Review by BloodGod65

"I Ain't Afraid of No Ghost"

Japanese cinema is often regarded as having perfected the ghost tale. Vengeful spirits, inescapable curses and disturbing imagery are just a few of the elements that have allowed the nation's filmmakers to gain such a notable distinction. One would assume that a country so noted for horror should be able to create a very scary game. Of course, Japan is also known for its rigid adherence to the conventions of the past, which, when it comes to video games, is not an admirable trait. These two attributes combine in Fatal Frame to create a game that is too conventional on both the design and horror fronts to be of much note.

Fatal Frame begins with a young man, Mayafu Hinasaki, entering a dilapidated Japanese mansion. Some time ago his friend – a well known author – began writing a book about the Himuro mansion, a location long feared for its sinister reputation. But after leaving on his preliminary research mission, the author disappears. Mayafu decides that the mansion is the best place to start looking. But once he enters, he is never seen again.

It doesn't take long for someone to come looking for him – in this case, Mayafu's younger sister Miku finds a note he left and decides to come to the mansion to find him. She soon learns that the local legends are true and finds herself surrounded by malicious spirits. Using nothing more than a paranormal camera, Miku must find her brother and unravel the dark secrets of Himuro mansion before it takes her too.

As an old-school survival horror game, genre veterans will know exactly what to expect from Fatal Frame; the puzzles, the pacing, the poor controls, and the scares. It's all here in full force and if you've ever played Resident Evil or any other survival horror game, you won't need me to elaborate on these outdated design conventions.

But for the sake of genre newbies, these issues are worth explanation. The primary issue Fatal Frame encounters, and indeed an issue in most survival horror games, is the tank like control scheme. I won't pretend as if the movement controls are as stiff and unresponsive as those in classic Resident Evil, but moving Miku around the mansion is a slow and deliberate affair. Coupled with the traditional fixed perspective camera, which is often placed in bizarre locations, most players will find themselves struggling against the control scheme on a constant basis.

Perhaps to cope with the clunky control scheme, the game as a whole takes on a slow, deliberate nature. Nothing in the game moves with any haste; players are forced to go through every room scouring for items and clues, plot details are given out at relaxed intervals and even the combat moves at a lazy pace, even when it shouldn't – a problem I'll get to momentarily.

Even if you decide to speed things up on your own, by blazing through rooms and recklessly advancing, such haste will eventually catch up to you with a vengeance. Puzzles play a large role in the game and, as with most survival horror games, completing them often requires collecting a variety of mundane items and clues by scouring the environment. So, if you decide not to do this, eventually you will come to a total roadblock and be forced to backtrack through each room on a hunt for some random item.

Where Fatal Frame deviates from the typical survival horror fare is with the combat. While it doesn't stray from the survival horror tradition of being clunky and hard to deal with – a problem that stems from the aforementioned camera and control issues – having a camera instead of a normal weapon is certainly a novel decision. Drawing from the historic fear that a camera can take a person's soul, Miku's camera obscura is capable of hurting and destroying the many ghostly entities that swarm through Himuro mansion.

When a ghost appears, Miku can raise her camera, which puts her into a first person viewpoint mode. Once the camera is raised, Miku must get the ghost into her targeting reticule and then snap away. Each picture taken does damage to the spirit, and if you can keep it in the reticule longer, you can do extra damage.

While this is certainly a unique take on combat, many issues plague this mechanic. The first, and most problematic, is the altered control scheme. In normal gameplay, the left stick control's Miku's movement and the right controls the camera. But once you raise the camera obscura, the functions switch, so the left stick is camera movement and the right is to move Miku. It's an asinine design choice that makes the already clumsy control scheme all the more so. The other problems stem from the regular, non first-person control scheme. Ghosts have a tendency to materialize in the worst locations for combat and they can dart all over the place, move through solid objects and rematerialize anywhere. This would make evasion difficult in the best of situations, but considering the cramped quarters of the mansion and the terrible controls, staying alive often feels like an insurmountable task. Also, because of these issues, it's hard to keep a bead on a ghost long enough to actually hurt it.

Though Fatal Frame's many issues make it a difficult game to play, they do help it with the fright factor. While being jumped by a ghost after opening a door is scary, trying to run away or fight and finding it nearly impossible because of the poor controls is even more frightening. Truth be told, the actual horror element is nothing new. Considering this is a Japanese horror game, it should come as no surprise that Fatal Frame consists of little more than well-trod cliches. Ghosts attack when Miku has her back turned or when she turns a blind corner. So, while the game maintains a great level of tension, the actual “frights” are a letdown. As a horror veteran I expect something to pop out whenever I pass a mirror or whenever the camera makes an abrupt shift to show my back – and Fatal Frame falls right into this rut.

On the technical side, Fatal Frame is no more impressive. The audio, an integral part of eliciting fear, is a mess. A few well placed sounds can drive tension through the roof, but there's rarely a moment of silence to be heard. Ethereal noise, bumps and moans are constant and this relentless aural assault neutralizes its effect. Voice actors are terrible and they all sound stoned as they deliver their lines in a banal monotone with no feeling or attempt to sound realistic. Thankfully, voice acting is rare.

The graphics, fittingly enough, are as bland and unimaginative as the rest of the game. Because it takes place in a single, decaying location, the color palette is one of the dreariest I've ever seen. Everything is a washed out shade of brown, and even in locations where there should be color – like a garden area – the colors are still unrealistically muted. When it comes to the actual quality of the graphics, Fatal Frame still isn't anything to get excited over. Character and ghost models are bland, textures are muddled and there is a strange, grainy effect layered over everything.

Nearly every old-school survival horror game comes with a set of design expectations; tanklike controls, awkward camera, puzzles, and poor combat. It's a shame that gamers have come to associate poor design with an entire genre, but most companies seem content to stick to what barely works. Fatal Frame is yet another game to put into the category of games that are damned by design. If you're a diehard survival horror fan, Fatal Frame is worth checking out. For those of us who demand games to be designed with some semblance of competence, Fatal Frame is just another loss for survival horror.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 08/19/10

Game Release: Fatal Frame (US, 03/04/02)

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