Review by Sashanan
"Occasionally frustrating. Always disturbing."
Challenging a player, and challenging them at just the right level, is at the core of any game. For a horror title, however, just challenging the player is not enough; they must be scared, first. There are psychological tricks for this, and Fatal Frame employs them to good effect. At other times, however, shaky aspects of the gameplay make things harder than they need to be, threatening to annoy you more than frighten you. As such, Fatal Frame walks a fine line between fear and frustration.
The setting is Himuro Mansion, a place with a dark past you'll learn all about when exploring it, and a severely haunted house at that. Over the years, quite a few people have disappeared after they made the mistake to come near it, most recently your older brother. The game's prologue actually has you control him for a while and gives you a quick tutorial on the basic controls, after which...something happens, and you can't quite see what it was, a storytelling technique the game will use many more times. Then it's on to your main character Miku, entering the house like you had her brother do a short while back, hoping to find some answers.
You'll find them, and each one is more disturbing than the one before, and you'll also find plenty of angry ghosts. Given that your enemies here aren't zombies or monsters, conventional weapons have no place in Fatal Frame; your sole weapon is a camera, which is more effective than you might think. Shooting pictures of ghosts has an exorcising effect, and will eventually drive them off for a while or trap them outright inside your camera, getting rid of them forever. Of course, using a camera in combat poses its own challenges. It can be hard enough to see what you're doing when walking around through the eternally dark mansion normally; the game's camera viewpoints are fixed for dramatic effect, and as survival horrors love to do, they're often not where you'd want them to be for getting a good overview. Bringing up your own camera switches to a first person view, though looking through the camera's lens gives you some real tunnel vision, adding significantly to the challenge and scare factor of battling ghosts. They, meantime, act as one might expect ghosts to do, shimmering in and out of sight, moving effortlessly through walls and other obstacles, occasionally teleporting short distances, hoping to get close enough to grab you and cause you damage - serious damage, usually, with many ghosts happily draining away half or more of your life bar with a hit.
Meanwhile, just snapping quick pictures of ghosts as you see them does little damage. For a good hit, you'll need to keep the ghost in view for a while, causing the camera to charge up for a more damaging shot. Of course, while you do that, a ghost might decide to turn invisible for a second, or teleport around, causing you to lose the shot entirely, and having to put down the camera to find the ghost again. Often you'll hear them and feel them (the controller's rumble to signify nearby ghosts will make you uneasy very quickly) but not see them until they're almost on top of you. The best shots, though, called Zero shots in game terms, can be had only by shooting a ghost just as it is attacking you. This'll require you to allow them to get dangerously close, and requires near perfect timing to pull off the shot just before you actually take a hit. This kind of staredown of camera vs ghost is exhilarating and managing to land an extremely damaging shot because you were brave enough to wait for it makes for some of the best moments in the game.
Each shot taken earns you points, with the risky high damage ones giving you the most. These points can then be used to upgrade your camera in a variety of ways, like making your shots more powerful, your viewfinder bigger so that your shots don't need to be quite as accurate, or adding special functions to your camera like making a ghost more visible or slowing them down, although these special abilities have to be fueled with consumable items found throughout the mansion. Healing items are likewise found by exploring, but so are random ghosts, and unlike healing items they do not run out. You need to hurry, and run from a ghost now and again instead of fighting it, or you will find yourself out of healing or good film for your camera (cheap kinds can at least be refilled at save points) before you know it. This, of course, helps a lot to fuel the overall feeling of being helpless and overwhelmed in a mansion that becomes increasingly more hostile as you advance through the story.
Uncovering the mansion's secrets and the history of the various ghosts and the fate of the people that have gone missing here (which is never pretty) comes through exploring rooms, finding items that need to be brought to other rooms to unlock new paths, the usual survival horror fare. The camera plays a part in many of these puzzles - apart from exorcising ghosts, it can also reveal things that the eye can't see. For instance, photographing a locked door often results in the developed picture showing not the door, but the location where the key can be found. Shots don't have to be taken randomly, as there are visual cues and more controller rumbling when you get close to a place where such a special picture can be snapped. You'll also be able to snap pictures of ghosts that appear briefly and do not attack, but are worth bonus points (translating to more camera upgrades) if you catch them before they disappear.
The action is spread out over four nights, each opening up a few new locations, but also requiring you to explore the rooms you've already been to. Blocked paths become unblocked, doors that once opened are now sealed by a mysterious force, and the route you need to take to get even to a familiar room thus sometimes changes. The mansion is small enough that the exploration that's often required is not a real chore; even if you have no clue where to go, there's usually only so many places you *can* go to, and once you get close to your next destination the game will start dropping hints, like ghosts briefly appearing and walking in the direction you need to head to as well.
For the most part, Fatal Frame succeeds in telling a creepy story, keeping you uneasy with excellent use of dramatic camera viewpoints, ambient sound, scary looking ghosts and sometimes downright disturbing flashbacks of horrible occult rituals that took place in this mansion. It's one of those games that works best when played in the dark, but for some perhaps a little too well. I definitely found it up a notch from Silent Hill and two notches from Resident Evil in how much the overall atmosphere of wrongness got to me at times. Certainly the game's sometimes unforgiving combat played a part in this as well. If you level hordes of zombies with heavy firepower, or even walk around on your own through a foggy town with a radio that lets you know when there are enemies approaching and a good supply of pistol bullets in your pack, things don't get quite as scary. Here, if I was walking down a narrow corridor (down as in, the camera facing me instead of showing my back), low on health, down to my last precious Herbal Medicine, hearing ambient noises of which I'm no longer sure if they do signify a nearby ghost or not, and then suddenly one of them dashes through a nearby wall and straight at me...yeah. That works.
What doesn't work is when the gameplay mechanics themselves become plain unfair. A few specific ghost encounters are made needlessly hard by the camera position deciding to do a 180 on you when you walk halfway the room. You run from place to place trying to get good shots on a teleporting ghost while not letting it touch you, then suddenly the room flips around again and you're walking straight into his arms. Granted, if you keep the thumbstick pressed in one direction, the camera flipping does not change your character's direction, but even a minor deviation will reset your movement and has sent Miku to her doom at my hands more than once. In another annoyance, the final chapter of the game makes you walk quite a bit to reach the final boss, fighting several other scripted enemies along the way, and cutting you off from all save points long before you actually get to the last battle. Death at the hands of the boss, quite common as this is a one hit kill scenario, means getting to do a good chunk of the night over. Moments like this are precisely where Fatal Frame takes things too far. Fortunately, while it happens enough to be mildly annoying, it does not break the game, nor take away from the fact that this is one scary survival horror game with an interesting take on combat. Replay value is provided by an unlockable 'battle mode' consisting of staged battles against one (or several) ghosts from the main game with a limited supply of film to take pictures with, and a Nightmare difficulty mode that also needs to be unlocked, provides much stiffer opposition, but also an alternate ending to the story. Film, healing items and camera upgrades can be carried over to a new game, letting you prepare for this final challenge, and new and powerful camera upgrades become available only after clearing certain game modes. All in all there is plenty of reason to challenge Himuro mansion a couple more times after you see the story through.
Despite frustrating moments that could have been avoided, Fatal Frame is overall a solid package for horror fans. One last piece of advice: if you do insist on playing this in the dark, make sure you know where your cat is. You've been warned.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 05/19/08
Game Release: Fatal Frame (US, 03/04/02)
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