Review by hub0083
A slightly different take on the survival horror genre
One of the most interesting things about Fatal Frame is that it’s based (in part) on a true story, with a lot of the locales and characters in the game being inspired by local legends and folktales from the rural Kanto region of Japan. In particular the backdrop of the game, Himuro mansion, was inspired by an ancient mansion that reportedly had a number of grisly yet unexplained murders happen in or around it. So building off of these ideas, the team behind Fatal Frame has managed to craft a genuinely scary, creepy, and sometimes terrifying tale for your delight. Staring a young teen by the name of Miku Hinasaki, she enters the mansion one night in search of her brother, Mayufu Hinasaki, who disappears two weeks prior to the start of the game while trying to locate his mentor (no, it has nothing to do with martial arts). Almost instantly the story starts to unfold before you, as you’re treated with one bizarre event and ghost encounter after another. While I don’t want to spoil it for you, the game’s story makes great use of Japan’s lore, culture, and various superstitions to help provide you with a glimpse into the truly terrifying side of Japanese horror tales. Ultimately, you must guide Miku in her attempts to both find her missing brother as well as unravel the bizarre curse surrounding Himuro mansion.
Game play: 8/10
While Fatal Frame does manage to offer up some great scares along with a creepy story and interesting cast of characters (and enemies), it still adheres fairly closely to the conventions set by the genre. Miku is mostly controlled from a third-person perspective, has the ability to acquire new items such as health bonuses, picks up scraps of information at set intervals to help advance the story and help flesh out the background, and must face a boss battle after a set number of events and enemy encounters has passed. Additionally, Miku can only take a certain amount of damage before she dies, and you’ll have to learn to become conservative with how you ration out your film and health items, as well as when to run away. While this may seem pretty boring, it actually manages to remain fun and involving thanks to the clever way that Tecmo decided to handle these “standard” aspects. For example, while there are more than 20 enemies in Fatal Frame that you can fight, they all have their own story to tell and you’ll usually find pieces of information regarding their sad ends as you encounter them. Many a ghost that you will encounter were victims of the horrible tragedy that befell Himuro mansion, though some of them were also victims of the ghosts who currently inhabit the estate. And as you play through the game’s four chapters, you’ll likely come to develop a love/hate relationship for the ghosts you meet based on your encounters with them. Just for the record, but Man with Long Arms is definitely the creepiest ghost in my opinion, especially in how he captures his victims.
However what really helps to set Fatal Frame apart from the other survival horror games is in its approach to combat. Being that you’re only armed with little more than a flashlight and an antique camera, Tecmo has succeeded in adding a greater sense of fear and urgency to the game because of the fact that you’re stuck with such an unconventional “weapon.” Whenever you encounter a ghost, you can switch over to your camera in order to either “drive it away” temporarily or hopefully to catch it for good. When you switch over to your camera, you enter a first-person mode in which you can only see through the eye of the lens, which helps add a sense of fear to combat as most of your encounters will be up-close and personal. You target ghosts using the camera’s capture reticule, and as they remain focused in your sight the reticule will light up to indicate it’s gaining power. The longer you let the reticule light up, the stronger the shot will become and the more damage you will inflict to the ghosts. While combat can often be tricky due to most ghosts’ ability to move around and fade in and out of objects, you can move yourself around as well in order to get into a better position, abet slowly. In addition to this, Miku’s ability of sixth sense will often alert you prior to an enemy encounter via an on-screen filament, as well as her heartbeat letting you know how close an enemy is (such a simple idea that has been sorely overlooked). Thus working in tandem with her camera, you’ll often have a fair chance to either stand and fight or make good your escape if you’re low on health of film. Fortunately though, your camera isn’t as wimpy as it might sound at first.
Though you initially start off with a basic camera with basic film, you can earn upgrades and more powerful film for your camera the further in you play. You do so by spending points you get from taking pictures of ghosts, where the better and clearer the shot the more points you can earn. Often times to get the most points possible you’ll have to get a Zero Shot, which means letting the ghost get close enough for you to snap them with a fully charged shot. But besides the bonus points awarded for Zero Shots, you can also earn additional bonus points by either lining up a clearer shots or using one of the bonuses for your camera. While the price may be steep, the upgrade you can unlock for your camera can often mean the difference between life and death. Among the upgrades you will find in the game include ones that allow your camera to knock back ghosts, slow them down, or even temporarily paralyze them. Of course, none of this comes free because in order to use these bonus powers you must have special spirits stones, which allow you the use of one bonus power at a time. Once you run out of stones you’re stuck to using your camera’s basic functions, though thankfully they too can be upgraded to provide you with faster charging times, a bigger capture reticule, or more power. Besides that, you can earn additional camera upgrades by meeting certain conditions throughout the game, such as taking a picture of every ghost (no easy task!). Finally, you can find more powerful film scattered throughout the game’s four chapters to help aid you in your struggle.
Though Fatal Frame was original released on the Playstation2, it still manages to hold up against newer and more recent Xbox titles. The game’s human characters are well modeled, detailed, and textured to the point where you can clearly make out the dragon design on one of Miku’s alternate costumes, or the individual strands of hair in her ponytail. Also, though the animation for Miku herself is a bit stiff, her facial expressions during the in game cut scenes are both expressive and well crafted. Speaking of which, the cut-scenes presented in Fatal Frame come in one of two varieties: in game and pre-rendered. Though the pre-rendered cut scenes are usually reserved for the creepiest moments in the story, the in game cut scenes are no less a joy to watch. What helps to give them a great sense of cinematography (besides the good use of different camera angles), is the fact that a filter is used that causes the screen to look somewhat grainy and dilapidated; it really helps it to look like your watching an old film. As for the ghosts themselves, they truly have an otherworldly look to them as they fade in and out of the screen with an eerie smokiness. I found myself become frightened on more than one occasional as Miku’s heart began to beat faster, and I knew that any moment a ghost would materialize anywhere around me. The fact that the game takes place at night in dark rooms, and that I only had a flashlight to try and find my way around can be quite disturbing at times.
