Alternate title: Project Zero 3 (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Review Date: 12/14/08
It only took me three years to get around to playing this game, even considering how much I loved "Fatal Frame" (2002) and "Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly" (2003). That's how far behind I am with my pile of unplayed games. Sadly, "Okami" and "Shadow Of The Colossus" are still in that pile, and who knows when I'll get another 20+ hours of free time to indulge in them. But that's a discussion for another time.
"Fatal Frame 3" turns the series into a trilogy by weaving in elements of the first two games, and then effectively closes it. This time the main character is Rei Kurosawa, a photo journalist whose boyfriend is killed in a car accident. The pain of her loss is augmented by her feelings of guilt for being at the wheel and also for being a survivor. It's all too convenient that Rei's assistant is Miku Hinasaki (the protagonist from the original game) and that they just so happen to visit the same haunted mansion where Miku lost her brother Mafuyu several years before. There's a saying that if you follow the dead in your dreams, you won't be able to come back, and that night Rei has a nightmare where she sees her dead boyfriend entering Manor Of Sleep. She naturally chases after him and has a scary encounter with a freaky tattooed woman whose touch causes a painful tattoo to start appearing on her own body.
Over the course of the next eighteen days, Rei's dreams are plagued with pain, horror, and suffering as she continues to explore the Manor Of Sleep and uncover its dark and tragic secrets. These horrors start to spill into the real world as well, and Rei begins seeing ghosts while she's awake. But are they real, or is she going insane? It turns out that Rei isn't suffering alone, as Miku starts to have the same nightmare and Mafuyu's close friend Kei Amakura (who also conveniently happens to be Mio and Mayu's uncle from the second game) has also been touched by the tattooed woman. Once again, the source of all the suffering is an ancient ritual bathed in rich and freaky Japanese folklore. The Manor Of Sleep houses a shrine that keeps the Other World from spreading into the Real World, which is sealed by impaled priestesses who bear the tattoos of pain and suffering. However, a terrible incident occurred with the last impaled priestess and her endless sleep has turned into a nightmare for the living. Of course Rei, Miku, and Kei succeed in making things worse by defiling the shrine and unleashing the horrors that lie within.
Just like the first two games, the only way to battle spirits in the Manor Of Sleep is with the mystical Camera Obscura, which can capture ghosts on film and effectively destroy them. What's different about this game is that everything takes place in a dream and that Rei's house is a central hub between dream sequences. This has the unfortunate side effect of breaking both the pacing and the tension, as Rei mopes about during the day and does research on the things she sees in her dreams. Rei is seriously depressed, and without the help of the ever-chipper Miku, her house would quickly fall into disarray. She doesn't eat, she doesn't clean her room, she doesn't check the mail, and she doesn't leave the house unless absolutely necessary. She also never changes her clothes, so over the course of three weeks she's in the same outfit the entire time. I guess I shouldn't complain about that, but it seems glaringly out of place within the context of the game. Another amusing effect of jumping back and forth between the real world and the dream world is the confirmation dialog that comes up saying "Do you want to go to sleep?" HELL, NO! I don't ever want to sleep again! Unfortunately, no matter how scary it is, you have to sleep in order to make any progress in the game.
The game also deviates from its predecessors in that you get to play as multiple characters. I was stunned when Miku showed up in a dream, and completely freaked out when I realized she was back in Himuro Mansion instead of the Manor Of Sleep! It truly was an amazing reaction and the memories of the first game created an incredible feeling of dread for what was going to happen next. Similarly with Kei, he winds up in All God's Village looking for his niece Mio, who has fallen under the curse of the tattooed woman in her attempts to be reunited with her lost sister Mayu. Interestingly, Miku's chapters are much more engaging than Rei's, and that's when I started getting seriously hooked by the game. As the sole male in the series, Kei is completely uninteresting, and his gameplay is hampered by his mostly useless ability to "hide" from ghosts by crouching behind things. This tactic rarely works, so fleeing is always the preferred option. Also, being a man, he can naturally jump long distances and move heavy furniture, which the frail female characters are incapable of doing. I found this a little distasteful, but maybe that's just me. Later in the game when the characters break the seal of the shrine, the manor is enshrouded in a thick miasma which can only be dispelled by finding purifying light items. The miasma causes the screen to become a grainy monochrome, which adds an additional sense of urgency and difficulty, but unfortunately also obscures the beauty of the level design.
