How Metroidvania is it? High Fit. While large sections of the game are story gated, there is a strong need to cover every section of the map that you can, otherwise you'll have a lot of difficulty
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~12 hours
Review Info: The Steam review code for Fearmonium was provided by the developer
Buy Fearmonium if you like…
- Psychological Allegory
- Familiar Gameplay
- Secret Hunting
- Emotional Stories
▼ Review continues below ▼
In Fearmonium you play as a phobia of clowns inside the mind of a young teenager named Max. Max’s depression, depicted as a nude woman in a bathtub full of Max’s tears, tasks you with taking down all of Max’s other fears so that you can act as Max’s sole fear, leaving him in a non-functioning and awful state. As expected the story is ultimately about exploring Max as a character, as you get to see all of his wishes and anxieties depicted as literal objects in the world of his mind. Even though the concept of playing as a phobia is wholly original, Fearmonium is ironically very predictable. The story has its twists that may be a little surprising, but it plays out exactly as you might expect. The gameplay includes a variety of minigames to play along the way, but aside from those instances, Fearmonium fails to offer anything particularly novel. In an environment with over a thousand Metroidvania options available, novelty does start to become important, but then again falling back to something familiar can be comforting, especially if the familiar thing is still quite good. Fearmonium has very few major flaws, but it also doesn’t stray too far from its winning formula. Nevertheless, the story does provide a lot to think about, and if you’re in a state where the lack of novelty doesn’t induce boredom, it’s very likely that you’ll come out of your experience with Fearmonium with a more positive outlook on life than when you went into it.
The core feature of Fearmonium’s gameplay is the combat. Your main tool throughout the game is a hammer that you use to thwap enemies at close range, and besides getting some number increases to the damage you deal, the hammer doesn’t change much at all. Compared to Fearmonium’s major competitors, the hammer also feels a bit loose due to a lack of audio and visual feedback from when you hit things. Collision never seemed as precise as I wanted it to feel. The hammer feels more like I was sweeping at enemies like they were sand on my kitchen floor rather than hammering them down like a piece of oversized garbage that wouldn’t otherwise fit through my door. The visceral feeling of taking down foes thus becomes more like a table top roleplaying experience rather than a crunchy action game. It’s not necessarily bad, just not what I would prefer it to be especially given the context within the theming. Bosses are very well designed with interesting patterns and diverse challenges, but besides one notable exception there could have been more done with the presentation to make them truly memorable. There is one boss that uses attacks that sync with the music that’s actually kind of great, but all of the other bosses sort of fall into the category of “just pretty good”.
Besides your hammer you also have quite a variety of different items and stamina-based spells you can add to your strategy, and a lot of late bosses practically require you to make the items your main form of attack. Using the hammer requires you to get close, which is exactly where a lot of bosses like to do their most damage. One of the first items you’ll find is a firework rocket that lets you hit targets from an almost infinite range, and in spite of the cost of buying more rockets I found myself using them absolutely everywhere thanks to that range advantage. For the last four or six bosses I simply looked for a nice hole in their attack pattern and nested myself firmly in that trench, only popping out to take advantage of openings with whatever weird sub weapon hit the target the easiest. Thanks to a cooldown imposed on using any item, this method was a bit slow, but it was nice and safe. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m saying that there are exploitative blind spots in these boss patterns – quite the contrary. There’s rarely a completely safe spot on any screen. What I am saying is that even though rapid hits from your hammer will deal more damage per second than your other options, using a ranged strategy keeps your healthbar much safer, especially when you find the stamina ability that blocks attacks outright. The final boss especially has a frustrating amount of HP, which takes a while to whittle down even when you’ve collected all of the damage upgrades. Face tanking that boss’ attacks and trying to rely on purchased healing items will only get you to about the halfway point of that health bar. The whole fight can take several minutes even when you’re optimally applying damage, so figuring out how to use attrition instead of aggression is likely the best strategy unless you’ve really memorized exactly what that boss will do next. Again, there are some great bosses in this game, but there are also a lot of really tiresome ones. In summary, the combat is well-designed on paper, but lack of visceral elements and pattern designs that truly compliment your toolset make it so Fearmonium’s combat ends up being still good, but not great. If Fearmonium was all combat then the lack of novelty would surely make it a grating experience in the long run, but thankfully there are other activities that at their worst at least break up the pacing.
The most natural activity besides the combat is the platforming and a few puzzles to compliment it. Your character doesn’t fall particularly fast, so once you get the air dash ability you’re often asked to shoot yourself through narrow corridors of spikes, or participate in whatever local gimmick exists in the area while taking as little damage as possible. Included in these gimmicks are puzzles where you usually have a cliff that you just barely can’t reach, and you need to push a block into position to jump off of it to progress. The difficulty curve for these puzzles is very well thought out, and there is some clever use of exploiting the respawn rules to accomplish your goals that make these puzzles particularly engaging. While neither are very difficult, both the platforming and puzzle content provide a welcome change of pace from the activity of simply sweeping up enemies.
