Reviewed: December 21, 2005
Released: November 1, 2005
The Fatal Frame series has always ranked right up there with Silent Hill as one of the scariest game franchises on the PS2. Much of the terror is derived from pure atmosphere, but you have to admit, once you start looking down the viewfinder of that old camera and start busting ghosts from a first-person perceptive, it doesn’t get much scarier than that.
Fatal Frame III: The Tormented is the third installment in this heavily Japanese-influenced ghost-busting game that is so far removed from the original games that it could barely be called a sequel if it were for a few subtle story elements to tie things together.
You play Rei Kurosawa, a freelance photographer struggling with the death of her boyfriend who died in a car wreck while she was driving. This is only the prelude to a frightening adventure into a supernatural dream realm and a terrifying reality where her dead boyfriend starts showing up in pictures.
Kudos to Tecmo for refining the story process for this third installment. Anyone who played Crimson Butterfly is likely still trying to figure out that story – it was a mess. The Tormented features a very intriguing story that is surprisingly deep and manages to keep you in suspense from start to finish.
Little has changed in the way you play Fatal Frame III. The control scheme is rooted in the past making this game seem more retro than next-gen. If Resident Evil can go to true 3D it’s time Fatal Frame did the same. Movement is especially troubles and trying to get your character to stand in “just the right spot” to perform some action can be frustrating at times.
The interface is pretty much the same with the red/blue filament that indicates a hostile ghost or an object of interest. The camera HUD is loaded with info like health, spirit points, lens type, film type, exposures remaining, ghost HP, and more. Taking pictures is truly the most terrifying moments in the game as your peripheral vision is reduced to the lens in your camera and you are usually face-to-face with some hideous apparition.
There is still a minor RPG element included for the camera, and you are able to upgrade to new lenses, film type, and special attachments that add abilities. One of the more useful of these is the Escape attachment that lets you get out of a tricky combat situation. Without this it is quite easy to get stuck in the environment in first-person view while trying to line up your shot and get killed. Upgrades are handled through a point system that rewards you by snapping pictures. You can also save your favorite pictures to the photo album and share with your friends later.
Fatal Frame III mixes up the gameplay style by allowing you to play as three different characters. In addition to three very unique personalities, each character also has their own set of abilities that will come into play keeping the game fresh as you progress through the various chapters.
Despite being the main characters, Rei is only available for less than half the game, giving you a chance to explore characters like Kei Amakura who is able to jump over gaps and move large objects around that the other characters cannot. Miku is back from the previous game complete with nifty supernatural abilities and a wardrobe of killer costumes.
One new gameplay feature to come along this year is the addition of a parallel world, a dream world if you will that must be explored side-by-side with the real world. What’s most interesting is how closely these two worlds are tied together, and to advance in one world you will have to achieve some goal in the other. It’s handled really well, and soon you will be slipping between the conscious and nightmare realities like a pro.
Despite these obvious attempts to broaden the scope of the game there is never really anything in Fatal Frame III that breaks any new ground. There are plenty of chills and thrills and downright terrifying jump-off-the-couch-screaming moments, and the story is certainly the best in the series. As long as you aren’t looking for something new in survival horror, this game will certainly delight fans of the genre just out for a scary good time.
While I might have complained about the fixed camera angles as they relate to controls and movement, I have to hand it to the designers for creating some of the most stunning (and disturbing) camera work in the history of horror games. Each time you enter a room it is a new experiment in cinematography, camera placement, movement, and direction of the scene. A seemingly innocent room or situation can be made to be quite terrifying with a thoughtful camera position.
The technical quality of Fatal Frame III is outstanding and there is even support for progressive scan which gives everything a much sharper edge and reduces the troublesome flicker of past games. Oddly enough, there is no support for widescreen TV’s – something that inherently goes with progressive scan, but the game doesn’t look too distorted when you stretch it to fit a 16:9 aspect ratio.
The levels and environments in this game are by far the best in the series with some of the creepiest designs and more original concepts like the nightmare realm stealing the show. The ghosts are even more terrifying than before and being forced to fight them through a camera viewfinder remains one of the greatest ideas in video game history.
The characters are extremely well done this time around with great facial expressions, detailed models and some of the best fabric and cloth physics and costume design for any PS2 game this year. Lighting and shadows contribute greatly to the overall ambience and sense of dread each time you enter a new area.
Fatal Frame III has some sinister sound effects than range from uneasiness to truly terrifying. But even when this game is sounding its best it is still being held back by a true 3D surround mix. It’s a shame really, because this is a game that demands total immersion and sound if the perfect way to achiever that.
The environmental noises combine with the eerie music to create endless dread throughout the entire game. Even when nothing is going on you will be on the edge of your seat.
There is a good amount of voice acting and it is of surprisingly good quality. There are some technical issues with some of the dialogue and some of it has a reverb quality about it, even when spoken in areas that wouldn’t create such an echo.
There are an “unlucky” 13 chapters in Fatal Frame III that divide up the 24 missions. The game can easily last you 15-20 hours and with multiple endings, three playable characters, and multiple costumes, you have plenty of reasons to replay. There are even incentives to replay the entire game to obtain extra items.
I had a great time with Fatal Frame III despite the aging controls and unoriginal gameplay. The story has never been better, and I enjoyed the multiple characters and parallel game worlds. And even though the gameplay is much slower paced than The Suffering or Resident Evil, the graphics and sound combine to create a continuous sense of tension that is just as scary as anything else on the shelf.
Sadly, Fatal Frame III: The Tormented comes during a year when gamers are already burdened with an overabundance of titles that are trying to terrify us. And being the third game in the series, even dedicated ghost hunters are beginning to get a bit bored with the same old gameplay mechanics.
That doesn’t mean Fatal Frame III is any less scary, just a bit more predictable and not as original as it once was. And with plenty of competition that is just as frightening, if not more so, Tecmo is going to have to come up with something new to keep this series alive for any future installments.