Production wise, the game is top notch and the gameplay mechanics have been refined as much as they probably can. Combat is still a pain in the ass due to ghosts that blink out of view and pop up behind you, and there's no easy way to quickly turn around when you're looking through the camera. Quite possibly the scariest and most difficult encounter is when you're attacked while crawling underneath the floorboards of the building. Thinking about it still gives me chills. Rei's camera is quite powerful with all of the upgrades that she finds, but Miku's and Kei's cameras are lacking. That's right, the inventor of the Camera Obscura apparently made several of the devices, along with numerous other creations that allow interaction with the spirit world. The Manor Of Sleep is a gigantic sprawling structure, full of locked doors and secret rooms. It's cold, gorgeous, and very creepy, and you'll become extremely familiar with it over the course of the game as you revisit and explore it every night. Unfortunately, the backtracking becomes a little tedious and the objectives aren't always clear, so you'll often end up wandering around aimlessly trying to find something or trigger an event. Having a map of the manor is crucial, although it isn't as helpful as it could be. Being able to mark which doors were locked after I visited them would have been a huge help. Similar to the previous games, the character design is wonderful and the characters actually look Japanese. The only thing I would point out is that Miku wears a very strange looking and ridiculously short skirt... Speaking of costumes, additional outfits for all of the characters (including Miku's pet cat!) can be unlocked and purchased after completing the game and various other challenges. They're really for completists only.
Much like the first game, localization is a sore spot. The vast wealth of information is translated pretty well and maintains its Japanese flavor, and while typos are present, they're kept to a minimum. However, the voice acting is terrible. Actually, that's not entirely true. The voice acting itself is pretty decent, but the sound quality is AWFUL. It sounds like the actors were recorded in my bathroom, with a cavernous echo and a flat dynamic range. The choice of what lines are voiced is also curious, and I wonder if the Japanese version is the same. Sometimes a conversation will start with a voiceover and then turn into text, which is disruptive and annoying.
The game tries to offer replay value by unlocking extra modes, special missions, costumes, art galleries, and additional ghosts to find, but much like the "Silent Hill" series, the gameplay isn't what's special about these games. It's the story that's so incredibly compelling. The story in "The Tormented" focuses around the loss of loved ones and how we deal with our feelings for the deceased. Rei's life is empty and meaningless without her boyfriend, Miku longs for her missing brother, and Kei desperately tries to save his niece from oblivion. The plot is very deep, tangled, and often confusing, and definitely requires diligence and patience to put all of the sub-plots and back-stories together. It also unfortunately suffers from trying to do too much. Do the elements of the first two games really need to be woven into the same overarching tale? It seems like a bit of overkill, but the nostalgia and déjà vu are actually quite emotionally effective. The basis of the Manor Of Sleep is steeped in such rich Japanese mysticism and folklore that I really want to do more research on the topic. It's so incredibly detailed that I wonder how much is based on actual history and how much is pure fiction. Unlike the previous games, this one ends less tragically and basically leaves us with the message that loss and pain are inevitable, but the most important thing is to move on and keep living.
My initial playthrough took about seventeen hours, plus a couple more to finally put down the final adversary. The "easy" mode is still pretty tough, and I didn't get far before having to resort to cheating. While I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure, the pacing is inconsistent and the first six hours are decidedly sluggish and not particularly captivating. Fortunately, it really picked up after that and kept me increasingly engaged from there on out. The real world hauntings are especially creepy and reminded me a lot of "Silent Hill 4" (2004) and Alex Roivas' wavering sanity in "Eternal Darkness" (2002). There's also a lot of inspiration drawn from "Ju-on" (2002). Fans of the series, and fans of intelligent psychological horror in general should definitely check out this game.