Three is a crowd

The culprit: Fatal Frame 3/Project Zero 3: The Tormented (PlayStation 2)

She that remainsThe Rule of Three is all well and good, but it doesn’t always work. It’s also very rare that all three parts in a trilogy are of equal quality, and while the Fatal Frame series ultimately continued to a fourth and a fifth instalment, The Tormented is the tail end of a trilogy, in more ways than one. It’s still a fine piece of horror. In fact, on its own merits, it’s probably better than many horror games out there. But by comparison with its predecessors and even with its immediate successor, I felt that something was missing.

IndelibleFirst of all, the formulaic bent of the series is starting to take its toll: heroine explores sprawling locale haunted, among others, by a powerful female ghost after a gruesome ancient ritual gone horribly wrong, with a camera that has the ability to harm spirits. You still feel isolated and vulnerable, the sound effects get under your skin, the atmosphere is thoroughly creepy and disturbing, with a special mention for the the Stained Corridor, the “Under the Floor” section (…oh god) and the Flickering Hallway, as well as ghosts such as the Crawling Woman, the Engravers and Woman Brushing. However, at this point, the ratio of gruesome Shinto rituals prone to horrific failure is really starting to pile up, straining the player’s suspension of disbelief.

Doomed trioAnother formulaic element: the first game featured one protagonist, the second game two. You guessed it, The Tormented has three…and, in a flight of Dickensian fancy, they’re all related, which further undermines the suspension of disbelief. The main heroine is Rei (at least her name doesn’t start with an M like in the first two games), a 23-year-old photographer, disconsolate and guilt-stricken after losing her boyfriend, Yuu, in a car accident where she was at the wheel. Working as her assistant is Miku from the first game, now 19, and still feeling guilty over her brother’s demise. Starting to see a pattern here? The third protagonist is a novelty, as he is, uncharacteristically for the series, male. Kei is a 26-year-old writer, friend of Yuu and uncle to–surprise, surprise–Mio and Mayu from the second game, meaning that he’s also got a guilt-stricken niece on his hands. Since the series subscribes to the belief that women are naturally more sensitive to the supernatural, Kei is significantly less adept at the whole ghostbusting thing than either of his female co-stars. But hey, credit where it’s due: at least he’s there, and he’s trying.

Silent snowThe single biggest flaw of the game, in my eyes, is the sloppiness of its narrative: it tries to do too much at once. Not only do you have three intertwining storylines, but the means of their intertwining is weak at best. Basically, there’s an urban legend that states that, if a person faces unbearable guilt and/or longing for a dead loved one, they eventually have vivid dreams of a manor, which gradually become more absorbing, the person spending more and more time asleep, until they can’t wake up anymore. Additionally, their body becomes gradually covered by a peculiar tattoo. Then one day, they simply vanish, leaving behind a dark, person-shaped stain. As you can guess, this starts to affect all three protagonists, although, in Kei’s case, it’s more by proxy, since Mio is already in the advanced stages of this affliction, and he’s simply trying to help her. Which isn’t quite playing by the rules, but you could say he feels guilty for her predicament.

Shadowy menaceThis phenomenon is based on an ancient ritual, but its circumstances are so vague that it almost feels like an unnecessary addition rather than the driving force behind the game. You’re never even sure when or where it took place. And where the physical details of the rituals in the first two games were at least plausible, this one…nope. I mean, sealing a shrine in a dream? Tattoos in someone’s eyes?! There’s also something about the main villain’s anatomy that really bothers me…you’ll probably see what I mean.

Mirror, mirror on the wallThe Manor of Sleep is also a rather inchoate construct: while it has a basis in reality–the house that Rei and Miku visit at the beginning of the game–and its ‘core’ inside the dreams is the same for anyone who ‘visits’ it, it also recreates locales from each dreamer’s memory. For instance, when you’re in control of Miku, some rooms from the Himuro Mansion will appear, while when you’re in control of Kei, places from Minakami Village will pop up…even though Mio and Mayu are the ones that have been there, not him. The end result is that the game spends too much time rehashing the past and not enough time establishing its own identity, which is a glaring weakness. To add to the choppiness of the exposition, some scenes take place in the ‘real’ world, inside Rei’s apartment…which also inexplicably becomes haunted over time. Ever played Silent Hill 4: The Room? Yep, just like that. Although this does result in a shower scene that would put Psycho to shame.

