Fatal Frame is a scary and original horror experience. While not a great game, it does deliver on its promise to explore the survival-horror genre from a fresh perspective. Tecmo, famous for their eccentric and macabre Deception series on the Playstation, has again combined unorthodox gameplay elements into a compelling experience. This game proves that a little creativity can inject a lot of life (and horror) into a good old-fashioned ghost story.
Unlike horror games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, Fatal Frame takes place exclusively in Japan and spins a tale drenched in Japanese mythology. The story concerns the disappearance of a writer and his staff while researching a book in rural Japan. The game begins when Mafuyu Hinasaki, a friend of the writer, arrives at the remote mansion where the writer was last seen. After playing a short prologue as this character, the player takes control of Miku, Mafuyus sister, as she enters the mansion in search of her brother who is now also missing.
Like most other games of the genre, the basic gameplay involves exploration and collecting clues and items that will help the player eventually solve the mystery of the disappearances as well as the dark history of the mansion. Like Silent Hill, navigation involves walking around in the dark with a flashlight, and the interaction is mostly limited to either reading journals or collecting items that unlock new areas of the mansion and further the plot.
If this all sounds rather typical, thats because it is. Fatal Frame would be an uninspired (but well-produced) genre exercise if it werent for a single element upon which the entire game sinks or swims. That element is photography, odd as it sounds. Miku is equipped with a camera, and that camera is what the game is all about. For reasons better left in the game, the camera is attuned to the supernatural and can "see" ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. Players can defend themselves from ghosts by taking pictures (apparently sucking their power away) and relive their scariest moments via photo albums that can be saved, edited, and viewed at any time. The camera also serves as a tool to solve puzzles. Taking pictures of certain things (doors, for example) will reveal clues that are relevant to moving the story along.
The camera may sound like a gimmicky idea, and it is. However, the way its implemented in the game represents a small stroke of genius. Since the player spends much of the game peering through the lens of the camera, the designers have smartly taken the opportunity to build a world that exploits the players limited perspective at every opportunity. The game is normally in 3rd person, which often means the only way to see things up close is through the lens of the camera. Youll find yourself using it often to peer into the dark or examine your surroundings—a behavior that, because it seems so natural, sets the stage for the horrifying encounters that make Fatal Frame unique. The player typically feels (though the controllers vibration) or hears a ghost before it can be seen. This forces the player to rely on the camera to find it, and the results are often frightening in a way that few games are. Theres nothing quite like hearing a wail in the dark and "feel" the beat of Mikus heart quicken as you spin around and come face-to-face the eyeless sockets of a deformed woman whose pale arms are extending towards your neck. Its moments like these that make Fatal Frame stand out, and there are plenty of them. Since ghosts can come at any place and at any time, surviving the mansion becomes a wicked little game of peek-a-boo. More damage is awarded for taking the closer snapshot, which means that often survival and taking the most terrifying pictures come hand in hand. The result is a weird element of masochism that makes the game enjoyable. Players will no doubt want to see just how scary and dangerous their pictures can get, and it doesnt take long for an aesthetic sensibility to emerge. In the end, it isnt about survival, but about how scary your album is. This is fascinating because it creates a relationship between the player and the game that is much more dynamic than usual in a horror game. Shooting zombies in Resident Evil will never change, but you can always try to get a scarier picture of a ghost.
Regardless of how effective the central mode of gameplay is at creating horror, Fatal Frame manages to drop the ball in several other areas. First and foremost is the localization. I was sorely disappointed to discover that this game is English voice only. While I suppose I cant expect Tecmo to leave the game in Japanese for an audience as subtitle-phobic as America, they could have at least had the decency to leave the original language in as an option for those of us who would appreciate having the cultural ambiance of the story remain intact. I bought this game because I was interested in a horror story that is uniquely Japanese, and the English voices simply work against this. Of course, it would also have helped if the acting werent stilted and awkward much of the time. With the exception of Miku and (thank god) most of the ghosts, the performances are so wooden Id call them terrible acting except for the fact that I cant call them acting at all. Also, the writing in the game could have been translated better. Although the events discussed in the journals and letters found throughout the game are disturbing in and of themselves, they are often recounted in bland and straight forward prose that does little to stimulate the readers imagination let alone induce fear. The game remains successfully scary in many ways, but a simple rewrite of the text and the inclusion of Japanese voices as an option would have done wonders for making Fatal Frame a more whole experience.
Beyond translation, Fatal Frame has a few other nagging issues. The control is occasionally problematic. For most of the game its fine, but it becomes frustrating in some of the more difficult ghost battles. Youd think Miku could manage more than an anemic shuffle when fleeing from unholy death, but the movement in Fatal Frame is typically sluggish and doesnt respond well to camera changes. When seconds count, this can be very annoying. Also, although this might be a personal preference, I think Fatal Frame drops the ball on a lot of its scariness by explaining too much. The makers of this game could learn a thing or two from games like Silent Hill about what and what not to say in a horror story. Instead of allowing the player to piece together the story in a way that fuels her or his imagination, Fatal Frame provide many convenient cutscenes and other expository material that leave no element of interpretation to the plot. Horror is based largely on fear of the unknown, and after the last "explain it all" journal there wasnt much left to stimulate my sense of fearful wonder except taking pictures.
And thats really why this game succeeds and why I recommend it. The photography element works and works beautifully, and I think anyone who enjoys having their sense of fear manipulated in a unique and satisfying why will find this game worth their time. Its just a shame that some of the other elements arent as inspired. If the game had a better localization and more faith in the players imagination it might have been a great horror game. As it is, it will have to settle for being a good horror game with a few great ideas.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.