Review by Bloomer
"I praise Project Zero during those times when I can remember not being blinded by my own anger with it."
The Project Zero series (Fatal Frame to Americans) takes survival horror into Ju-on / Ringu territory, pitting the player against vengeful Japanese ghosts and dark familial curses from the past. The films which inspired the series depict a world in which ghosts are all around us, if only we'd make the effort to look for them. To attempt to help a ghost find peace involves engagement with it, but this is also the way of greatest danger. The scene in which a character finally locks eyes with a ghost, face to face, is frequently the one which immediately precedes that character's death. And maximum screaming from the audience.
Project Zero is a horror game built around repetition of this extremely uncomfortable moment. The heroine's gaze becomes a weapon against ghosts through the medium of photography. To defend herself against restless spirits, Miku must meet their gaze over and over, and snap photographs of them. The closer and more centred each shot is, and the longer the frame is held for, the more damage is inflicted upon the spirit when the shutter clicks. As a gameplay mechanism it's extremely original, and the surrounding creepiness, atmosphere and production values in Project Zero are exceptional. Yet it is down to those combat mechanics, which in execution are massively aggravating, and all the associated loading of the game against your ability to stay alive, or to not have to replay great stretches of it when you die, which make the game far too grueling for it to be able to exist in your memory as the rich experience it should be. My first attempt at the game led me, after hours of investment, to be completely stuck in a saved game position where I was mangled, out of the rare healing items and needing to run a gauntlet of unavoidable, difficult ghost encounters to continue, or even just 'get back in the game'. I eventually gave up out of anger and went off to collect advice from other gamers. I also consulted a FAQ for combat tips. My second attempt a month later resulted in ultimate completion of the game, but not without great hoarding of healing items and copious abuse of save game positions, and all the multiple tiresome reloads and replays the latter entailed.
The character you play, Miku, is a Japanese schoolgirl setting out to explore the old Himuro mansion where her brother Mafuyu disappeared nine days ago. Mafuyu in turn was investigating the disappearance from the mansion of his mentor, a famous novelist. You get to play as Mafuyu in the short, tutorial-like first level of the game, up to the point he disappears. The back story subsequently pieced together by Miku through found notes and flashbacks concerns an event known as The Calamity, weird sacrificial rituals and a lot of violence involving ropes. The nature of the horrors which transpired in the mansion inform the design of all the ghosts who attack you during the game. Torture victims seek to inflict their tortures on you. A blinded woman staggers about moaning, 'My eyes, my eyes,' and flails towards you if she hears you moving. The ghosts of dead children are both playful and maliciously unpredictable. The excellent inner logic of the game makes for a highly involving and discomforting experience. There are no randomly weird mutations of the kind that sometimes show up in a Resident Evil title. Everything in Project Zero is there for a reason.
The game's presentation is of the Dino Crisis / Code Veronica style, a combination of static camera angles and the occasional tracking shot. Miku is very slow though, even when running. This is probably realistic, since she's in a place she's never been before, in night time darkness and with only her torch for illumination, but you still won't appreciate the verisimilitude come fight time. Project Zero's controls are also noteworthy in this genre for being the first to offer absolute directional control while also addressing the problem which occurs when the camera angle changes and the controls are suddenly reoriented. It does this by continuing to let you run in a straight line after an angle change, so long as you continue to hold the analogue stick in the same position as it was when you exited the last shot. This remains the best solution to the problem to date, and has been utilised by numerous other games since.
The mansion is immensely creepy, both visually and sonically. Some choice shifts of camera angle are startling, and the eerie rolling of Miku's torchlight through slats of wood and crevices actually made me shiver at times. The soundtrack is a fine example of the doomy ambience that's been developed in this genre, and there are also one-off subliminal whispers, groans and chants that often cause you to pause and question whether you really just heard something. Also, faint static can alert you to the presence of hidden ghosts which can be photographed for spirit points, but you must scan the scenery carefully through your camera's viewfinder to locate them. The camera also insinuates itself into the role of most other traditional gaming tropes here. For instance, Project Zero's doors aren't unlocked with keys. They're unlocked by photographing the door, seeing a psychically related image of another place or object revealed in the picture, and finding and photographing this second object to break a demon seal, or perhaps free a spirit which was holding the door shut.
This rich set of mechanics would make for a fine mystery game even without any threat to your life involved, but after a gentle start, Project Zero heaps on so much threat that you're left snarling in the corner with your saved games. Ghosts as nemeses present all kinds of interesting gameplay possibilities. You don't necessarily have to see or hear one before it manifests and decides to attack, so it's impossible to watch out for an enemy in advance in this game; they just aren't there to be seen. There are set encounters whose positions you will come to learn, and from which you cannot flee, and then there are completely random attacks prompted by not much idleness on your part. Ghosts also have no truck with walls they can hover and attack from positions completely outside the game's bounds if they want, so architecture makes an enormous difference to the way any battle goes. The usual strategy is to run, about face, try to snap a picture or two, then evade and repeat. In a narrow room, you've got nowhere to evade. In a small room, you've got nowhere to run or evade. In any room, your movement speed is a crawl, typically only 150% or less of the ghost's. The fact that a camera's gaze is as instantaneous as a laser beam in weaponry terms had to be dealt with somehow, and the ghosts' answer is to frequently turn invisible (making them invulnerable) or simply teleport right behind you or elsewhere in a room, often several times in as many seconds. The game rewards you for taking dangerously close, long-held shots, but of course if your timing is even a bit off, you get hit.
