Review by Jet Black

"Project Zero / Fatal Frame comments"

NOTE: This is spoiler free.

Simply put ''Project Zero'' (as named in Japan. But ''Fatal Frame'' for the states) won't be for everyone.

There are no monsters jumping out of windows, or bursting through doors. When you're attacked there is no blood splattering off your character, or blood splattering off the enemy. There are no traps to kill you, or puzzles that kill you, if you fail. This is a ghost story, a haunted mansion, an empty building. In the tradition of ''survival horror'' for video games, ''Zero'' doesn't fit the mold American gamers have grown so fond of. And most will probably pass this game, or rent it, and return it after the first 30 minutes.

And that's a shame, because they will miss a lot.

''Zero'' draws you into a new environment, much like ICO did with it's never-ending castle setting. And it's this point where ''Zero'' really shines. The mansion is quiet. It looks normal half the time, and the walls are not painted with blood. It looks old, and run down, but not completely threatening. It's pitch black except for your flashlight. You don't suspect anything, and that's where Tecmo gets you. We are talking about GHOSTS here. They don't need to bust through walls. They go THROUGH walls, floors, water, rock and stone. There's no escape. Run from one room to another, and it doesn't matter. Welcome to a real haunted house.

I can't stress the atmosphere enough in this game. The first half of this game sets you up. You pass along from room to room, and occasionally you'll run into a ghost, or two. Nothing serious, and nothing you can't handle. For a while, the game looks easy. But Tecmo isn't counting on gamers looking for a short romp. They're looking for the long haul, and if you stick with it, the strategy pays off, big! Tecmo even compels you to travel wisely in this game with the slow speed of your character. Miku, the heroine, walks. And if you want to speed her up, she will only trot. No running in this game. In short Miku, is much like James Sanderland in Silent Hill. They are not military types. Just ordinary people. In this case, even more so. Miku squeals when hurt, her knees buckle when attacked, she cowers and covers her face when surprised. You actually feel sympathy for her. She is really in the WRONG place at the WRONG time. No, Miku is not going to run for you. Play this game and get comfortable.

You start the game as Miku's brother, without spoiling anything, I'll say he searches a few rooms and discovers something. Or ''something'' discovers him. This intro includes a brief instruction on how to use the camera, and the entire segment is shown through a black and white chrome filter. The grain filter is much like Silent Hill2. After Miku's brother's brief intro, you switch to the main heroine, and the presentation is now in color (there is still a grain effect).

Miku is armed with a mighty flashlight, until she discovers the camera left by her brother. And this begins the game in a proper way. As Miku discovers objects left behind by others who came before her, she has a temporal ''flashback'' into their plight. These flashbacks are presented in black and white, and flicker like old movie film reels. As you progress through the game, more and more of these flashbacks are presented rounding out the horrid history of the mansion, and how it became the haunted house it is today.

The game is third person, with a camera that follows from different angles. Miku is controlled with the left analog stick, or the direction buttons. The right analog stick controls the flashlight (which doesn't do much). You have a choice of set up in the options menu. Miku turns around fast, and responds well. She also (adopting Silent Hill's method) turns her head when an object, or door is nearby. This helps, because sometimes an object is hidden, or NOT indicated at all. Also, all the load times are done in the background.....so it will seem like you can open any door and just walk right in (a welcome sight from the long load times of Resident Evil). This is also a great innovation, because this game is in 3D, not just simply prerendered backgrounds. Also neat are the new camera angles you will find when going BACK to a room. This eliminates boredom of the ''been-there-done-that'', and also raises suspense when a new view is added, and a ghost happens to be in the gamer's view, but not the characters.

When you encounter a ghost and go into battle mode, the button arrangement changes. Depending on your personal set-up, when you ''battle'' you switch to first person view (through the lens finder of the camera). The analog sticks slightly switch performance. Now the LEFT analog moves your camera, and the RIGHT analog stick moves Miku. You can move an any direction, as long as you're not next to a wall, or object on the floor, or stairs. You get used to this rather well.