Where Fearmonium gets the most dull is with its other variety content. Just about every zone has some vehicle section or other alternative game activity that you’re forced to sit through if you want to see everything the game has to offer. The most boring example of one of these sections is where you have to ride on the head of a decapitated clown down a river and dodge paper boats along the way. There are only two paths that your clown head raft can take, so essentially you just slowly push up or down when the game prompts you to until the section is over. There are also a couple of minecart sections that the mere mention of which likely summon some level of notoriety due to their misuse in other games. The best thing I can say about the minecart sections in Fearmonium is that they’re short and therefore forgettable – unless you want to grab the two mask collectables hidden in them, then they are just as aggravating as they ever are. Those collectables, as usual, force you to play the entire section over again until you successfully grab the item, and then you still have to play the rest of the section to get out. There are a few times these variety sections require you to repeat them just so you can explore what lies beyond them, and not really enjoying what they had to offer in the first place, this requirement gets a red mark from me. These sections are easy enough to be forgettable though, so I don’t think that they ruin the experience. I just question whether the change of pace is worth it when the game might have been improved if those sections were simply cut.
The egregious aspect of the variety sections is that they stifle what is otherwise some fantastic map design. While Fearmonium can probably be divided into six distinct zones that you must tackle in sequence, this structure is well disguised by giving the player a ton of optional places to explore. Just about everything you can find in Max’s mind can help you in a significant way, not the least of which being the aforementioned damage upgrades that improve the damage of all of your tools. Besides items and abilities you can also find passives that provide minor benefits, including some that change what strategies you can use. My favorite one for most of the game was a passive that gives a significant damage boost after using a stamina ability for the first time. This helped me pay close attention to my stamina management and felt great as a one-two punch against stronger enemies. Later in the game I felt that the passive’s benefits were marginal given how much I was keeping my stamina below the max, but it did help to train me on managing my stamina for other strategies. While most of Fearmonium’s exploration provides the usual bonuses to damage and HP, there are enough of these game changing tools to keep the act of exploration feeling fresh. There’s also enough variety in the platforming and level gimmicks to make simply playing the game worthwhile even if there were no rewards involved. By default the game never tells you exactly where you need to go next, so sometimes when you’re just looking for secrets you’ll accidentally find progress, and this feels just as good. The lack of handholding does become a bit problematic later on when your map is huge enough that it’s hard to spot the small doors where you haven’t been yet, but Fearmonium also provides a hint vendor so you don’t necessarily have to resort to looking at a guide to avoid the tedium of checking everywhere over and over. The developer Redblack Spade has a proven track record of providing meaningful Metroidvania exploration from their previous game Catmaze, and while Fearmonium feels just a bit more formulaic, the those level design talents still shine through quite nicely.
Something that Fearmonium lacks compared to Catmaze though is complete cohesion with its thematic elements. Catmaze was a whimsical fantasy adventure exploring Slavic mythology in a beautiful pixel art world. Fearmonium is much darker and by nature more depressing, making the immersive elements more oppressive than comforting, which is an ironic contrast with how familiar the gameplay is. It ultimately pays off thanks to the cutscenes depicting what’s happening in Max’s life, but I feel the “show don’t tell” elements of the game could have been executed a lot better. Everything you fight and all of the areas you explore are related to what’s happening in Max’s life, but the metaphor is a bit too straight forward, and as a result the ludonarrative feels distinctly separate from Max’s life story. Frankly I don’t have any good recommendations on how the narrative could have better been depicted given the game’s production values, but the setting and theming just begs for more to be done with it. If Fearmonium could have had voice acting and maybe an active feeling that Max is moving around in the real world while you are playing the game, the gameplay elements could have had as much narrative impact as the cutscenes. There could have been more Silent Hill-esque psychological symbolism on display with the game’s monsters, but instead you’re simply told by a recurring NPC what part of Max’s psyche you’re dealing with. There’s still enough here that if you like reading into things you can apply your own meaning to the game, which thanks to tasteful sexual imagery and other more universally relatable anxieties relating to high school life I certainly had a lot of fun with that myself. Fearmonium just could have been a lot stronger overall with the combination of its gameplay and narrative elements. With that criticism aside, the story Fearmonium does present is great, and I think that anyone who has dealt with abuse or depression of any kind can find hope from the messages provided by this game.
Fearmonium is a bizarre specimen when it comes to recommending it to people. It purposefully contrasts some really dark and heavy material with some positive messages, but the result is that for most of the game you might find yourself in as dark a place as Max is. This is an accomplishment from a storytelling standpoint, but its more familiar and predictable gameplay might fail to drive you past the more depressing parts of the story. “Comfort food” gameplay worked a little bit better in Catmaze where the entire game was a fantasy escape, while Fearmonium is literally about the darkest aspects of escapism in general. The payoff for Fearmonium’s depressing theming is worth it in the end however, and I don’t think the gameplay is vanilla enough that veteran players will be so bored with it that they’ll unable to finish it. Expect a fairly standard Metroidvania wrapped up in a great story, and I think you can have a great time with Fearmonium.
The short ranged basic attack is pretty inadequate by the end game and some of the late bosses have a bit too much HP. However, boss patterns are well done and the subweapons make up for the weaknesses of melee
Platforming challenges are generally pretty straight forward with a slow enough pacing to lack any significant challenge, with a few exceptions for some late game secrets
The map is quite robust with a ton of rewards that are almost necessary to avoid frustration, although it can be just a little bit predictable and there isn't much to find in terms of story secrets
Fearmonium includes a bunch of block pushing puzzles that are engaging, but not particularly complex
It's a bit disappointing that the ludonarrative is a bit hamfisted with its connection to the overall story, but the narrative nevertheless pulls off a more than satisfying conclusion
The oldschool cartoon aesthetic fits the narrative nicely, with some great spooky enemies to encounter
The jazzy music can be haunting and whimsical when it needs to be, fitting the general aesthetic of the game perfectly
While the way bosses block off key abilities needed for progression forces a more linear sequence of bosses, the world is open enough that two playthroughs could look very different
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