Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there.
Something evil lurks in the Himuro Mansion. Mafuyu Hinasaki goes there in search of the missing novelist Junsei Takamine and doesn’t return. Now his sister Miku searches for him. Finding clues left by her brother and others, Miku must learn the secrets of Himuro Mansion and face the spirits who dwell there. Many have died or gone missing around the mansion and their tormented souls walk the mansion’s hallways, dripping blood on the floorboards, and staining the walls with bloody handprints. But Miku is armed with an old camera, a family heirloom, which lets her photograph things that aren’t there. The camera lets her fight the mansion’s ghosts and unlock the mansion’s mysteries by peering into its past, but can it help her save her brother and stave off a netherworld Calamity?
Fatal Frame is a third-person perspective survival horror game which is functionally like other survival horror games but with a better storyline and a better gimmick: the camera. First, the story. Without spoiling the game, Himuro Mansion was home to horrific Shinto rituals which linked together sinister elements like the Strangling Ritual and the Blinding Ritual as part of a larger religious ceremony. As Miku progresses through the game, these rituals play out and she deals not only with the terrifying events but with the ghosts of the people who went through them. Hearing tales of the Blinding Mask is nothing compared to having a ghost with bloody, empty eye sockets jump out at you yelling, “My eyes!”
The game plays out over four nights, each night having its own set of puzzles and bosses and each night drawing Miku further in. Miku gathers evidence: voices on audiocassettes, ancient scrolls, journals, research notes, and photos, and compiles the information fleshing out the mansion’s previous inhabitants and victims, learning the connection between the people doomed by the mansion, and discovering her family’s role.
In terms of scares, this game has a great many. The mansion is alive with ghosts. Some wander the hallways thinking they are still alive. Some are predatory, hunting the living. Some are captive, bound to the area where they died like the image on a photograph. Even without the visible ghosts, there’s just something wrong with the mansion. Blood drips from the ceiling, a hallway fills with dangling ropes, and lanterns start swinging where there is no wind. Is something in the shadows? Is that your reflection in the mirror? Are those Mafuyu’s footsteps or someone else’s? Luckily, Miku has the camera.
The camera is the most important inventory item in the game, especially since it’s the only weapon. Acting first like Silent Hill
’s radio, the camera alerts Miku to a ghostly presence. Taking pictures switches to a first-person perspective, where Miku must make sure what she wants to photograph is in frame. Some ghosts just pop on screen for an instant, while others are waiting to be found. Taking pictures of the non-predatory ghosts scores points used to upgrade the camera. During combat with a predatory ghost, Fatal Frame uses a battle system where Miku must keep the ghosts in frame to damage them by taking their picture. The longer Miku holds them in frame, the more damage she does and if the ghost is close enough, Miku can score a critical hit.
The camera takes four types of film scattered throughout the mansion and the higher level film types do more damage to the attacking ghosts. The camera can also by upgraded by spending points on its basic attributes like range and charge speed. Miku can also unlock special powers which can knock ghosts back or paralyze them when used with the spirit stones she collects. When her health lowers, Miku can restore it with healing herbs and spirit water. If she dies while carrying a stone mirror, then her health is automatically replenished.
The camera is also important when it comes to puzzle solving. Fatal Frame has its share of slider variations and a few other obvious puzzles, but often Miku comes across an ethereal barrier. When photographed, the barriers usually show another location of the mansion indicating that Miku must do something there to continue. Fatal Frame has a great built-in map with descriptive names for rooms. For its size, Himuro Mansion could be very easy to get lost in, but every room and hallway is memorable and the interlinking doorways make sense. While you can never explore the entire mansion within one act, the game does have nonlinear sections where you can divert from the main course to explore side areas and find useful items.
Much of Fatal Frame’s scare power comes from solid graphics. Character models might show their age a little bit, but there is a consistency of design which doesn’t detract. Parts of the mansion feel slightly out of focus, much of the game is tinged with sepia, flashbacks are monochromatic and hazy, all of it gives the game both a dreamlike and nightmarish atmosphere. The mansion itself is a believable wreck, looking both real and lived in. While the gameplay stops for brief cutscenes and transitions to new Nights, moving through Himuro Mansion is seamless, with load times disguised as opening a door or descending a ladder.
Fatal Frame uses a save system similar to Resident Evil
’s typewriter. Camera stands are located around the mansion and act as save points. Miku can save as often as she wishes, but too many saves lowers her ranking (which doesn’t affect the ending). Saving liberally is recommended on your first play through. Since ghosts appear out of nowhere and are able to teleport behind you, death can come quickly if you aren’t ready. Completing the game unlocks harder modes, a new outfit, and a Battle mode.
Fatal Frame isn’t perfect. By Night Three you’ve seen the major areas of the mansion and the nature of the game means that backtracking is necessary. Also by Night Three, random combat comes too frequently and becomes too deadly to explore the mansion as thoroughly as you might like. Actually Silent Hill 3
’s action/adventure settings would work really well here. Like Jade in Beyond Good & Evil
, Miku would have been a fun character even if she was only focused on photographing the mansion’s ghosts.
Despite the disparate entities inhabiting Himuro Mansion, combative ghosts draw on only a few character models. Several boss battles also feature the same ghost, so I wasn’t sure if the camera was really capturing them or just driving them away. Actually the camera is one of those videogame headscratchers. Bypassing everything else, did the film fairy visit Himaru Mansion and sprinkle film everywhere. Imagine fighting Superman in his Fortress of Solitude and finding kryptonite every ten feet. But that’s just nitpicking.
Fatal Frame’s biggest failing is its voice acting and somewhat loose controls. I would love to see more games released with their original soundtracks and subtitles. Not that Siren
would ever be a good game, but it would at least be tolerable in its native language. That’s something even craptacular Samurai Western
got right. Anyway, Fatal Frame features American voice actors who don’t seem to have Japanese accents. Miku has a strangely breathy voice and some of the voice acting on the audiocassettes is flat.
As far as controls, Fatal Frame uses a run button instead of relying on the pressure sensitive analog sticks. Miku doesn’t move fast (run=jog) and she doesn’t corner well. When camera angles change (Fatal Frame has a solid camera system), Miku usually needs to be reoriented. Running from some ghosts is recommended, but can be overly difficult and downright unfair if the nab her during a new room transition.
The Bottom Line
Fatal Frame isn’t the scariest game I’ve played, but it does have one of the better stories. Fatal Frame is right in there with the new wave of J-horror. Like Ringu
, Fatal Frame features terrifying moments, bringing back vengeful ghosts who can hurt you. Fatal Frame is also a welcome change in terms of the survival horror trend of throwing otherworldly enemies at you who can be downed with a few bullets or hunting down zombies with rocket launchers.
Finally, Fatal Frame should be applauded for not featuring a girl in danger. Miku has willingly put herself in a dangerous place in search of her brother. While the gameplay might have more of what is thought of as a male appeal, Miku’s story and the story of the mansion should have a strong appeal for female gamers as well. And it accomplishes a lot with only a T rating.