Review by Dark_Epathy
A surprisingly enjoyable concept marred by clumsy execution
Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is a spin-off of Fatal Frame (known as Project Zero and just Zero in PAL territories and Japan, respectively), one of the mainstays of the horror genre. Rather than provide a relatively straightforward, conventional game, however, Spirit Camera takes an augmented reality approach by placing the player into the shoes of the main character and using the 3DS as the series' signature Camera Obscura. In doing so, the game approaches some great heights, but also some abysmal lows.
Before addressing the real meat of this review, which are the mechanics of the combat and the augmented reality elements, the story deserves some consideration. All of the Fatal Frame games revolve around failed rituals and vengeful spirits, and this game is no exception. In Spirit Camera, the main character is the player himself or herself, drawn into the cursed "diary of faces" by the enigmatic woman in black. The woman in black traps people into the diary's reality and proceeds to remove their eyes and mouths, leaving them faceless. Fortunately, the player is helped by the game's ostensible true protagonist, Maya. Maya is a fellow victim of the woman in black, trapped in the diary of faces and unable to recall her past or why she is trapped. To free themselves, Maya and the player must restore her lost memories and also find a way to appease the woman in the black, along the way evading and combating the diary's other victims.
In typical Fatal Frame fashion, Spirit Camera's plot takes some bizarre, wild turns, but it remains interesting, if somewhat predictable, throughout. Its major sticking point lies in its length--the game's story mode can be beaten in only three or four hours, and that is after playing leisurely.
What is the player doing for those three or four hours? Gameplay is split between combating spirits (of which there are only a handful) and using the game's accompanying augmented reality booklet to progress the story. The booklet serves as the diary of faces, containing a number of different images that tie into the game's story. Using the 3DS' camera, the player can scan images in the booklet and cause things to happen within the game.
One of these two mechanics is the game's great triumph, and the other is the game's great drawback. The triumph lies in the game's combat. Fatal Frame's camera-centric combat, so dependent upon its first-person perspective and close-quarters, high-risk engagements, is at its best here in Spirit Camera. Using the 3DS as the camera removes the middleman that was otherwise a PS2/Xbox controller or Wii remote. With the 3DS' gyroscope functionality, the player is very much in the thick of battle, actively using the camera against the game's enemy spirits. The experience captures a very visceral, authentic quality, making Fatal Frame's combat, which has always been fun and engaging, all the more compelling. Despite the few spirits here to fight, the engagements are interesting and, in some cases, challenging, especially on the higher difficulty levels. Without a doubt, the combat makes great use of the 3DS and sets a precedent for future installments in the series, especially given the title on the Wii U.
Outside of combat, however, the game falls apart, due entirely to its augmented reality conceit. Rather than a more conventional approach, which would have contained the gameplay to the 3DS itself, the need to use the augmented reality angle forces the player to contend with the game's clunky interface with the booklet. Using the booklet is a nightmarish ordeal, full of clumsily moving around and seeking the right angle, fumbling with the booklet itself, and romping around in well-lit rooms when the atmosphere demands darkness and immersion. If not for the miracle of a PDF file containing the booklet's images that can be easily scanned on a computer monitor, the game would be almost unplayable, a chaotic, clumsy exercise in extreme frustration.
Apart from the story mode, there are unlockable missions that pit the player against the game's enemy spirits. This mission mode is undoubtedly a highlight, but with only a few enemies to fight against, the mission mode unfortunately doesn't have much sustainability. A photo ops mode also exists, which allows the player to pose the game's various characters and take snapshots that can be saved onto the 3DS' SD card. This is an amusing diversion at best, but it doesn't do much to make up for content. Aside from some other throwaway minigames involving the camera and the augmented reality booklet, Spirit Camera is very much light on content, riding more on its admittedly novel concept rather than any major substance.
As such, Spirit Camera is a difficult game to recommend or condemn. It succeeds, but simultaneously fails; it rises, but also stumbles, even outright falls. Having to so painfully adjust and work with the booklet and the camera over and over again removes the player from the experience, frustrates him or her, and stomps upon whatever appeal the game's content actually has. And it is a shame, because when Spirit Camera is allowed to work its magic, however brief, it works it well.
Product Release: Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir (US, 04/13/12)
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