Reviewed: December 26, 2002
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
There are two types of terror. There is the screeching cat leaping out of the dumpster scare and there is the subtle psychological terror that is created with a carefully crafted blend of visuals, sounds, and an engaging story. When that story is based on true events the potential for terror increases exponentially.
Fatal Frame falls into the latter category, rooted in a true story and enhanced with some of the scariest visuals and sounds ever seen on the Xbox. PS2 gamers have been playing this terrifying title since it released earlier this year, and now Tecmo has released a new and improved version using the power of the Xbox to create what is perhaps the scariest game of all time.
People who have seen or played Fatal Frame 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 puts you in a creepy mansion that oozes so much evil that it drips from your TV and your Xbox. Traditional scary music is replaced by long periods of silence that break with ambient noises that will send you running for the nearest light switch.
Fatal Frame is not for the feint of heart. In all honesty this game should have a warning on the box for people with heart trouble. 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.
Much of the fear of Fatal Frame is instilled through the game design. You play as Miku, a seemingly helpless Japanese girl stuck in a haunted mansion in search of her missing brother with a special camera as your only defense against the evil apparitions and other evil entities occupying the house. This camera 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 and 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 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 Fatal Frame. You will find objects that trigger visual clues to the location of other items and places to explore. One of the most terrifying pick-ups early in the game is a tape recorder that you can play to trigger a frightening cutscene.
The controls are fairly intuitive and with the exception of one annoying quirk, you should master this game after only a few rooms. The only problem I saw was the confusing reversal of the controls when you activate the viewfinder. Normally you control Miku with the left stick, but when you go to first-person camera mode that stick controls the viewfinder. If you want to take evasive action without leaving the viewfinder mode you need to use the right stick to move around. This takes a bit of getting used to, and I took lots of unnecessary damage before I finally adapted to the system.
Fatal Frame looked good on the PS2, so I was very impressed with how much better it looks on the Xbox. Everything is much sharper and the ghosts have an even more ethereal appearance that just makes them that much more convincing and frightening. By design, the levels are dark with good use of minimal light to create shadows and a certain level of uncertainty as you enter each new area.
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. You might walk up some stairs and the camera follows you from behind then another time the camera is at the top of the steps and you are walking towards it then another the camera is under the stairs and you see yourself going up through the spaces between the steps. Creepy stuff! Since backtracking to 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. Miku has minimal movements but the ones she has are 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.
When the music stops the true terror begins. Tecmo has created a proprietary sound system that rivals the richness of Dolby, so while I normally take points off when the Dolby Digital capabilities of the Xbox are not utilized, this time is doesn’t matter. 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 opening narration and in-game voiceovers do a great job of maintaining the suspenseful atmosphere and are well scripted and acted. There are a few supporting voices within the game and they are treated with the same professional care to make them fit the story and the mood.
The Xbox adds several new features that might have previous PS2 players scrambling to pick up a new copy. In addition to the improved graphics and surround there are new costumes, new ghosts, and even a new ending if you have the stamina to unlock and finish the new Fatal Mode.
This deluxe game mode is your reward when you finish the original (PS2) game, and the Nightmare mode, plus earn a high enough ranking to unlock it. Fatal Mode delivers a whole new crop of even more frightening ghosts that draw on the graphical power of the Xbox. Fatal Mode also rewards you with the “true ending” that the designers had always intended for the title.
If you have played the PS2 version of Fatal Frame you may find enough new stuff to entice you back into the Himuro mansion, but be warned you will have to replay the same version of the game found on the PS2 disc (albeit visually and audibly enhanced) before you can get to the new goodies the Xbox version offers.
Of course, if you haven’t played the PS2 version or do all of your gaming on the Xbox then this is the horror game you have been waiting for. The Xbox doesn’t have a lot of titles that fit into the survival horror genre, so it’s nice to see that Fatal Frame is more than up for the challenge. Not only does it pave the way for future horror games, it sets a very high bar by which those games will be judged.