Review by femiwhat
"A great first "stab" for the series."
First, a little background. I used to be an RPG fan, but they stopped making good ones, and I got into survival horror through Silent Hill. I played the Fatal Frame games out of order, starting with FF2, which I thought was scarier and a bit more fun than the first game. I hate Resident Evil. Now you know where I'm coming from, so you can ignore my opinion if you want.
Fatal Frame is the beginning of a story that revolves around the mysterious Camera Obscura, a device with the power to photograph and capture "things that other people can't see." The protagonist, Miku, has always had an ability to see these things, but she'll need the extra help in order to explore the Himuro mansion, where her brother, Mafuyu, has gone missing while attempting to find his mentor. The tragic and frightening story of what made the manor a place of danger and evil is told through encounters with the paranormal as Miku searches for her brother.
STORY - 9/10
The only downside to the story is disclosed at the outset: this house, apparently, eats people...but we're still going in. The protagonist is already aware of the fact that her brother's mentor and two of his associates disappeared some time ago; her brother, too, is missing. When Miku gets herself trapped in the house going after her brother, it starts to sound a little like the fable of the people who die trying to retrieve a chicken from a well.
Once you accept Miku's devotion to her brother and tell yourself that she tried to get the police involved but they wouldn't listen to her, a bone-chilling ghost story emerges. Human sacrifice, ancient evil, and madness are the framework, but, best of all, the tale is multi-layered. The ghosts of the original inhabitants provide the main plot, but Miku's contemporaries aren't the first group to have ventured into the manor...
Not only is the story excellent, but the manner of storytelling is quite good, as well. This game manages to almost completely avoid having someone simply sit down and explain the story. The ghosts themselves perform actions indicative of their earthly preoccupations as well as speaking from time to time, but always in a manner consistent with what the ghost would actually be doing. The rest of the plot is divulged through journals and cassette recordings found by the player; for the most part, these don't break the fourth wall by including information the author/speaker would be unlikely to express.
SETTING - 7/10
It's a big, sprawling, spooky mansion! The different sections of the manor are given distinct character without creating any incongruity, and the whole thing has a distinctly Japanese feel. The detail given to the decor (as well as Miku's reflections thereupon) really immerses the player.
The downside to this set-up is that it necessitates a lot of back-tracking. While some sections of the manor are sealed off at the beginning and become available only through progress into the storyline, accessing these areas requires traveling through the same places you've already been. Additionally, the manor isn't large enough to have the story move completely to these new areas; some of the original locations are used and reused. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but a lot of the fright factor dissolves once you've been in a certain room so many times that you feel familiar with it...even safe.
GAMEPLAY - 8/10
The idea of taking pictures of something that's attacking you and killing it that way might sound bizarre or even humorous, but the combat system completely makes the game. When the viewfinder is up, you can finally damage the ghosts. Unfortunately, this is when you're at your most vulnerable. You can move only slowly and without a good view of your surroundings. The boxy viewfinder of the camera eliminates the sense of peripheral vision as you switch, essentially, from a third-person view to a first-person one. These two factors combine to make the camera-wielding Miku an easy target for ghosts that fly around, disappear, or teleport. The uncertainty brought on by not knowing what's behind you will have you spinning around constantly, but you don't want to lower the camera and risk losing attack charge. This system creates a healthy level of paranoia while, at the same time, providing a great way to see the ghosts as they're attacking...and really feel like they're attacking you.
On the down-side, Miku does not run nearly as fast as I believe I would run were I being pursued by vengeful spirits. The changing camera angles get her stuck on corners or running into walls before you correct; occasionally, this takes a bit of doing as she moves between angles that make it difficult to sort out how to progress. And, of course, this game suffers from the typical video-game environment issues: Miku won't punch through a paper screen, hop over a small obstacle, or otherwise make navigation easier for herself. Oh well.
Replay value is also pretty high. After you complete the story, additional costumes are unlocked, as well as another playing mode that involves simply fighting ghosts and trying to get high scores. Doing well enough in this mode wil unlock a new difficulty level, and beating that will reveal a second ending.
GRAPHICS - 8/10
Not only are the game environments beautifully detailed and realistic in appearance... you can examine them up-close using the camera! Show me another game that permits that level of scrutiny!
The protagonist and her brother move realistically and look pretty good, if a bit anime-ish. This doesn't detract from the style too much, but I can't help but wondering if a realistic-looking heroine might have added to the mood. (What?! You mean Japanese girls don't all look like anime characters?!)
Some of the ghosts seem to suffer from scaling issues. There's a little girl with no neck and a barrel of a belly, a blind ghost whose head seems too large for her body... Nothing too bad, but they are small issues that keep the score down.
The difference between gameplay and the cut scenes is very noticeable, but the cut scenes are gorgeous, so no complaints there. The cut scenes are fairly prevalent--they pop up when encountering a new ghost or at other times when Miku needs to look more frightened than she does in normal gameplay--but the ending, oddly enough, is told mostly without them. Huh. Go figure.
SOUND EFFECTS/MUSIC - 5/10
Unfortunately, every game has a low point, and this is it for Fatal Frame. The voice-acting is terrible. Miku sounds stoned, and the people on the tapes sound like they're reading from a script they've never seen before with the instructions to sloooow doooooown. Very little real emotion, including terror, is expressed vocally.
The ghosts can be very difficult to understand, and they either suffer from the above problem (if it's a passive ghost) or repeat the same short phrase over and over (as they attack). The voice acting isn't great here, either; the ghosts sound demonic, but not particularly creepy.
As for music...there isn't much. When they decide to turn it on all of a sudden for effect, it is fairly jarring, but the music itself isn't creepy enough to really make a difference. Mostly, the game makes good use of silence: when the ambience disappears and a room is completely silent, you automatically wonder what's coming. But the ghosts don't really capitalize on this effect; most of the silent rooms are going to stay that way, so you stop caring pretty quickly.
DIFFICULTY (not scored)
Fighting in this game can be extremely frustrating, especially when Miku is forced to maneuver in a cramped space. She has to worry about obstacles getting in her way or obstructing her view, but ghosts are perfectly happy to hide out in the walls (where you can't damage them) and shoot projectiles, at times. Fighting more than one ghost at a time becomes rapidly unfun, as one ghost can hold you still just long enough for the other to get its whack in, too. A lot of the skill required lies in moving to more strategic ground, when available. When it's not available, you're just going to have to live with the fact that healing items are meant to be used. Overall, the fighting isn't really that hard, but it can be frustrating.
Capturing vanishing ghosts is another story all together. Some of them linger long enough for you to get the if you're more-or-less on the ball; others vanish so quickly that you had to know they were coming and maneuver just right. Completing the ghost list is a true challenge.
Of course, this applies to the normal difficulty setting of the game. When certain requirements are met, a Nightmare difficulty can be unlocked. In this setting, ghosts do more damage, and your camera is less adept at tracking them for you.
If a ghost story doesn't sound scary to you, don't bother--this game loses a lot of its fun factor the less creeped out you are. If you're a fan of psychological horror, ghost stories, movies like "The Grudge", the Silent Hill series, or cute Japanese girls in short skirts, this game is for you...if you can find it.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 10/17/06
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