Fatal Frame

Year: 2002
Alternate Title: Project Zero (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Tecmo
Genre: Survival/horror
Review Date: 3/10/02
Rating: ***

It's September, 1986. Miku Hinasaki's older brother disappears while searching for a famous novelist named Junsei Takamine. Miku tracks her brother down to Himuro Mansion, an abandoned house haunted by tortured spirits and tainted with a dark, bloody past. But Miku isn't unprepared - she has psychic cognitive abilities and is armed with a supernatural camera that can capture harmful spirits. Over the course of several nights, Miku must battle ghosts and unravel the mystery of the mansion before she becomes its next victim.

The first thing that this game has going for it is that the protagonist is a cute seventeen year old Japanese girl in a mini-skirt. That alone is enough for me to play the game. (However, I suspect that she's more like thirteen or fourteen in the original Japanese version) Beyond that, the graphics are beautiful and wonderfully creepy, the ghosts are scary, and the Japanese characters actually look Japanese. Himuro Mansion truly does feel haunted, and fans of "Silent Hill" will really enjoy the atmosphere and art direction. The music and sound effects are also used to great effect to scare the pants off of you, and liberal use of force feedback helps keep you on edge. Navigation is similar to "Resident Evil - Code: Veronica" in that you move through 3D rendered environments that utilize a variety of different (and often dramatic) camera angles. Objectives are simple and straight forward, and mostly involve searching for clues and items that will give you access to different parts of the mansion. Much like "Silent Hill 2", the game gently nudges you in the right direction and Miku will turn her head towards things that should be investigated. Her "sixth sense" also tingles when ghosts and supernatural clues are nearby. Combat is where things start to get tricky. As soon as a ghost appears, you need to switch into camera mode and try to take its picture before it can harm you. This puts you into first person perspective as you frantically try to line the ghost up in your viewfinder and snap the shutter. This somewhat jarring shift from third person to first person actually reminded me a lot of "D2", and it takes some time to get used to. As you accumulate experience, bonus camera features and upgrades become available, just as the ghosts become stronger and more difficult to deal with. The game also offers a bit of replay value as new play modes, camera options, and costumes get unlocked when you finish the game. Miku has a total of three extra costumes, and since it took me so freakin' long to unlock them, I'm going to share them with you. They're all simple variations on the default costume, and not surprisingly, the default costume is the best of the bunch.

Normal: Dark brown hair, red undershirt, white overshirt with gold sweater clip, choker, gold hair clip, brown mini-skirt, brown knee-high boots.
Special1: Dark brown hair, grey undershirt, orange overshirt with gold collar and cuffs, red neckerchief, choker, reddish brown hair clip, blue denim mini-skirt, brown knee-high boots, brown gloves.
Special2: (Goth outfit) Black hair, red lipstick, dark eye makeup, black undershirt, dark blue overshirt with white collar and cuffs, white neckerchief, choker, purple hair clip, brown mini-skirt, white thigh-high stockings with black garter belt, black knee-high boots.
Special3: (Kogal outfit) Light brown hair, tan skin, white lipstick and eye makeup, black undershirt, black overshirt with white collar and cuffs, brown textured neckerchief, choker, brown hair clip, black mini-skirt, black thigh-high stockings, black knee-high boots.

Of course, the game is not without problems. Like most survival horror games, the combat elements of "Fatal Frame" are way too difficult for me and health items are few and far between. I only managed to make it through the first night before the game became overwhelmingly difficult and I was forced to cheat. Even if you're playing the game with infinite health, you're pretty much out of luck if you run out of film. And you will run out of film... Being a Japanese game, it's not surprising that localization is a sore spot. The requisite bad English dubbing seriously deflates the scary atmosphere and spoils the rich Japanese flavor of the material. I understand why they decided to dub the game, but I only wish they had done it better. The text is also littered with a noticeable amount of typos and grammatical errors, making the US version look like a rushed job. Another localization issue that I found irritating is the obnoxious and overwrought "based on a true story" marketing angle, which devalues the whole supernatural impact of the story. It only invites people to criticize the story instead of just accepting it as imaginative and well researched fictional horror. Imagine what your reaction would be to "Resident Evil" if it came with the tag-line "based on a true story" and you'll catch my drift. Interestingly, this approach was only used for the American version, as the Japanese release made no such claims. Still, even with these complaints, the story is quite compelling and I found the game to be quite enjoyable - even if it did make me shriek like a little girl on occasion.