Review by YusakuG

"If all it takes to catch a ghost is an old camera, why did the Ghostbusters need all that high-tech equipment?"

Ever since Capcom proved that horror-themed games could be a financial gold mine with Resident Evil, many companies have tried to duplicate their success, with mixed results. So far, the only company that's gotten close to Capcom's level of success is Konami with their Silent Hill series. Now, Tecmo throws their hat into the Survival Horror ring with Fatal Frame. (Known as Project Zero in Japan.) Not only is it generally scary, it also offers some much-needed originality to the genre.

Fatal Frame's story begins with Himuro Mansion, a house that once belonged to a powerful Japanese landowner. The house has a long history of strange tales. Tales of murder, bizarre Shinto cults, and ghostly visions accompanied by the sounds of tortured souls. Although the house has been abandoned for years, no one has ever set foot near the mansion.

That all changed when an author by the name of Junsei Takamine entered Himuro Mansion. Accompanied by his editor, Koji Ogata, and his personal assistant, Tomoe Hirasaka, Mr. Takamine wanted to explore the very depths of the abandoned mansion. He was intrigued by the many bizarre stories he had heard about the house, and wanted inspiration for a new horror novel he was working on. However, days after entering Himuro Mansion, the group disappeared, and no one has heard from them since.

Days after the disappearance, a young man named Mafuyu Hinasaki entered the house alone. Mr. Takamine had been his mentor, and Mafuyu was determined to find him, or at least what had happened to him. Mafuyu had heard tales that Himuro Mansion was haunted. Fortunately, he had a sixth sense that not only allowed him to sense the presence of the ghosts, but it also gives him the ability to capture their very souls with the use of an antique camera. Shortly after beginning his investigation into the mansion, Mafuyu began to find evidence of Mr. Takamine's presence. However, like the group before them, Mafuyu soon also disappeared within the depths of the house, and has not been heard from since.

This is where the game begins. You take control of Miku Hinasaki, Mafuyu's younger sister. Like her brother, she too has a strong sixth sense power. She has a feeling that Mafuyu is still somewhere inside Himuro Mansion, and is trapped. She enters the house alone, only to find her brother's antique camera lying on the floor. She picks up the camera, ready to battle the many spirits that walk the halls of the mansion. Her quest to find her missing brother will ultimately unravel the long and murderous history of Himuro Mansion.

Ever since the Survival Horror genre hit it big with Resident Evil, I had wanted a game that focused on a mansion haunted by spirits. However, the only problem with that idea is how would you be able to attack the ghosts? Tecmo came up with a unique spin to clear this obstacle. Instead of arming your character with tons of heavy artillery like most games of the genre, your character would only be armed with a camera. Using that camera, you could capture the very spirits that try to attack you. (This idea is based on the old superstition that a photograph captures a person's soul.)

The game's battle system is certainly new. When you encounter a ghost, you press the O button to go into first-person view. The screen will now be shown like you were looking through a camera viewfinder. You must line up the camera's ''Capture Circle'' in the middle of the screen with the ghost before you. This charges up your Spirit Power, which is represented by Japanese characters at the bottom of the screen. When you feel your Spirit Power has charged up enough, snap a picture of the ghost with the X button. The higher your Spirit Power has built up, the more damage you will do to the ghost.

Of course, the spirits aren't just going to stand there, smile pretty for the camera, and say ''cheese''. The ghosts will often fight back, striking Miku with powerful blows, or literally grabbing and shaking her. The key strategy to battle is getting far enough away from the ghosts in order to get a long enough chance to power up your Spirit Power meter.

Naturally, the further you explore Himuro Mansion, the stronger the ghosts you battle become. Fortunately, Miku can upgrade her camera, and make it stronger. Every time you take a picture of a spirit, you get Spirit Points. You can use these points to unlock new features on your camera, such as increasing the size of your camera's Capture Circle, increasing the maximum amount of Spirit Power you can build up, and increasing the speed that the Spirit Power is charged. And of course, you can't take a picture without film. Miku can find various kinds of film during her journey. Some are stronger than others, and will do more damage to the vengeful spirits. Your film is limited, however, so you want to make sure that every snapshot counts.

When Miku is not in battle, the game is represented in a third person exploration view. You guide Miku through the many rooms of Himuro Mansion. Along the way, you will have to solve various puzzles that can either reveal helpful items, or keys to open locked doors. Miku can also find various documents that tell more information of the mansion's past, or about the people who explored the house before you. These include newspaper clippings, journal entries left behind by Mr. Takamine and Mafuyu, and audiotape journals left behind by Takamine and his crew. Since Miku has a sixth sense, she often has visions of the person these items once belonged to when she touches them. As you find more of these documents, the story slowly begins to take shape, and you become closer to discovering the truth behind the mysterious disappearances.

The game's graphics do a great job of setting the unsettling atmosphere of Himuro Mansion. The game is appropriately dark, but you can easily see the many details of the mansion. The house looks like a real old-fashioned Japanese mansion with various antiques, suits of armor, and dusty relics of the past. The graphic artists did a great job in designing the house, down to the last detail. The game also has some nice graphic touches. For example, early in the game, Mike comes across a short hallway with many ropes hanging down from the ceiling. As she makes her way down the hall, she will brush against the ropes, causing them to gently sway back and forth. The ghosts in the game look great, too. They have a bizarre, almost human, appearance to them that make them horrifying and tragic at the same time. These are tortured souls of more unfortunate visitors to Himuro Mansion. You can almost see their agony in their faces. And best of all, the ghosts very rarely repeat themselves, and there's a large variety of them.

The game's sound is all about atmosphere. There's very little music in this game, so most of the time, you are surrounded by atmospheric sound effects. Whether it's Miku's footsteps on the hollowed wood floors, or the running water of a fountain as you explore the outside areas of the mansion. The real treat in the sound department comes from the ghosts themselves. As you encounter them, you can hear their tortured screams. The voices have a human, yet menacing, tone to them. Great casting there. I also like how sometimes when you enter an abandoned room, you can briefly hear people whispering. This is definitely a game that you need a good sound system for, so you can get the full horror experience. The only fault with the sound is the somewhat cheesy voice acting. Miku speaks in a somewhat monotone voice that gets annoying after a while.

If there is any fault with the game, it's the control. Miku is apparently not the most agile girl in the world. She's not very fast, even when running. The controls take a while to get used to, because they've ditched the standard Resident Evil/Silent Hill formula of using left and right to turn direction, and up and down to go forward. I don't know, it's just the way I'm used to playing Survival Horror games. Also, it can sometimes be confusing when the game's camera angle suddenly changes. Let's say you're pressing up to go in a certain direction. Suddenly, the camera angle will change, and you'll find yourself walking downward, even though you are still pressing up on the controller. You get used to things like this after time, but that doesn't mean it doesn't stop being annoying.

Despite this tiny gripe, Fatal Frame is a great game. It's scary, suspenseful, and it has an interesting storyline that keeps you hooked. The game may be a bit slow paced for some, though. There's a lot of strategy and puzzle solving involved. If you have the patience and want an interesting spin on the Survival Horror genre, don't overlook Fatal Frame. And by all means, play it at night in the dark to get the full effect.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/07/02, Updated 06/09/03

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