Reviewed: January 31, 2003
Reviewed by: Bertrand Lemon
The back of the box for Fatal Frame proudly exclaims that it’s the “scariest game ever”, and after reading that, I felt like it was important to test it. Like most survival horror veterans, I’ve seen more than my fair share of horror movies, and the first two or three years worth of horror games, so I was feeling pretty desensitized to the whole idea. I was not one to be shaken. I would laugh at this game’s puny efforts to disturb me, but I wanted to be fair, and give it every opportunity to do so.
So I set my rules in place. I would only play this game after 10pm, and while playing the game, I would never allow music or any other distractions to take away from the experience. What’s more, the only source of light that I would allow (other than the television) would be a candle, illuminating a notepad in which I would write things as they came to me. Here’s some excerpts, in no particular order.
“it’s so cold my bedroom”
As this should attest to, this game did a terrific job of messing with my mind. The first five hours of gameplay had me seriously reconsidering my rules for playing it. I doubt it was coincidental that I happened to leave my cigarettes in the other room so often, requiring me to take a couple unexpected breaks from the game.
The story seems a little convoluted on paper, but essentially what you have is a washed-up horror novelist making a trip along with two others, into an “abandoned” mansion surrounded by intrigue and many hushed gruesome stories, which he hopes will make good fodder for his next book. All three disappear. They are then followed by the novelist’s protégé (who you briefly play as, in an impressive prologue sequence), who also disappears.
Enter: your character, Miku, who also ventures into that death trap called a mansion, trying to find the last person on that roster, her brother Mafuyu. Miku has the paranormal ability to see ghosts, and can use her camera to dispel them, if only for a while.
This game, in a word, is divisive. Everything has been set up to further along the unsettling experience you have playing it, and that goes right down to the fundamentals of the game.
If you know anything about Fatal Frame, you know about the hook – Miku has no weapons you’d expect her to have, just an antique camera, which is completely integral to the gameplay. Not only is this used to dispel aggressive ghosts, but also to solve puzzles, and build a scrapbook to unlock other features in the game. As foundation for the landscape, this is brilliant. Both of the Silent Hill games did a wonderful job of creating that feeling of paranoia and helplessness at first, but eventually you equip yourself with a fire axe and a shotgun, and you’re waiting for ‘em to sneak up on you for the thrill of it. But no matter what point you’re at in this game, you’re still a young girl with a camera, so you just can’t get that feeling of confidence.
But, from a video game standpoint, this whole camera business turns into a drawback. Catching wandering ghosts out of the corner of your eye and trying to shoot them before they disappear never ceases to be exciting, but using the camera as a weapon to vanquish aggressive ghosts get tiring really quick, especially as the difficulty level reaches a sudden spike. Prologue not included, the game is split up into four days.
The first two days have you bounding all over the mansion solving puzzles, occasionally bumping into to easily vanquished ghosts, and gaining more health items than you think you’ll ever need. Then, the next two days have almost a complete absence of health items, and an abundance of ghosts that can teleport behind you and kill you with a single hit. It’s something that almost mocks you with the inclusion of the “mirror stone”, an item that will completely replenish your health when it runs out, but you can only carry one. The first two levels have you stumbling upon dozens of these, which you don’t pick up because you already have one, then suddenly they aren’t around anymore. If you’re smart, you won’t get lulled into a false sense of security and were conservative with your items, but I found myself replaying one battle over and over again, without any health items or decent film, until I finally gave in and started the game over, and it’s not quite as gripping the second time around.
This same standard of form over function applies to other aspects of the game as well. The well planned camera angles work remarkably well to make you question what you’re looking at, but at times; it obscures things you’d actually like to be seeing. Fortunately, the problem that Resident Evil had with static camera angles making you walk the wrong way has been mostly fixed, except after opening doors.
As is the standard, clipping is a little blocky as well. Not only is navigation around fabric and 2 foot high surfaces impossible, but in some cases, you can’t get as near them as you should be able to. And stairs are to be carefully walked up or carefully walked down. They won’t have you moving freely on those. Still, it’s not a terrible problem, you’ll get where you need to go, and you’ll know instantly if you need to go somewhere or not based on you’re ability to do so.
Also true to form, you’ll have to do a certain amount of puzzle solving to make it through this game, the majority of which is accomplished by taking a picture of something in order to figure out what you need to do next. While I can see this process warranting some complaints for their simplicity, this feels like the best way to go about it. Keeping destinations close and aimless wandering to a minimum means the suspense stays taut in the vast mansion.