Working girlSeveral gameplay features also make a comeback from the previous instalments. There are different difficulty settings, an alternate ending which becomes available after the first playthrough and a Mission Mode, which pits the characters against various combinations of ghosts. Each playthrough is graded at the end of the game, and you can use the accumulated points to purchase various goodies for subsequent playthroughs, such as additional lenses or costumes for the characters, although you first have to meet certain conditions (e.g. completing the Mission Mode with a certain grade) before they become available. Then there’s also the pause screen: just leave it on for a while for some…interesting results.

Snooping aroundGameplay and combat also remain basically the same, albeit with certain additions, some more successful than others. Whenever Rei falls asleep, either she or Miku or Kei will appear in the Manor (yes, this doesn’t make much sense). The goal is to explore, solve puzzles, and pick up notes and recordings. Rei can listen to these on her cassette player once she wakes up. She can also develop pictures she takes in the ‘real’ world and hand them to Miku for research purposes. At any point during a dream, you can choose to make Rei/Miku/Kei ‘wake up’ by exiting the Manor, if you find yourself running out of supplies. This will restore the character’s starting stock of camera film and respawn certain items, like Herbal Medicine or Purifying Candles (another SH4 callback). These are possibly the most annoying addition to the game: once you start finding them, they effectively put a timer on your explorations. Without a candle, the screen turns grey, and your character is not only more prone to ghost attacks, but the main villain (invincible at that point in the game; yet another recurrent situation in the series) also starts pursuing them until they either exit the dream or find another candle.

Deceptively safeGhosts still come in three flavours: hidden ghosts, whose presence is only signalled by the filament/capture circle of the camera turning blue; vanishing ghosts, which only appear for a short time; and hostile ghosts, which can appear randomly just about anywhere in the manor. This can happen even in a room with a save point, which is designated by a blue lantern and will become inactive if this occurs. A word of warning: there are several very difficult vanishing ghosts this time around, especially at the beginning of the game, before you reach the first save point, which means restarting if you fail to capture them…Of course, you could simply move on, but these pictures are worth quite a lot of points, which serve to upgrade the characters’ cameras.

I don't think he's swatting fliesYes, plural: in addition to having slightly different abilities, each character has a different camera. You can upgrade their basic functions (e.g. range or power), their lenses, which cost a different amount of spirit points to use (obtained from letting the camera charge up while aiming at a ghost) or their special abilities. Since there are three cameras, though, this means accumulating a LOT of points. Rei’s camera is the most balanced one, as she’s the main heroine and the one with the most screentime. Kei’s is the worst and notably doesn’t have a special ability (instead, however, he can move heavy objects and hide from ghosts). Miku can’t use lenses, but, being the most spiritually attuned of the three, she has two special abilities and a massive damage potential, in addition to being small enough to fit into crawlspaces. On top of all these camera upgrades, you will also find several add-ons that will automatically grant them new functions, such as Measure, which displays a ghost’s HP.

Shoot her now!Combat happens by aiming at a ghost with the capture circle and letting the shot charge up (c.f. the symbols around the circle) for maximum power. Film functions as ammo, and higher grades of film deal more damage, but are also rarer. You also get more points for well-framed or close-up shots, as well as shots of multiple ghosts. When the capture circle turns red, you have a “Shutter Chance”, which inflicts more damage (Rei’s special ability, Flash, helps to trigger this). If you wait until the ghost is about to attack (the Alarm function helps), you may hit the infamous “Fatal Frame”, which not only deals extra damage, but also pushes the ghost backwards and leaves it open for combos: just take another photo when the screen flashes again, and you can keep going until the ghost is defeated or out of range.

DisorientedFrankly, combat is probably the most satisfying aspect of this game, which isn’t much of a compliment, because the series’ main appeal for me, up to this point, was the effectiveness of its setting and atmosphere. The old formula still works, to an extent, but it’s starting to wear at the seams, and the haphazard lore-building genuinely hurts the game. I guess the idea was to create a cohesive whole with the previous games and bring them all to a conclusion, but this robs The Tormented of its own identity. Rei’s story had potential as a standalone, but diluting it with the other two significantly weakens it, leaving it no room to spread its wings. The result is disappointment.

