Reviewed: February 22, 2004
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
There are two types of terror in today’s movies and games. There is the cheap thrill of a screeching black cat leaping out of the dumpster, usually enhanced with a loud hit from the soundtrack, and there is the subtle psychological terror that is created with a carefully crafted blend of visuals, sounds, and an engaging story that turns the process of scaring someone into an art form.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly falls into the latter category, and despite the Roman numeral that would have you thinking this was a sequel; Crimson Butterfly is actually a fictional prequel, set 30 years prior to the events of the original game. This chilling game delivers an engrossing story dealing with an entire village that has vanished and the origins of the Camera Obscura, and it is enhanced with some of the scariest visuals and sounds ever seen or heard on the PS2.
People who have seen or played either of the Fatal Frame games will undoubtedly make comparisons to the Resident Evil series of games, but those games relied on “shock moments” to generate much of the fear and tension. Fatal Frame is all about atmosphere, putting you in a creepy ghost village that oozes so much evil that it drips from your TV screen. Traditional scary music is replaced by long periods of silence that are broken with ambient supernatural noises that will send you running for the nearest light switch.
Crimson Butterfly is not for the feint of heart. I joked about how the first game should have had a warning on the box and they actually put one on this game – yes, it’s that scary. I’m a veteran of just about every horror movie and game ever made and I don’t scare easily, but this game managed to subtly work its way into my psyche and truly scare me, not just in random moments, but for prolonged periods of uncomfortable fear.
Our story begins with twin sisters Mio and Mayu relaxing in a forest by a stream. A crimson butterfly flutters past the girls and Mayu becomes strangely entranced and follows it deep into the woods. Presto-change-o, its nighttime and the girls are on a hill overlooking an abandoned village, a village that mysteriously vanished on the eve of a special festival. Legend has it that this village is cast in perpetual darkness and anyone who enters will be vanquished to the spirit realm.
Crimson Butterfly doesn’t try to improve on the existing formula that made the original game so much fun, but it does manage to offer a much larger world to explore, clever puzzles, and an improved camera combat system. The Camera Obscura is the main hook of this game and one of the things that sets this title apart from anything else in the survival horror genre.
The camera has certain abilities to detect paranormal activities. It allows you to see things that aren’t visible to the naked eye, but it also allows you to see the ghosts that wander the mansion. But perhaps the most useful function of the camera is its ability to drain the supernatural energy from these entities by snapping their picture.
The process of taking a picture can be quite frightening. You might catch a movement out of the corner of your eye or a unique camera angle of “nothing” may give you cause to scan the area with your viewfinder. Looking through the viewfinder may reveal a hidden door or concealed object, but more often than not it will reveal a terrifying ghost bearing down on you. You must align the circle in the viewfinder on the ghost and let the camera charge up before snapping the picture. The longer the charge the more energy you can drain from the spirit. If you are lucky you can dispel the entity with one or two pictures.
You can also upgrade your camera with new lenses that slow down these spirits, display their hit points, and the wide-angle lens allows you to capture more of an area in your viewfinder. You have different types of film you can load in your camera and there are all sorts of special abilities you can unlock by earning points for taking quality pictures. Since the camera is pretty much your only defense against the enemies in this game the entire concept of combat takes on a supernatural twist that sets it far apart from the loads of weapons found in those other horror games.
There is a good deal of exploration and puzzle solving in Crimson Butterfly. You will find objects that trigger visual clues to the location of other items and places to explore. There are many more puzzles in this game than the original, which not only give the game greater depth and lengthier gameplay, but it balances out what was previously a game skewed toward combat in the form of picture taking.
The controls are fairly intuitive and my only real complaint was the movement speed for the girls. Even when they are running it is more of a fast walk. I suppose this keeps the game’s pace at a more “sinister” level. After all, if you can sprint from danger whenever you like what is the thrill. The movement is relational to the camera system, which is purposely designed to give you very cinematic and often eerie shots of the environments.
You can’t have a scary game without scary graphics and Crimson Butterfly delivers some of the creepiest visuals seen to date on the PS2. The amazing use of light and shadow is unparallel on the PS2 and nearly approaches the quality of the Xbox. The game is perpetually dark, which means that all of the real-time lighting, flickering torches, moonlight, etc. cast real-time shadows creating a very dynamic and often terrifying atmosphere.
Camera work is outstanding and used for maximum fear effect. Often the view of a room appears to be from some unseen observer and other times it just looks like a professional cinematographer is placing the cameras. You can walk through the same room multiple times and see it from a new perspective each time. Creepy stuff! Since backtracking through previous areas is often required to solve some puzzles these new camera angles keep the game fresh and new.
The animation is quite good, limited only by the design of the game. The twins have minimal movements but the ones they have are totally realistic. The ghosts steal the show, each with their own unique style of movement that ranges from floating through the air to stiff-jointed lumbering apparitions. These aren’t the cute guys from Ghost Busters. They are creepy, evil and deadly.
The cutscenes are even more horrific than the original and feature a sepia tone visual design and sometimes even shift into a jolting black and white scene or flashback to emphasize some haunting detail. Often, these movies are sprung upon the viewer with no warning like a shocking realization or memory from the past. They are so tightly integrated into the story and the gameplay that the entire game becomes an interactive movie with you as the star.
When the music stops the true terror begins. Once again, Tecmo is relying on their proprietary sound system, ARNIS that supposedly rivals the richness of Dolby 5.1, even if you are playing on a stereo TV. While I didn’t actually play this game on a stereo TV to prove their claim, I can attest that Crimson Butterfly sounded just as good as any other true Dolby Digital or DPL2 game on my 5.1 home theater rig. There was great separation and chilling effects where chants and whispers seem to come from the very walls of my game room.
From the moment you take control you are encompassed in terrifying sounds, disembodied moans, groans, screams, and all the traditional sounds like rattles and banging you would expect to hear in a haunted house. Much of the terror is found in the multiple layers of sound that combine to create the desired effect, which is always fear. Ghostly voices have a hollow quality appropriate to their visual style and their supernatural screams as they lunge toward the camera will instill fear into the bravest heart.
The sound designers use a clever trick of assigning certain patterns of sound and music to certain events in the game. The thumping heartbeat will quickly become associated with nearby danger, but just about the time you start to use these sounds to predict what’s coming around that dark corner the designers change things up on you. It’s certainly not a new trick in the horror genre, but it continues to work even in game design.
Survival horror games are characteristically short, and once you see the ending credits, you seldom have little motivation to play it again. Crimson Butterfly breaks these bonds by offering multiple endings, alternate costumes and an RPG-like experience system so you can tweak the game differently each time you play.
The game is also substantially longer than the first, clocking in at around 20 hours. Taken in short doses, this title should be scaring you for at least a week of solid gaming. There are three levels of difficulty that you can select when starting a new game. These mainly pertain to the ghostly challenges of camera combat, but will certainly offer a more rewarding experience at the harder level.
With a new Silent Hill game just around the corner this is a great time to be a horror fan and a PS2 owner. Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is just as scary as any of the games in Konami’s series and easily surpasses Capcom’s Resident Evil games.
Tecmo has managed to carve out their own unique niche of psychological terror and deliver a stunning achievement in interactive survival horror that will keep you glued to your TV from the very first snap of the camera. Crimson Butterfly is a wonderful achievement in storytelling, an experiment in horror if you will, that no “scary movie” fan or gamer should miss.