Fatal Frame

Review by Toger
November 2003

What quirk of my nature makes me enjoy being scared, either by a good story or movie? I can remember frittering away whole Saturdays ensconced on the couch watching one horror movie after another until my brain was so overloaded with images that it was next to impossible to go to sleep. To this day, if I watch a disturbing movie on TV, I have no hope of sleep unless I purge my brain of the images by watching cartoons before going to bed!

I'd heard that Fatal Frame was spooky in the extreme, so when it was originally released last year I ran right out and bought a copy with the intention of immersing myself in some good Japanese horror. Naturally, I got sidetracked by something else bright and shiny and never got around to playing the game until I heard about the sequel. As of this writing, the second game, Crimson Butterfly, is planned for next month, so I thought I'd dust off—literally—the original and give it a go.

Supposedly based on a true story, Fatal Frame tells the story of the Himuro mansion. A huge, sprawling affair located deep within a secluded forest, the mansion is at the center of a host of folk tales and legends about strange disappearances and forbidden Shinto rituals. The original owner is said to have killed off his entire family, while subsequent families have either quickly left the premises or simply disappeared. Now the mansion lies empty and has fallen into a state of disrepair. A famous novelist, Junei Takamine, and his assistants have gone to the mansion to do research for an upcoming book on the mansion's dark and bloody history. While there, his entire team vanishes. When her brother, Mafuyu, also disappears while in the mansion, Miku Hinasaki sets off to search for her missing brother. Now the fun begins ...

Fatal Frame is played in the third-person perspective. You'll guide Miku through the mansion using only a flashlight and her antique camera. Included in the survival horror genre, Fatal Frame is not chock full of weapons with which to shoot, blast or bludgeon your way from one end of the game to the other. Miku's weapon of choice—and only weapon—is an antique camera that belonged to her mother. Said to possess the ability to see things not seen by the naked eye, the camera can also seal a spirit's soul in a photograph.

During combat with ghosts, you'll enter camera mode—which is a first-person view—target the ghost, and take the shot. The viewfinder's reticule will turn blue once the camera is armed with "spirit power." How much "spirit power" the camera currently possesses will dictate how much damage is done to the ghost. You'll also receive points based on what kind of picture you take of the spirit—close-up head shots are worth more than basic it's-way-across-the-room pictures—which goes toward upgrading the camera with faster response time and a larger field of view. When the ghosts were slow-moving or stationary, I didn't have any problems; however, later in the game quite a few of the ghosts either transported or were very fast on their ghostly feet so I'd end up snapping useless pictures of the background. As there are a finite number of film packs to be found in the game, you'll want to be careful when confronting those tortured souls.

As you wander through the mansion, you'll be able to look at and pick up quite a few objects. Miku will make comments as to whether or not the item is essential to the problem at hand. Film packs, herbal medicines, journal pages and the like can be found scattered throughout the mansion and are denoted by twinkling lights. In some cases, you'll need to solve a puzzle or capture a ghost's soul in order to get the item you need.

There is one nit to pick ... the constant backtracking in this game. Considering how slowly Miku walks, it's a fairly big nit. Progressing though the game, rooms will unlock or lock depending on what you've done so far. The problem is that rooms you think you've finished will lock, then you'll find a clue where it's necessary to not only go back to the room but you'll need to find the trigger in another room in order to go back. I'm pretty sure that mansion isn't that big—it was having to go into those rooms time and again that made is seem so.

As with most console games, saving is done at save points. There aren't a lot of them, so my advice is to make note of the rooms they're in and get thee to a save point! Luckily, the in-game mapping, which shows the save points, is very good and easy to read.

Visually, Fatal Frame is how I used to watch scary movies—through the spaces between my fingers so that I couldn't see all the detail. The majority of the game is presented slightly out of focus and in dark, drab colors ... after all, you are searching the house in the dead of night with only a flashlight. Textures throughout the mansion and grounds have a realistic dilapidated and forlorn look. Cloth has decayed and hangs in shreds, and the floorboards have decayed enough that there are gaping holes throughout.

Looking through the camera's viewfinder will bring objects into clearer focus if you really want to see more detail. When Miku triggers a flashback of some poor soul being tortured, you'll see it in grainy black and white, much like watching an old home movie complete with stutters and pops ... albeit a twisted home movie.

Fatal Frame's prologue is also done in wonderfully grainy black and white. Complete with truly deep shadows, it serves as a tutorial for the game. Playing as Mafuyu, you'll get an in-game lesson in how to use the antique camera to full advantage—hints as to where to go next and how best to capture a spirit soul.

Camera controls for Fatal Frame are nonexistent. The in-game camera is fixed and cannot be moved in any way by the player; however, the trade-offs are some exquisitely "filmed" views of the game. As Miku travels down a screened hallway, the camera will pull back and up to deliver a view of the scene that you're absolutely sure has been snatched from a movie and dropped into this game. (Since the camera is fixed, you may wish to change the default controller setup; otherwise, you'll find that Miku makes an immediate about-face as she walks through a door or gets boxed into corners turning 'round in circles when battling spirits.)

Ambient sound in Fatal Frame is the kind you'd hear on dark nights with all the lights out ... creaking boards, doors in other rooms closing, strange rustling sounds. After some ghostly encounters, you'll be treated to ghostly voices either giving hints about events that the house has witnessed or its denizens' final agonized screams.

Voice work in Fatal Frame was ... fatal. Actors for this game called in their roles from bed the morning after a funeral. I would expect the ghost's voices to have a dreamy quality to them (they did for the most part), but the woman who voiced Miku seemed to have fallen asleep, and no amount of stimulant of any kind was going to wake her up. The only voice I noticed with any pep was a dead woman who'd left behind some voice recordings.

I honestly found Fatal Frame creepy enough that I couldn't bring myself to play it in the dark. Whether the combination of strange sounds (the floorboards in my house creak and pop as the temperature falls), disturbing images (the tree out front casts some really odd shadows), my own overactive imagination, or all of the above was the cause, it definitely got the adrenaline flowing. If you can get past the horrible voice acting and the tedious backtracking, you're in for a good scare. If you dare. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Release Date: March 2002

Available for: PlayStation 2 Xbox

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