And that brings up another good point: the flashlight. Though the lighting can be a be “stiff” at times, but for the most part it’s pulled off wonderfully and convincingly, and you’ll often think to yourself, “this is how light should look.” Whenever you walk up a flight of stairs the camera’s light will illuminate the steps before you, and as you get closer to the top the shadows of the steps will begin to elongate and eventually fade away behind you into the rest of the shadows. It’s the little things like this that helps to make Fatal Frame one of the better looking games on the Xbox, as well as add to the overall immersion of the game. Lastly, the environments deserve a bit of space because they’re no less impressive than the other aspects of the game’s graphics. Besides being wonderfully detailed to the point where you might swear that they were pre-rendered, the environments help to contrasts Miku’s liveliness as well as emphasize the otherworldliness of the ghosts. Though Miku definitely stands out from the rest of the game’s environments, she doesn’t stand out to the point where she seems out of place.
Helping to round out the entire experience that is Fatal Frame, the sound employed in the game is both wonderfully crafted and cleverly implemented. Though you won’t find any actual background music within the game, what you will find are short, ambient audio pieces that range from ancient Shinto chants to brief koto pieces, all of which are used to help build upon the suspense and intensity already set by the game’s graphics and story. One of the best examples of this occurs at the beginning of the game when you first enter the Fireplace room, because as you move closer to the locked door on the second floor you can begin to hear the faint chanting of Shinto priests in the background. The way in which Fatal Frame uses this technique, in which the objects you walk by can trigger sound effects to occur, almost un-noticeably, really helps to add to the immersion of the entire game. Also, while the voice acting in the game can come off as sounding a bit stiff and forced at times (Miku’s speech will occasionally contain some odd pauses), it nevertheless complements the rest of the aural package quite nicely. As for the ghosts themselves, it occurred to me that if you were to take away the images of the ghosts, the lines that they cry out would probably sound laughable. After all, a guy exclaiming, “The ropes…there are more ropes!” in a slightly screechy voice can be pretty amusing. Still, for the most part the ghosts are either silent or restricted to just crying out sounds of pain and general misery, however at least one of the ghosts (Blind Woman) has a truly bone chilling cry whenever you encounter her.
This is probably the biggest failing of the game, as it was stuck with a difficult choice in how to handle the persistently problematic control issue inherent to the survival horror genre. While the game designers were basically stuck with two choices for controls (the Resident Evil type or Silent Hill type), they ultimately decided to go with the Silent Hill type. And while this is ideally the best type of control scheme to go with considering the game’s use of a third person perspective, it nonetheless presents the player with a lot of problems. For starters, Miku moves in whichever direction the player is pressing the left thumb stick, i.e. right moves you right, left moves you left, etc. However once the camera angle switches the controls change as well, because while you are pressing left, if you experience a camera angle the moves from the left to the right, Miku will still be moving towards her original destination, which is now to the right, despite the fact that you’re still pressing left. This may not sound too problematic at first, but if you happen to run into a ghost at that moment you’ll quickly have to stop pressing left in order to stop moving forward, and then press left again in order to actually move left. It’s during these circumstances that the controls can become very annoying. Another thing, you’ll frequently find yourself running into invisible barriers or edges that will inhibit you and often cause you to get hit by a ghost you were trying to avoid. Basically, if you’re running down a corridor, make sure you stick to the center of it or else you’ll likely become stuck on a wall. But either than the bad collision detection, the controls are for the most part tolerable. Just make sure you switch from the default A button layout to the B button layout, as the A one makes it almost impossible to fight effectively whenever you switch over to your camera.
One of the biggest areas to receive a major upgrade from the PS2 version of Fatal Frame are the extras, which are both abundant and rewarding. Besides the default bonuses you can unlock after beating the game for the first time on the default difficulty level, such as a battle mode and additional camera features, you can also unlock Xbox exclusive extras such as additional costumes, a higher difficulty level, as well as new ghosts to snap. And while the bonuses will keep you occupied for a while, they ultimately wear themselves thin as the main game itself is relatively short in length. Since the game takes place in a single location (Himuro mansion), there really wasn’t anyway for the game’s designers to stretch out its length without dragging out the story. Thankfully they decided to leave the main game unspoiled by not adding in more rooms or cut scenes which wouldn’t add anything to the story, so while the ride itself is short it’s definitely worth playing through two or three times, which you’ll probably have to do anyway if you want to unlock all the game has to offer.
Fatal Frame is a game that was faced with a lot of tough obstacles that had to be overcome if it were to be a success. Firstly, it had to overcome the fact that it was part of a small genre defined by two very popular series, with little room for any outsiders or imitators. Secondly, it had to come up with a novel idea to help separate itself from all the other games that had come before it. Lastly, it had to present the player with a horrifying, immersive, challenging, and rewarding experience that would hopefully entice potential buyers. While the game does falter on certain aspects of its execution, most notably the controls, it still manages to deliver a truly original tale of suspense and horror, where you’ll find yourself scarred, terrified, and creeped out every time you enter a new room or move towards a dark corner. And while the experience is relatively short there’re still enough incentives to give the main game another run through, as you’ll likely find the experience no less disturbing the second time around as the first.
Final Score: 8/10
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