Platform: Wii U
Review Date: 2/15/16
For whatever reasons, the "Fatal Frame" series has never fared well in the US market, and "Fatal Frame 4" never even got a domestic release. Much like "Bayonetta 2" (2014), I was thrilled to hear that the fifth installment of this series was getting an international release, but dismayed that it was a Wii U exclusive title. I was even more upset to find out that the US release is only available as a digital download, whereas the rest of the world gets a proper disc release (and the Wii U is not a region-free console). It's a 14GB download, which takes 47 hours to download over a standard DSL connection, and if that weren't bad enough, it takes an additional thirty minutes for the software to install. The final insult is that the deluxe version of the Wii U only has a 32GB hard drive with a maximum of 25GB available for applications, which means I'll only be able to download one or two games before it's filled up. Gee, wouldn't it be nice if there was some way to conveniently archive and store software, like say, on a physical disc? Boy, wouldn't that be novel. The whole software downloading experience is infuriating, and it's sad to see so many games going this direction. However, after putting aside the two full days that it took to fill up my hard drive, the game itself is a fantastic experience, and one of the best offerings in the series.
Mt. Hikami has a rich history of culture, folklore, and the occult, but attempts to convert it to a tourist destination were met with disaster and death. As a result, it now has a reputation for being a cursed and haunted place, as well as a popular suicide spot. Yuri is a young woman with psychic powers who comes to the mountain to end her life, but a woman named Hisoka Kurosawa saves her and invites her to stay at her antique shop while she sorts things out. Hisoka is actually Rei Kurosawa's sister (from "Fatal Frame 3" (2005) ) and uses psychometry and a Camera Obscura to tell fortunes, find missing items, and search for missing people. When Hisoka disappears while working on a case, Yuri heads to the mountain to look for her. What she discovers there taints her soul and puts into motion a series of events that threaten the fate of the world. Two other characters play crucial roles in the story: a struggling author named Ren Hojo, and an aspiring model named Miu Hinasaki. Ren is researching the old practice of postmortem photography, which has ties to the mountain, a folklorist who used to live there, and the original inventor of the Camera Obscura. He's haunted by memories and images that may or may not be his own, and visits the mountain with his assistant Rui in an attempt to find answers. Miu is the orphaned daughter of Miku Hinasaki, who starred in the original "Fatal Frame" (2002), and she visits the mountain on a rumor that her estranged mother may be there. Despite all of the terrible things that these people repeatedly experience on the mountain, they all feel compelled to go back, as though they're unable to deny their individual journeys towards self-destruction.
As a Wii U exclusive, it only makes sense to incorporate some custom gameplay features into its unique game pad. "Fatal Frame's" gimmick is actually quite clever, which is to use the game pad as a camera for photographing ghosts. Unfortunately, in practice it's awkward and the motion controls are sluggish. There's an option to just press X to enter camera mode, and that's much more effective. However, you still have to tilt the game pad to change the camera orientation, which is a constant nuisance and results in hitting the wrong buttons A LOT. Sadly, there's no option to use the pro controller. The one nice thing about the game pad is that it also displays a map of your current location, which is very handy when you get lost and turned around in the environment. Apart from that, the controls can be a bit fidgety, and going in and out of camera mode can be unresponsive and very frustrating, especially when you're surrounded by aggressive spirits. Navigation is fairly smooth, although the environment regularly suffers from frame rate stuttering. And of course, the Nintendo standard of swapping the "okay" and "cancel" buttons leads to numerous mistakes and false starts.
The first thing you notice about the game is that the original Japanese dialog is available, which is a first for the series. This is a wonderful feature that provides a much richer experience than the previous games in the series, where localization and English dubbing were a constant sore spot. In keeping with the tone of the series, the graphics are gorgeous and the rich Japanese architecture is hauntingly beautiful. The level design is superb and the outdoor environments are stunning. The game utilizes various technologies from Team Ninja, and the characters all have a decidedly "Dead Or Alive" look to them. In fact, DOA's Ayane makes a guest appearance in a side mission after you complete the main game. Dirt and sweat technology was definitely borrowed from "Dead Or Alive 5" (2012), along with DOA's notorious breast physics engine. Thankfully, the ridiculous breast physics are turned off in the US release. However, that's not the only censorship that the US release received, as Yuri's lingerie costume was replaced with Samus Aran's Zero outfit, and Miu's bikini costume was replaced with a Princess Zelda costume. Miu's modeling cut-scene was also edited to use her default costume rather than the bikini costume. These modifications are disappointing, but don't affect the gameplay any.
Having multiple protagonists always messes with my head, especially when one of them is a dopey guy. Yuri and Miu are delightful to play and both share the same camera (although Miu has a slow motion effect that Yuri can't use for some reason), while Ren is a completely uninteresting and emotionally flat character who uses a different camera that's equipped with a compound lens for multiple exposures. Thankfully, he has an adorable assistant with him, who keeps things interesting. In fact, she's arguably the prettiest girl in the game and bears a striking resemblance to DOA's Lei-Fang, although the story drops some hints about her possibly ambiguous gender, which can be a bit frustrating. This bishonen trick is common in Japanese literature, and always feels like emotional betrayal. Who wants to find out that the hot chick is actually a dude? What does that say about the character, and more importantly, what does that say about me? Anyway, the English adaptation consistently uses the she/her pronoun, which helps resolve the ambiguity of the original Japanese.
Like all of the "Fatal Frame" games, the story is fantastic and full of fascinating folklore, frightful apparitions, horrific rituals, and terrifying supernatural phenomena. Water is the main theme of the game, and the shrine maidens of Mt. Hikami were turned into sacrificial pillars to keep the black water of the Netherworld from spilling forth into our world. When the maidens' hearts can no longer bear their eternal suffering, the pillars start to erode and must be replaced with new sacrifices (hence the number of missing girls and apparent suicides in the region). Yuri, Hisoka, Miu, and Rui are all drawn to the call of the mountain, while Ren fights to resist being bound in a ghost marriage to help ease the maidens' torment. Most of the story details are presented through notes and books that the characters find, and deep exploration is encouraged. However, the more exploring you do, to more likely you are to run into random ghost encounters.
As with the previous games, the difficulty can be a bit challenging. I managed to get through the first third of the game on the "normal" setting before I was forced to switch to the "easy" setting. While the game warns you that your scores won't be recorded in easy mode, you still earn the same amount of points, which you can then use to upgrade your camera and lenses. In easy mode, the ghosts are weaker and you receive more film and health items, but the biggest difference is that ghosts don't taint you, so it's a lot easier to stay alive. There are no save points, so the game uses an auto-save feature based on various checkpoints. Unfortunately, these can be a bit sporadic. Some checkpoints are only a few minutes apart, while others can be more than an hour apart, which can be very stressful. Most of the objectives are fairly clear, and the characters can use a psychometric trace to point them in the right direction. There were only a small number of times when I got completely stuck and had to refer to a walkthrough for guidance. While the levels are beautifully evocative and highly atmospheric, you do end up revisiting them multiple times, which tends to diminish the thrill of discovery. However, I didn't find that as overbearing as some people did.
Overall, any fan of the "Fatal Frame" series owes it to themselves to play this game. The story, characters, and locations are simply wonderful, and the rich Japanese folklore is extremely captivating. Unfortunately, the biggest down side is the Wii U console itself and the fact that the game is only available as a digital download. But I suppose that's a small complaint compared to the fact that Nintendo offered to support the franchise when no one else would.