Cel-shading before cel-shading was cool. Multiple, amoral protagonists. A mishmash of survival horror, puzzle solving, and plot-driven third person shooter.
I'm talking about Fear Effect for the PSOne, of course -- a game which, while it sold well enough to warrant a sequel and a half at the time of its release, has been more or less neglected as all last-last-generation, quasi-classics are wont to do. It's too new to be retro, and too old to be relevant.
That doesn't mean it can't kick six different kinds of ass, though.
Fear Effect subscribes to the "start small, realistic, and interesting before getting loud, stupid, and supernatural" school of videogame narrative.
Initially, the story follows three protagonists (Hana Tsu Vachel, Royce Glas, Deke DeCourt) as they cooperatively track down and recover the missing daughter of a powerful Chinese businessman. Throughout the first half of the game, the three mercenaries sneak and shoot their way through futuristic China; they sneak around brothels, back alleys, and train stations, and things remain more or less believable as far as crime-themed videogames go.
Then a gateway to hell opens.
Evidently, the businessman's missing daughter had something to do with Hell and Chinese mythology, and Hana's close friend Jin actually turns out to be the King of Hell, and zombies come out of the ground and there's a lot of fire and blah blah blah.
Still, the writing and characterization stay pretty good even when the story gets goofy, and the protagonists are as amoral as one would expect money-grubbing mercenaries to be.
Fear Effect controls exactly like the old Resident Evil games -- this is, admittedly, its biggest flaw. Turning takes an hour, and aiming is far trickier than it ought to be. Still, this antiquated control scheme was a necessity for the game's level design and visual layout -- every single screen is basically one huge, beautifully animated full-motion video, drawn with cel-shading before cel-shading was even remotely cool. Again, as was the case with Resident Evil, the crappy control scheme is almost made up for by the groovy camera angles and clever virtual cinematography.
Control squabbles aside, however, Fear Effect is a solid experience. The game's locales are jam-packed with story-driven action and puzzles. Additionally, nearly every gunfight and exploration sequence is topped off by a groovy little minigame: after blowing your way past some Triad guards, the player will suddenly be forced to disarm a bomb within a certain amount of time, or reroute power through a fusebox. Each puzzle has its own internal logic (you will die the first four times you attempt the bomb disposal puzzle), but they all eventually make sense and a few -- like, say, the times when the player needs to sneak past a bunch of sushi chefs or walk across a weakened glass rooftop -- rely just as much on timing and quick reflexes as they do out-and-out Rubix cube skills. Where these puzzles might seem forced and arduous in other videogames (again, Resident f*cking Evil comes to mind), they actually fit pretty damn well into Fear Effect's flow and give some much-needed variety to what would have otherwise been a straightforward shootemup.
Also, at the risk of spoiling a nearly decade-old game, I also have to point out something really cool about the way Fear Effect mixes gameplay and storytelling: specifically, the ending. Right before the final boss fight, the two remaining heroes (Hana and Glas) pull their guns on one another and the player has to choose who kills whom (and therefore, who gets to fight which version of the final boss). If you played on a hard difficulty level, you could cop out and choose a super-duper happy ending where both put down their guns and beat Satan together, but the normal difficulty ending choice was a hell of a lot more interesting.
Glas and Hana get separated about halfway through the game, but the player still gets to separately control each hero throughout their own subplots; as such, the player cares about both of them by the time the final choice rolls around. Upon my first playthrough, I chose Glas (I cannot, when it comes right down to it, put aside my misogynistic tendencies), but it wasn't an easy decision to make.
Why you probably haven't played it:
There's a decent chance you did play it when it first came out, but -- and considering the hormonal, sex-starved nature of videogaming culture at large, this shouldn't be that big of a surprise -- the first Fear Effect game was eventually altogether forgotten in favor of its narrative prequel, Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix. Instead of remembering Hana, Glas, Deke, and a supernatural crime story, gamers remember the absurd lesbian relationship between Hana and Whatsherface in Retro Helix, and the "WTF"-inducing robot spider quasi-rape scene. Typing "Fear Effect" into Google gets more pictures of the (disappointing) sequel and its buxom, bicurious protagonists than any screenshots from the first, best game. Still, it sold well enough to warrant a prequel and a (sadly canceled) PS2 sequel, Inferno.
And if I can digress for a minute, I have no idea why the game is called Fear Effect. I mean, yeah, it shares the controls, combat, and puzzle-centric gameplay of the Resident Evil series, but it's not really a horror game. Some of it takes place in hell, but it never even tries to be scary; it's just a crime story with zombies and demons thrown in.
Either way, I'd suggest checking it out. It averages at about $10 on eBay, and only costs 100 Goozex points. Fear Effect won't blow you away, but it's got solid characterization, a half-interesting narrative, and diverse gameplay.