Horror At A Leisurely Pace
HIGH The use of a camera is an FPS-like combat system without the violence!
LOW The small amount of things to do.
WTF The collectibles are a bunch of creepy haunted dolls.
I doubt it’s controversial to say that the survival horror genre isn’t known for deep game mechanics. However, even among its contemporaries in the genre, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse seems committed to a sort of ascetic minimalism that surprised me, a committed Silent Hill guy who had never dipped into this series before.
Opting to skip over or dilute some of the usual challenges offered up in survival horror, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse instead asks the player to do a few very specific things, in a very specific way, for about 10 hours or so. But i think it works? By the time I finished the story, exhausted yet somehow satisfied, I felt that Fatal Frame had become my part-time job at the Taking Pictures And Running From Monsters Factory.
As a new ’employee’, I took control of a handful of different characters, investigating the mysterious Rogetsu Island. Years earlier, these characters were involved with a mysterious incident during a ritual, after which five girls were found in an underground cavern with no memories. Now, two of the girls have died under mysterious circumstances, and the others (as well as the investigator who originally found them) decide to separately return to the island, seeking the truth about their past.
…And then, they encounter ghosts! Lots and lots of them!
Some spirits are aggressive, others are spookily benign, but all can be interacted with via the Camera Obscura, a staple of the series. While the game is generally played from a third-person perspective, the the player can enter a first-person view while using the Camera and snap pictures of passive Specters (entering them into a catalog and granting the player points to spend on items/upgrades) or use it to damage aggressive Wraiths.
I found this combat system entrancing in theory. Forcing the player to adopt a narrow first-person perspective in order to attack while also severely limiting their view of the enemies that are creeping around them elicits a sort of fumbling tension that every great horror game trafficks in. What’s more, adopting a personal, constant POV in order to fight back against Fatal Frame’s enemies compliments the way in which the narrative is constantly shifting and interrupting the player’s perspective.
In Fatal Frame’s prologue chapter, for instance, the gameplay is constantly interrupted by minor cutscenes, shifts to a wider POV when opening doors, varied close-up shots of ghosts, and more. Cutting through these temporal and spatial dislocations and facing the ghosts with the relative objectivity of a camera smartly mirrors the way in which the characters themselves are forced to reckon with the distortions of their own past.
Then, as hours started to pass, the elements of Lunar Eclipse that I originally found novel started to become routine. I had killed countless Wraiths with similar movement patterns, and I had taken pictures of countless Specters. The overall atmosphere, punctuated by ambient droning soundscapes that change with each room, started to become a cloak of comfort rather than a sign of impending danger.
As I alluded to earlier, Fatal Frame almost seems designed with this flattening of challenge and danger in mind. When a key is found, instead of allowing the player to infer what door it unlocks, the map is automatically pulled up and the site of the appropriate lock is marked with an icon. During the puzzle-solving portions, important keywords/phrases that essentially lead directly to the solution are always highlighted in red. (I think I only got truly stuck on a puzzle once during the entire playthrough).
In another odd instance of the developers sapping the sense of danger, when the player picks up an item, they have to physically hold down the interact button as their hand slowly moves towards it and a dramatic music sting plays. I thought “Wow, what a cool idea! Surely this mechanic will lead to some cool scares!” And — spoiler alert — it does! but then immediately afterwards a tutorial pops up, telling the player how to deal with that same situation in the future. This persistent unwillingness to let the player experience varied types of discomfort implies that Fatal Frame wants the player to keep their focus on the camera combat system and be worried about nothing else.
Despite this, I came out of my playthrough a Fatal Frame believer — in an almost incredible sort of way, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse turns its focused mechanics into a routine, and then mines the interruption of this routine for horror.
This all became apparent to me during one of the final chapters when, after having wandered basically the entire length of the map, I heard a phone ring from in the reception hall a floor below me. Whenever I had received a Ghost Phone Call before that point, my character had always been pretty close to the phone in question, so hearing such a sudden, piercing noise coming from an area both unexpected and non-visible was pretty unnerving. From that point onwards, I began to look back on all the times that Mask of the Lunar Eclipse had deviated from its routine with both admiration and foreboding — would a Specter turn into a Wraith again? Would an item attack me? Who knows!
This sense of gradually increasing paranoia, along with a story that only becomes more metaphysically unhinged as it goes along, makes for a title that ultimately rewards patience and those players who are willing to slip into its atmospheric world like they would a warm, spooky bath. That said, I think many players will probably give up on Mask of the Lunar Eclipse after they’ve been asked to photograph another slow-walking ghost for the billionth time, but if they stick with it they’ll be rewarded with a survival horror experience unlike any other.
Final Score: 7/10
Disclosures: This game is developed by Tecmo, Nintendo SPD, and Grasshopper Manufacture, and published by Tecmo Koei. It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, Switch, PS4, PS5, PC. Approximately 11 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence. The official description reads: This is a survival horror game in which players follow the story of kidnapped survivors as they revisit a mysterious island. From a third-person perspective, players explore the island and its buildings while searching for clues/tools in order to progress. Along the way, players can encounter ghosts that startle (jump scares), attack, and/or kill players’ character. Players can defend themselves with an old camera (Camera Obscura), capturing images of the ghosts that can make them disappear/dissipate. Players can also use the camera to make black-and-white spectral images; these stylized still-screens sometimes depict gore: a faceless corpse; a bag with severed hands; a peeled face skin offering; barbed wire covering a character’s throat, with blood stains. The words “b*tch” and “bastard” appear in the game.
Colorblind modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered or resized. All of the dialogue is displayed via subtitles, and visual cues are present which allow the game to be played without sound. However, there are some non-combat progression cues for interactions, such as the phone call mentioned in the review, that rely on sound. As such, this game is not fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
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