - irradiated and unwholesome shades of purple and yellow, spreading over chunky, HyperCard continents emblazoned with pulp comic fonts. The visuals wear away at you like the stink of hydrochloric acid. And then there's that red-eyed, turbaned figure, gazing at you in top left. This is the face of the Fabulous Fear Machine. Its offer: to enable your character's world-toppling ambitions. Its price: that your story will become part of its story. The game is out today, and I've got some thoughts ahead of a possible review.

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The Fabulous Fear Machine is a table-top-style espionage-driven experience based around maddening the population of each region so as to bring about an overall objective, like persuading voters to hand over a country's healthcare to your character's sinister pharmaceutical corporation. What an exotic idea!

Care of the Machine, you can dispatch agents to cities so as to extract various psychosocial energies by instigating awful rumours, like "all the lamp posts on my street are secretly Thin Men who want to eat my pancreas" (this scenario is my invention, but it's absolutely representative of the writing in-game). Do so with cunning and patience, and you'll nurture a Fear seed representing the public mood swing you're trying to bring about, slowly flooding each region with hysteria.

I have to confess, I'm trading on my fading memories of this summer's demo here, prior to firing up the aforesaid review code - I'm shaky on the fine details. But suffice to say this is a strategy game in which victory comes by way of a terrible osmosis, rather than by means of units and open conflict.

You do have to worry about filthy do-gooders and rival villains, mind you, who may seed opposing ideas and strive to wrest the population from your control. You can have your agents dig up their dirty laundry to dispel their influence, but you'll need to start that process early in each chapter to reap the benefits, and it's always tempting to just focus on transmitting your own, vile message instead.

A screenshot of the Fabulous Fear Machine, showing the player trying to seed mass hysteria in western Europe.
Image credit: AMC

There are also mini-story interludes where you have to steer the media narrative around a particular incident or rumour, by deciding which descriptive text to apply. How should you describe the smell of some poisoned water, for example, to ensure the maximum panic? Yeah, this probably isn't one for the Cosy Gaming crowd.

I'll have more thoughts in a bit. It does feel like it has a shot at making our list of the best strategy games, or even our list of the best horror games, but I'm overly partial to the macabre. If I have a criticism right now, it's that as with the production/upgrading phases of 4X games, you'll often have to twiddle your thumbs while certain grim plots reach fruition. Speaking of grim plots, if you've read this far you might also dig World of Horror.

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