By Angela Hinck / October 12th, 2013
The majority of the gameplay, aside from fighting ghosts, consists of solving puzzles. Sometimes you will have to fetch a particular artifact from another room; other instances will have you taking photos of a specific place or thing in order to unlock a new passage. Clues regarding where Miku needs to go are often given in photo form (anything from a picture of a room to a zoomed-in image of a particular item or piece of decor), meaning that players will need to have a pretty good memory of the game’s various locations in order to complete the quests without wandering around aimlessly. Some of the locations do look similar, so, sometimes, I found myself going to the wrong location based off of an unclear recollection of what can be found where. There is a lot of backtracking involved in this process, which can be time-consuming and annoying for some players. I, for one, enjoyed wandering the mansion. It wasn’t always my favorite thing to do when low on film and health due to the random ghost encounters, sure, but I loved experiencing the setting, and really didn’t mind going from one end to the other. It forced me to explore and really come to know the mansion.
Miku has a health bar, and can take damage from ghosts, and running out of health is an obvious game over. While there are healing items throughout the mansion, I was running around with nothing on me and very low health quite a lot. I even considered starting the game over at times, so that I could try and be more conservative about my item usage, though I hadn’t thought I was using them that frivolously in the first place. I started having to run from battles (most of which are escapable, if you go through enough rooms) just to preserve my inventory. There didn’t seem to be any limit on how many healing items I could carry, except for one: the stone mirror. This item fully replenishes your health automatically when it reaches zero, and you can only have one on you at a time.
Your inventory consists of more than healing items and film for the camera. Miku can also pick up notes, diaries, old photos, recordings and other things from around the mansion. Some of these hold clues to solving puzzles, but most of them just contribute to the overarching story, and give us some insight on the spirits haunting the mansion. The story is made up of several overlapping time periods and different narratives that players experience in the form of cutscenes and the aforementioned items. All of these stories can be tied back to a failed ritual sacrifice held at the mansion long ago. I enjoyed the story, though it can be very convoluted. We get a shrine maiden’s story of doomed romance and sacrifice; the history of another family that moved into the mansion later; Miku and Mafuyu’s history; the story of the folklorist and his team… it’s a lot to take in. There’s even a chart in-game to help players keep it all straight. I think the narrative would have benefited from being more streamlined.
I also think it would have had more impact if the characters had been a little more interesting. We don’t really know anything about Miku and her brother, despite spending the whole game playing as one of them and looking for the other. I felt like we got to know most of the ghosts more than we did our main characters. I didn’t dislike Miku and Mafuyu, but I didn’t feel much for them either.
There is no dual-audio option available, so all dialogue in this version is dubbed in English. The voice acting was all right at times and very weak at others. In an attempt to be creepy, some characters speak with strange inflictions and tones, even when something more natural would have worked, and some are just trying too hard to sound “spooky,” and it ends up feeling contrived instead. The voices didn’t do much for me. Now, the sound effects? Those really had me on edge. Himuro Mansion is noisy. It creaks, drips, settles and groans. Ghosts bring along extra sound effects like hissing sounds and drumbeats, and hidden ghosts will emit soft static sounds. This does a lot to set a creepy vibe throughout the entire game. The music and background tracks are also generally good. They are subtle enough to not be overpowering, but have just enough presence to make you feel unsettled.
Now, being an older game, Fatal Frame isn’t without its little glitches and annoyances. Miku often got stuck in weird places while I was walking on stairs and navigating ladders. The worst thing was opening doors in the middle of a battle. As mentioned above, I ended up exercising my ability to flee a lot more in this game than I usually do for the sake of my health. Unfortunately, while Miku is frozen as she slowly and hesitantly pushes doors open, the ghosts are not. The ghosts can still swipe at you and kill you during this process. The controls are a bit sticky while trying to navigate Miku around in general, as well. She will keep running in one direction for a few seconds after I’ve stopped telling her to, which makes quick movements (or even just turning around) difficult. I also had experiences where ghosts I was fighting would seemingly get stuck in a wall somewhere, leaving me in the middle of a battle I couldn’t finish.
Visually, the game has aged pretty well. As mentioned above, the ghosts are generally creepy and designed to look more or less like a human in extreme pain or full of malicious intent. The house itself is styled really well. Live characters like Miku and her brother look really good stylistically. Cutscenes are done in the same style as the game, and are often made up of quick, shaky clips put together with more stable shots, making them feel like a possessed home movie some of the time. The only thing I didn’t care for was how grainy and dark the game generally was. I think that effect was added to try and help make it scarier, but it kept me from fully enjoying the setting sometimes, and I would have rather done without it. It also makes battling ghosts in dark places extra annoying. From what I have read, this is something that is alleviated some in the Xbox version and subsequent re-releases of the game.
Fatal Frame starts off on “normal” as the default difficulty setting for the first playthrough, and it took me about 10 hours to finish on that setting. Once players have beaten it once, a host of new features like costumes and Battle Mode become available, which gives the game tons replay value. Battle Mode gives you missions to fulfill, like “defeat this ghost in this setting with X shots of film.” Finishing Battle Mode unlocks other difficulties. Players can also access the Ghost List, which gives you a little information on each ghost you’ve run into throughout the mansion. An alternate ending also awaits those bold enough to play the game through on the “nightmare” difficulty. Players are graded on their overall performance upon finishing the game, and aiming for a higher rank unlocks more extras.
Overall? Fatal Frame has its weaknesses, but it’s still a notable horror-survival title that has stood up to the test of time surprisingly well. I really loved the idea of fighting with a camera rather than a traditional weapon, and I love how the game scares you by getting into your head via the visuals and sounds more than relying on monsters or jump-scares. I would suggest this game to anyone looking for a good horror-survival throwback. The game is currently available to buy on PSN, and older copies for the PS2 and Xbox can still be found.
Want to know more about the Fatal Frame franchise? Take a look at the work of Operation Zero, a member of our Campaign Hub here at oprainfall.
Review copy supplied by author. This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
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