In order to ''kill'' a ghost, you need to capture it on film (this is based on the primitive mythology that a soul is captured on film), as close as possible and centered in your lens finder. While this is going on, your camera will ''load up'' spirit energy. The longer you have a ghost in your lens sights (dead center) the more your camera ''loads up''. Load times also depend on the type of film in the camera. At this point, you have two options. You can just shoot away, and grab enough shots to pick away at the ghost.......OR........test your skills and nerves, and let the ghost come in for a closer shot, for more damage. Needless to say, you don't have a magic camera with infinite ammo, so it's better to try for the close up ''kill me'' shot. You have a few help features for this strategy:

1) - the lower right hand corner has a ''radar'' that lights up when you are facing a ghost, or tells you how close the ghost is to you. You will see this ''radar'' in both 3rd person, and first person modes.

2) - The view finder, first person mode, will light up with a blue circle when you have a ghost dead center.

3) - The view finder, first person mode, will light up with a red/orange color when the ghost is so close it's dangerous to Miku (only when the camera is fully loaded) - this is possibly the best shot.

4) - The controller will vibrate like a beating heart in your hands, and the closer the ghost is, the faster is beats. This is very helpful when you have NO idea where the ghost is. Allow yourself as a sitting duck to draw the ghost out. It's scary, but it works, and you have to be quick with your camera once you ''think'' you ''feel'' it close enough.

All the above makes for a very intense battle situation. You may walk into a room, and feel the slight tremor of the controller.....indicating that you are NOT alone in the room.

NOTE: With replay, a few of these features may change.

Also, to help you out in your ghost hunt are upgrades for your camera. With each ghost you ''capture'' on film.....depending on how well you shot the ghost.......you're granted spirit points for your camera. Gain enough points and you can upgrade that puppy into a serious fighting battle camera. You can do many things, from ''slow motion'', to ''paralyze'', and ''Back off'', and even ''Find'' (when the ghosts are too quick, or don't want to be found). Also available are other sub-features. But these come with a VERY high price, and often are not available until you replay the game. To use a ''feature'' you've upgraded, you will need to go into battle mode, charge your camera, and with the ghost in your lens finder, press the L1 shoulder button. Your ''upgrade feature'' effect will work (for a limited time, but enough for you to get your pic).

Also to aide your quest into the dark heart of the haunted mansion are health items.

1) - small drinks in bamboo cups, gives you about a third of your health bar.

2) - drinks in glass bottles, revives two-thirds of your health bar.

3) - purple life stones, which revives you if you die, but you are only allowed to carry one at a time.

Then, there are the offensive aides for your camera. This is the film that often makes the difference when you progress through the game. Think of it as more progressive ammo:

BLUE film: Ordinary loading film. You will find enough of this around. Use it for low level ghosts, and for puzzles. If you want to fight a boss with this, then you need to move around a lot and do a lot of dodging while it loads.

GREEN film: Better film because it loads already half charged. Makes easy work of the low class ghosts and makes the mid-level ghosts run for the hills. It's good against BOSS ghosts. I used this exclusively.

RED film: Now this stuff is rare, and only used if you're out of luck and out of film. Keep it for replay, but if you need to use it, it will kill about any ghost with ease.

GOLD film: The cream of the crop, and extremely rare. Find this stuff and keep it. Never use it, until the very end.....I used RED film at the very end, but if you wish to stay alive and not replay the final BOSS a hundred times, use the GOLD. It's like an automatic FULL load once a ghost is in your sights.

Other details:
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The MAIN MENU is accessed through the ''square'' button. You can get to this menu at any time, even in the middle of a fight (battle stops while you figure out how to stay alive) Once in the main menu you can use:

MAP - shows all areas you have been. You can zoom into areas, and move the map around. It also shows doors that are open, or locked. The L1 and R1 shoulder buttons flip through ''levels'' of the building.....(basement, attic, first floor, second floor.....). You can also access the MAP from the ''start'' button.

OPTIONS - You can change control set ups, sound, background, brightness.....ect.

ITEMS - here is where you will find health items, film and other key information.......and clues are gathered.

PHOTOGRAPHS - each time you battle a ghost, each shot you take is recorded into this section. You can select which pics you want to store to the memory card, delete other pics, or just take a look at your great art. It's also good for looking at clues shown only through the camera.

