The Project Zero/Fatal Frame series has been around for a while and I have finally been given the opportunity to check them out. The first game in the series shows its age in certain areas, but other times it reveals itself to be a clever, innovative and creepy survival-horror game. Fans of this genre might have to struggle a bit with Fatal Frame, but once you get used to its unique features, you will be in for a different type of game that sets the stage for a great series.
Taking place in Japan in 1986, players are first introduced to Mafuyu Hinasaki. Mafuyu has been looking for clues regarding his tutor that has been missing. His search brings him to the haunted Himuro Mansion. As expected, Mafuyu ends up vanishing without a trace. Now, it is up to Mafuyu’s sister Miku Hinasaki to discover what happened not only to his brother, but within the mysterious Himuro Mansion. In terms of survival-horror games, Fatal Frame does a great job at setting you up for great story. While the translation has some awkward moments, the story keeps you guessing as to what happened to Mafuyu, his teacher and the previous residents of the Himuro Mansion until the end when everything gets revealed. As the lead character, Miku is somewhat flat but, at the same time, brave because most of the entities remaining in the Himuro Mansion are not friendly and the only thing she has to combat them is an old camera.
When you begin a new game, you take control of Mafuyu in what could be considered the “tutorial” section of the game. After that, Miku is in your control and her fate is in your hands. Fatal Frame is rendered in real-time instead of using pre-rendered backgrounds that the genre was known for at the time. As you move Miku through the mansion, the perspective will change. This could cause me to get turned around and refer to the map more times than I care to admit, but it’s a minor problem. The Himuro Mansion is full of secrets and puzzles that need to be solved by Miku in order to advance. The more you explore, the more Miku will uncover via recordings, documents, newspaper clippings and/or files. There are also healing items scattered throughout the mansion. Most importantly, Miku will find various types of film for her only weapon in this mansion: the Camera Obscura. The Camera Obscura can be used to snap pictures of benign ghosts that are wandering aimlessly throughout the mansion and to discover new passages. However, the camera is mainly used for combat.
The enemies in Fatal Frame are ghosts that failed to reach the afterlife properly. I realize that the idea of fighting ghosts of previous residents in the mansion with nothing but an antique camera sounds bizarre, but every encounter with these haunting foes is different. Hostile ghosts can be sensed by Miku’s sixth sense, but the only way she can actually get rid of them is through the use of her camera. Using the camera switches the view to a first-person perspective. You need to follow the sounds and the direction of the ghost in order to get in the camera’s sight. Once you have it in sight, the camera will start to accumulate spirit power. The more power you accumulate, the more damage you’ll deal to the ghost when you finally snap its picture. Being close to the ghost also helps. When the ghost is about to attack, the screen will flash for a second. This means that the ghost is vulnerable to high damage and to being blasted back by the camera.
There’s a lot to keep track of, especially when you have to face off against multiple ghosts or those that have the ability to fade in and out of the screen. However, destroying a ghost is rewarding. Not only do you get to see them writhe in agony, but you will earn points for your hard work. These points can be used to power up the camera’s abilities. Therefore, it’s important that you get a good shot of the ghost so the next encounter is easier. There are a few setbacks to combat, though. Miku is a slow mover. Usually, ghosts are much quicker than her and you’ll have to run around a confined space to properly get a good shot. Another issue is that the use of special power-ups requires an expendable resource. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but not having the camera earn them as a permanent upgrade seems like an odd choice. Finally, the above mentioned shifting camera perspectives can be an inconvenience when you’re in the middle of a ghost hunt. In other words, there will be times things won’t be going as smoothly as you would like. That said, I never fear getting seeing the game over screen because there are plenty of healing items scattered throughout the mansion and plenty of areas to save your progress.
The Himuro Mansion is a creepy place. The origins behind it and its ghosts are unsettling and watching everything unfold can make your skin crawl. The mansion itself is an old, poorly lit and decaying structure. Creaky floorboards, falling panels and underground caverns that look like they could collapse at any point are just the start of Miku’s worries. The ghosts, whether or not they are hostile, are as scary as something you would find in your favorite ghost story. Instead of running after you and screaming nonsense, the ghosts are shambling, see-through and mysterious entities that whisper haunting words as they try to attack Miku. Their ambiance can be scary, but the voice acting will make you forget about it. Fatal Frame’s voice acting lacks the badness to be campy the charisma to be believable. It doesn’t take much away from the overall experience, but it’s noticeable.
Fatal Frame has a prologue and four chapters. Finishing the game once can take as long as 15 hours. Once you finish the game, you can unlock a new level of difficulty. Finishing the game on this harder difficulty reveals a different ending. While going through the game a second time to see a different ending sounds bland, the increased difficulty makes the experience surprisingly fresh. Fatal Frame is a survival-horror game that everyone will enjoy as long as they don’t mind some bad voice acting and controls that can take a while to understand. Tecmo decided to take a genre known for gore, firearms and shock factor and create something that provides a different type of scare and has a story that keeps you wondering.
Overall, 7/10: Getting used to Fatal Frame’s camera and the Camera Obscura might take some adjustment, but reaching the conclusion in this ghastly game makes the journey worthwhile.