Being hit is a big deal when you're as weak as Miku. You have a deceptively large looking health bar on the screen, but what's the point of its visual bigness if two good hits can kill you? Two solid hits from any ghost after the halfway point of the game will indeed kill you, 'solid' meaning a hit unmitigated by the button-mashing which can sometimes reduce damage. All in all, every single battle has strong potential to immediately end the game in a way that's far too serendipitous. On one pass, a particular ghost encounter might be a piece of cake in which the ghost just floats towards you in a straight line. The same encounter, if you're unlucky, can be rife with cheap teleportations and special paralysing attacks, or the ghost may just be behind a wall the entire time, though still able to swipe at you from there. The erratic danger levels resulted in me heavily abusing my saved games. You may have to reload several times to get a particular fight to just go 'okay'. After my first aborted attempt at the game, I found myself quite reluctant to use more than one healing item per battle, so if it ever went worse than that, I would reload. At times you must string together three or four tough victories over ghosts to reach the next save point, so between getting killed (involuntary) and not wanting to use up all my healing items too soon (voluntary), I often found myself reloading from the last save point up to six times in a row and some of these runs were twenty minutes long. That's an hour or two just trying to progress by one save point several rooms away, taking on the same infuriating battles over and over again.
Any spirit points you do manage to eke out of your panicky combat photography can be spent upgrading your camera's strength, which keeps it roughly in line with the strength of the ghosts over time. This is another way of saying that you will spend all your points as a matter of course and experience no relative improvement in your fighting ability. Special functions can also be purchased for your camera, like 'track a ghost' and 'freeze a ghost', but they're too expensive, largely ineffectual (lots of ghosts just aren't touched by them) and require a steady supply of Spirit Stones as well, one for every time you press the button in hopes of using the function. Spirit Stones, like health items, are in short supply. I believe in retrospect that my first game was doomed partly because I bothered to invest in a special function, rather than just continuing to throw my spirit cash into the basic upgrading of my camera.
Your game can also be completely ruined by an unlucky random ghost appearance. Again, this is due to the great damage ghosts inflict and the perilousness of each encounter. The random ghosts can and will pursue you for up to two or three rooms, making running away an imperfect option. The worst example I experienced of ruination by random ghost involved a moment during which I was opening a door to the next room. A ghost appeared beside me right then and hit me while I was still stuck in the uninterruptible door-opening animation. I had one third of a health bar left at the time and I died, incensed.
The game's climactic sequence involves negotiating three ghost fights and the boss fight in one unbroken pass. I know that other gamers and reviewers have expressed some anger at this stretch, though actually I found it to be significantly easier than the majority of ghost encounters during the latter half of the game. Perhaps it's just that after all that time I had finally acclimatised to the hundred angry-making quirks of the ghost battles. The game still managed to screw me once more in its typically aggravating fashion by featuring a post boss fight scene of three seconds' duration in which you must perform one more action or die. When first presented with this scene, I literally could not decipher what I was seeing. I assumed it to be a cutscene obscured by a ghostly warbling effect, perhaps brought about by my victory. The only clear part was that the bad girl was on the right, floating leftwards. 'To her doom,' I thought. As my heroine Miku was impossible to see (she was on the left obscured by the rippling visual effect like everything else), I died for the Nth time. I accepted this particular death with a calm completely at odds with the nerve-shredding anger I had frequently experienced during the course of the game, and I think that's because I was used to dying by now.
Project Zero is an exceptionally well presented title full of original ideas, and those ideas are pursued with a formal clarity of vision rare in gaming. It also achieves both subtle, creepy horror and moments of jump-out-of-your-seat scariness. However, the combination of the combat, health and save game issues make it so wretchedly dangerous and frustrating that it can easily blot out all of its own effect and leave you blind to everything but your own infuriation. I have a feeling a simple fix to all of these problems would simply have been to reduce the damage the ghosts inflict. What's novel about the camera combat would have remained novel, but you would have had a buffer against the fluke disasters which send you back to your saved games with nauseating frequency. We can all tolerate some bad luck and chaos in gaming, but Project Zero errs severely in that direction, to its detriment. I've read that the game's first sequel is largely a repeat of the first game, but with the most annoying ghost behaviours toned down. I intend to investigate such claims later in 2008, and hope not to disappear during the course of the investigation.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 07/30/08
Game Release: Project Zero (EU, 08/30/02)
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