FILES - As you go through the game you will uncover notebooks by others who came before you. Check these notes for important clues to various things....and insight to the story. You will also find instructions on the camera. And important photos for ''clues'' are in this section.

CAMERA - upgrade you camera in this section, change film, and check on how much the next upgrade will cost. You don't have to upgrade your camera in any particular order (like an RPG, where you have to have one certain armor, in order to get the next).

My Comments:

This is a quality game in it's own right. This is not another tacked on cookie cutter survival horror game. Much as I love the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series, and the adventure of Parasite Eve and Dino Crisis, this game steps in a new direction......and comparisons to other games should be avoided.

Jump on this game if you're into a deep involving storyline, and the full atmosphere of a haunted house. Also, look for this game if you're into suspense more than grotesque imagery. This game, much like Silent Hill, works on your mind's perception of horror, and fear. Yes, some images are very dark and bloody......but nothing on par with other visual centered horror games.

Game length will vary from person to person, but this is no RPG game. You can finish this under 15 hours on the game clock. Even less if you cut the FMV scenes. Due to the slow walking mode of the character, even if you wanted, you can't ''run'' through the game. Which is good (you'd ruin the tone and atmosphere of the game by rushing through it).

Replay is good, plenty of new features are added (I won't spoil what they are)....but expect ''new modes'' of game play, and ''presentation'' of characters, and new folders in the ''MAIN MENU''. You'll also discover a new task for playing the game again. And when saving photos, more options. Also expect more camera changes, making the rooms look different from the first time around. You can also change the difficulty level.....which will change how you ''fight'' and ''encounter'' ghosts.

But you will carry over previous items into replay.

Also, expect to be graded on your game by ''rank''. How this affects your ending, or replay, is up to the gamer. (and again, I'm not spoiling anything).

THINGS I'D LIKE TO SEE CHANGE:

I'm not sure how the american release will stack up, but I'd like to see a few improvements to the game, if possible. Things that didn't work for me (no spoilers):

THE MAP.
It gives away too much information. Once you enter a room, if you switch to the map you will see how big the room is, the shape, how many doors, and if they are open or locked, and if there's a save marker. This should have been more like Silent Hill, where you mark on the map if the door is locked, or open, AFTER you attempt to open it. This took away some of the suspense, for me.

THE ''LOOK'': Miku will turn her head if she's near an item, or a door. While this is good for finding items the gamer can't see........it doesn't help when Miku sees TOO MUCH. The level design is created in such a way, that Miku turns her head to an item, or door in ANOTHER room, or in a secret area. Thus, you might spend a few minutes trying to find something you can't even get to. The mansion turns out to be a very complex level design, which is good, but not so good when your character is turning her head at items you can't reach until later in the game.

BATTLE MODE:
Certain fights are more difficult than others due to the battle mode and procedure. This ONLY happens with multiple ghosts. When you normally fight ONE ghost, you're in first person shooter mode, unless you want to get out of it (press ''triangle'' to get back to third person mode). But with multiple ghosts, after you ''kill'' one ghost, the game tosses you back to third person mode, and YOU (the gamer) have to manually get back in first person shooter mode. The problem is.....the OTHER ghosts are still coming at you. So if two ghosts are at the same distance from you, and you kill one, then watch his ''death animation'', then you're switched back to third person, then switch back to first person.....that other ghost is already on you. You should be allowed to STAY in first person shooter mode, UNTIL all the ghosts are ''killed''. This was annoying, and trust me, you will get more than 2 ghosts....so imagine running through this routine for EACH ghost.

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Nonetheless, ''Project Zero'' (Fatal Frame, in the states, and Europe) is an engrossing title and well worth the playing time. Editors and game reviewers will like it's new fresh approach to the survival horror genre, but gamers might be cautious of it's slow burner style psychological strategy (even though the fights are anything , but slow......trust me, later in the game you won't know which side is up after fighting some of these ghosts. I recommend this game highly, and I hope it opens the door for more innovation in the horror genre. (Much like Silent Hill did).

Also, this game can find more market share with female gamers, since it involves the main character as a young girl (as opposed to the classic tough guy, or military police style woman seen in other games). And the lack of grotesque imagery. After all, it's better to be scared, than just being ''grossed out''.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/28/02, Updated 01/28/02


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