Review by Exhuminator
A picture's worth a thousand screams.
"Fatal Frame: Special Edition" is an Xbox exclusive survival horror game, developed and published by Temco in 2002. This "Special Edition" version is an upgraded port of the 2001 PS2 original "Fatal Frame". The Xbox version has enhanced graphics and audio, new enemies, extra costumes, and other bonuses. "Fatal Frame" claims to be based on a "true story"... but there is no evidence of any truth to that claim whatsoever. At least not based on the research I've done concerning this game. It's far more likely Tecmo simply put that phrase on the cover to help it sell.
"Fatal Frame"'s plot is unusual. The protagonist is a teenage girl who is searching for her brother. Her brother has gone off to explore an abandoned mansion in the desolate countryside of Japan. He did so seeking his favorite author, who went there himself to research the mansion and its mysterious past. And so this teenage girl goes off to the mansion all by herself, in the middle of the night, with nothing to aid her but a flashlight. Not long after she finds a camera that can exorcise evil spirits by taking pictures of them. Yes all of this really happened, believe it or not! (I don't believe it.) Over the course of the game, she learns why the mansion is chock full of angry, violent ghosts. It has to do with a Shinto ritual gone wrong, lots of ropes and maidens, and a gateway to Hell itself. Eventually this young lady discovers ties to her own family's past within the mansion's haunted history as well.
To speak of the gameplay, it's actually fairly simple. Players guide this young girl (via a third person camera view) exploring the mansion (and its immediate grounds), reading found texts, solving simple puzzles, and taking photos of aggressive ghosts. Sometimes there are talkative or helpful ghosts. Sometimes there are hidden ghosts, in which taking their picture provides bonus experience points. (Experience points are used for upgrading the camera's abilities.) Occasionally cutscenes happen to show past events, or current events.
Overall the real challenge is fighting the ghosts, which grow increasingly difficult to deal with. The issue is the player must take photos of these ghosts in first person, but the first person camera view is small and moves slowly. The ghosts on the other hand, move quickly, are invisible half the time, can move through walls, and warp around the player. It's little mystery why in "Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly" the ghosts were made much slower and easier to deal with. Health restoratives and special "magic" camera abilities help to maintain the balance in the original "Fatal Frame". That only goes so far though, when the player is fighting multiple ghosts simultaneously, and ghosts that can fire projectiles.
+ An innovative gameplay concept (camera attacking ghosts) that remains unique to this series.
+ Very well realized, often creepy atmosphere.
+ The Japanese mansion itself is painstakingly designed in a classical fashion.
+ The localization of the in-game texts is very well done.
+ An above average plot, with a tangible sense of growing dread.
- Serious control aggravation when fighting fast ghosts.
- Far too much backtracking on top of far too much backtracking.
- Some of the oblique camera angles are unhelpful to say the least.
- Gameplay starts becoming repetitive early on.
- Fairly terrible (though weird) voice acting.
I have to hand it to Tecmo, taking a concept like "Fatal Frame" and making a (mostly) successful game from it was no easy task. Not too many publishers would risk a teenage female protagonist taking photos as the core game mechanic. It works here, though it all could have used further polishing. Exploring a creepy old Japanese mansion, uncovering a mystery, while solving puzzles, and warding off vicious spirits with snaps, turns out to be not half bad.
That said, "Fatal Frame" expects its player to re-explore the same mansion over and over again, using a mechanic that changes item and ghost layouts every so often. A rather cheap tactic, employed to reuse limited assets, and it does start to feel contrived soon enough. That aspect coupled with a less than stellar combat engine, will wear on the player eventually. Though hopefully by then, the player will be immersed in the plot deeply enough, to warrant seeing the experience through to the end.
I can't say that "Fatal Frame" ever actually scared me. (It got me one time with a jump scare, but that's a cheap shot.) But compared to say "Resident Evil", "Fatal Frame" is far more insidious and creepy. Mainly because the player is a weak young girl, not a buff commando with a gun. And to "kill" spirits, "Fatal Frame" forces the player to confront them directly, in first person, nearly face to face. "Fatal Frame" is also more difficult than any "Resident Evil" I've beaten, and I've beaten just about all the games in that series. I'd wager that most players would find "Fatal Frame" to be well above average in the unnerving department. Especially if they played it like I did; late at night, alone in the dark, with headphones.
Would I recommend "Fatal Frame" to just anyone? No. I'd only do so to particular players. That'd be open minded gamers with a penchant for creepy adventures. It's far from perfect, but the overall idiosyncratic nature of the experience is worth noting. And despite the fact this game is sixteen some-odd years old at this point, it still holds up well overall. I doubt there's any other horror game series that plays like "Fatal Frame", aside from its own sequels. So for gamers who value unusual retro experiences, this is worth it.
This review was based on a true story.
Product Release: Fatal Frame: Special Edition (US, 11/22/02)
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