The real puzzle to this game however, is trying to figure out how it got a T rating. As you guide Miku through the Himuro mansion, you’ll deal with such concepts as “The Strangling Ritual”, in which a victim has his hands, feet and neck bound by five different ropes, which are then all pulled simultaneously until the victim is left dead and mangled. Or what’s worse – a charming little game of “Demon Tag”, a demented revisitation of “blind man’s bluff” with basically the same rules except that when you’re “it”, you are not blindfolded. Instead you’re fitted with a mask equipped with two stakes that gouge out your eyes. Charming, huh? None of this is simply hinted at either, in addition to watching your mother hang herself (and coming back to try to kill you later), you’re also privy to little montages of ghosts subjecting a woman to The Strangling Ritual, and another woman being forcibly secured with a mask for Demon Tag.
I distinctly remember watching one scene where Miku is witnessing a rather tasteless murder at the hands of the Himuro master and shouting “RATED T FOR TEEN!” Combine this with the fact that it managed to spook such a hardened fellow as myself, and this ESRB rating simply does not fit, especially after seeing the cartoonish violence that other games got a stronger rating for. If you’re a parent who doesn’t let your children play Mature-rated games, or the type of gamer who sneers at the T-rating, it would be in your best interest to just imagine an M on the box.
Graphics in this game are superb, winning so much favor with me not because of the technical aspect (facing facts - this isn’t pushing any boundaries on what the Playstation 2 hardware can do) but the artfulness in which all the graphics are conveyed. Standard view has the colors all distinct, but muted, using a palette that makes everything you see engaging and encompassing. Cutscenes use all the Photoshop filters we love so much, but not in a way to make it seem tawdry or gimmicky.
But the graphics truly shine when you’re looking through the camera lens. Walls, knick-knacks, and dilapidated environments are remarkably detailed up close, and any inadequacies the graphics engine might have are skillfully compensated by simulating the imperfections of an antique camera, and making your surroundings flux eerily.
You’re quite aware what they’re going for here, and it comes across. There’s a “less is more” philosophy happening, and it’s nice to have. Of course, you get the creepy sounds and creaky floors you’d expect to have from a haunted mansion, but you don’t get all the tacky disembodied voices so common in the genre.
That’s not to say there aren’t a couple of “shock moments” in the game, but they manage to keep this to a bare minimum. The addition of harmless wandering spirits means that when you hear a sound out of the ordinary, something is actually happening. Although I did get angry once when I heard a baby cry, simply because it’s something that all of these games stoop to, and it’s lost it’s effect at this point.
But the voice acting doesn’t live up to the standard set by the atmospheric noises. The voice of Miku is clearly trying to be whispery and faint, but it ends up coming off as sort of drug-addled. Likewise, the voices of the ghosts are about 50/50. While the psychotic rambling of some ghosts will give you chills, there’s just as many that simply try too hard, giving shrieks that will make you search for the mute button.
It’s an uphill battle to give any real long-term value to a game like this. Survival horror games are characteristically short, and once you see the ending credits, you have little motivation to play it again. Fatal Frame has this same problem, but I will give them credit for trying. There’s a number of different unlockables you can get for completing the game in certain ways, including two different modes of play, but both of these are quite frustrating and worse – not fun.
Nightmare mode means playing the game over again (keeping all the camera augmentations you had gained previously), but makes the ghosts twice as difficult to defeat. And while this certainly raises new challenges, discovering things you’ve already seen and getting into situations you’ve already been in gets a little tiresome.
Battle Mode forgoes the whole story, concentrating only on battling ghosts, while giving you a minimal amount of film that you can use. The problem here is that it focuses on the most frustrating part of the game, which is frankly not anything I wanted to relive any more than I have to.
I’m guessing that I clocked about 12 hours in this game, which is including my many failed reloads and grudging restart. I’ve played very little of the two bonus modes, and frankly – I don’t want to. But I will say of these 12 hours, there are 7 that I truly enjoyed. In short, I’m saying, “rent this”.
If you like the chills you got from playing a horror game, this one will do it better. It’s not really so much a video game as it is a six hour experience in terror, and it’s almost better to stop playing once you’re done just to keep that experience fresh in your mind.