By Angela Hinck / October 12th, 2013
|Title: Fatal Frame
Release Date: 2001
Genre: Survival Horror
Platforms: PS2, Xbox, PSN
Age Rating: ESRB T
Fatal Frame, advertised as being “based on a true story” upon its release in North America and Europe, is a survival horror title that has gathered quite the cult following since the first game was released for the PlayStation 2 back in 2001. The franchise is still going strong today with three numbered sequels and a spin-off game for the 3DS. This first title offered a traditional Japanese style of horror and a unique way to battle the supernatural that differs greatly from the more traditional “hack/slash/shoot the monster” horror motif. Basically, it seems like the perfect retro pick for the month of October. Question is, does Fatal Frame still have scare-power after so many years?
The main character is Miku, a girl who has wandered into the imposing and extremely creepy Himuro Mansion in order to find her missing older brother, Mafuyu. He disappeared when he entered the mansion looking for a prolific folklorist and his team, who also wandered into the mansion and vanished. See a pattern here? Of course, Miku is trapped inside the mansion as soon as she enters, and is forced to deal with spirits that still linger and a curse that falls on all trespassers.
I really loved the mansion as a setting. It has multiple floors and plenty of very distinct areas to explore, and it’s styled in such a way that it looks both grand and run-down in turn depending on where you are. The floorboards creak, doors stick, and there are peepholes hidden around in places that allow you to look through and see what might be lurking on the other side. The house is also full of details that contribute to both the overall creepy atmosphere and tie in to the story; things like large mirrors and ropes hanging from the rafters can be found throughout. There didn’t have to be a ghost hanging around to make me feel unsettled. Just walking around was generally enough.
Speaking of ghosts, they are everywhere. No room is safe. Ghosts appear as random encounters throughout the mansion, and while some ghosts will generally stick to one area and some only appear once or twice as a boss, the majority of these incorporeal spirits will appear in any number of rooms whenever they feel like it. This really kept me on my toes and made exploring the mansion a feat unto itself. Some of the ghosts were creepier than others, design-wise. I generally preferred the ones that looked most human, if not with a grotesque twist (for example, there’s a very persistent woman with a broken neck that I ran into a lot). There were others that appeared less human and more monstrous, and those particular spirits felt out of place to me. I think the ghosts are scarier as reflections of a person who was once alive, rather than a creature or a more abstract representation of a person. So, while most ghosts hit the mark, scare-wise, there were a few that were just strange in the context of the game.
For example, there was one ghost that was just a pained-looking face floating around in a small ball of mist. It wasn’t a disembodied head or anything (there’s one of those later, along with a few headless ghosts), just a face. It confused me more than it scared me. Another ghost took the form of what looked like the top half of a skeletal man’s body with nothing but his spine snaking down from his neck. While very creepy looking, it broke from the more human, “traditional” Japanese-styled ghosts in the rest of the game, and felt like it belonged to another franchise.
Many of these ghosts are the spirits of those who tie into the overarching story, like the previous owners of the mansion and the folklorist’s team. They can be helpful and leave clues behind, if you’re lucky. Other ghosts are hidden and are only there to as a bonus for the player.
Of course, the majority of these ghosts are hostile and can teleport around the room, come up out of the floor, swoop through the air, and do any number of things that makes them hard to avoid. Miku has the ability “to see things other people can’t see,” but that’s where her unique abilities start and end. So, what is a girl to do? Thankfully, Miku discovers an antique camera called the Camera Obscura that has the ability to banish ghosts. Once players have the camera, they can go into Viewfinder Mode (as seen in the image above). This is a first-person perspective that you use in every fight. Battling ghosts is equal parts fun, terrifying and aggravating. The goal is to take down ghosts by taking pictures of them, using as few shots of film as possible. You are limited in how many shots you can take by how much film you have, and film is found throughout Himuro Mansion. You gradually find more powerful kinds as you go. If you get stuck, Type 14 film (the starter film) can be replenished at any save point (which are scattered throughout the mansion), so you never have to worry about running around on empty. Shots can be powered up by keeping the center of the viewfinder on ghosts for an extended period of time, and super powerful shots are available right before a ghost attacks and the viewfinder glows amber.
Shots taken during this short window of opportunity will do much more damage than usual. I love this dynamic as much as I hate it. On the one hand, it was a very clever way for developers to get players to put themselves in scary, dangerous situations for the sake of doing more damage. On the other, this window is short, and ghosts aren’t always slowed down at all when you hit them with this powerful shot. If they’re rushing you already, and you get a good shot in, they will continue rushing you right after, and it’s difficult to move out of their way. The camera can also be upgraded using spirit points throughout the game, which are accumulated by taking photos of ghosts. The more powerful your shot, the more points you get for it. The basic attributes of the camera can be buffed up and special features can be added by trading in your points via a menu screen.
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