Very bad trip

The culprit: Sanitarium (PC)

Wake in frightI knew it would be difficult–if not impossible–for any game to match Amnesia in my horror charts, but that didn’t prevent me from continuing my search for inventive representatives of the genre. I can’t remember now where I first heard of Sanitarium–a fairly obscure effort by the now-defunct DreamForge Intertainment (sic) published in 1998. But hear about it I did, and its premise of a delirious romp through a man’s disturbed psyche intrigued me enough to pick it up from GOG.com.

The ‘delirious romp’ element is certainly there. You are put in the shoes of Max Laughton, a medical researcher, whom you first see leaving a hospital in a hurry, taking his car and making an excited phonecall to his wife. However, it’s a rainy night, Max is driving hard on a winding road, and his brakes end up failing, sending him over a railing and into a ravine. Welcome to the loony binHe then awakens inside what appears to be a mental asylum, with bandages all over his face and a serious case of amnesia. How he got there and why–a car accident doesn’t equate to madness, after all–, that’s up to you to discover. It quickly becomes apparent that Max’s environment is not real, and he wanders from one nightmarish vision centred on a common horror trope (e.g. children, aliens, body horror, clowns, insects, hospitals, ghosts, divine curses) to another, sometimes even finding himself embodying different characters. During these travels, there are short bouts of lucidity, and ultimately, the visions do provide the key to what really happened to him.

In urgent need of plastic surgeryThis is a fairly solid premise, and discovering the various scenarios that Max goes through is the main attraction of the game. Some are more successful than others–especially the two opening episodes and the conclusion to the circus episode–and while I wouldn’t say any of them are downright frightening, some are seriously disturbing. There are many graphic scenes, images and descriptions–blood, slime, corpses and body parts–, and even though the dated graphics and isometric view dampen the impact, I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re especially sensitive or squeamish. That said, I should put a word in for one of the final scenarios, where Max is put in the shoes of what is probably the last character you’d expect. The problem is that, as the plot unravels, you Stephen King would have a field dayrealize that the underlying storyline just isn’t all that compelling, and that while Max’s nightmares feel symbolic and get under your skin, you’re sometimes not entirely sure what it is they’re symbolic of. And while they’re interesting in and of themselves (certainly more so than the actual plot…), there’s really not much to connect them together, thus resulting in a disjointed experience.

Still, the atmosphere is properly eerie and gruesome, and the ideas are there. However, a game lives and dies by the execution of its potential, and, in this case, if the execution isn’t outright fatal, it at least leaves Sanitarium moribund.

QuestionnaireThis is a point-and-click game, and progress is based on an uneven mix of puzzle-solving and combat. Max can converse with NPCs to gather clues about his surroundings via a system that feels like a hybrid between Mass Effect and Final Fantasy II. Every interlocutor has their own list of topics or questions they can address, sometimes sequentially, meaning that discussing one topic will grant you access to another one. Max can also pick up a variety of objects, stored via an inventory system, which he will then use to interact with his environment. As for the uneven distribution between puzzles and combat, there are only two battles in the game. It seems that more were originally planned, but never made the cut, for some reason or other. This has a strange consequence. On the one hand, it feels like a jarring imbalance, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t think that combat is a necessity in a game. On the other hand, however, it’s probably just as well that there isn’t more of it, considering how painfully clunky the Want some pumpkin pie?controls are. It’s very simple on paper: you automatically enter combat stance and simply need to click on the enemy to attack it. But compound that with a moving target which you can’t lock onto and you have yourself a recipe for frustration. To make matters worse, the way movement is designed in this game makes it near impossible for Max to dodge incoming attacks. Granted, this is a bit of a moot point, since you’re allowed to save wherever you like and, if Max dies, he’ll simply respawn prior to the combat sequence. But you must still win the fights to progress, and this is, therefore, distinctly aggravating.

It only looks straightforwardTo clarify the movement issues: you pick a direction and keep the right mouse button pressed while Max saunters over to where you need him to be; he can’t run. This is already awkward to achieve, but he also has an outright maddening tendency to get stuck on corners or simply not move quite where you directed him. Having delved into the issue, I found out that this is apparently due to the programmers skimping on movement angles. Be that as it may, there are instances where this may make you want to tear your hair out, particularly during the finale, where you’re presented with a ‘walking’ puzzle involving shifting patterns and a timer.

When a game has no fatal flaws, it’s easy to overlook and forgive minor ones, like graphics or voice acting. When there is a fatal flaw, however, these small aggravations suddenly become so much weight to drag the game down further, and this is exactly what You talkin' to me?happens here. Stilted movements, plasticky-looking cinematics, pseudo-humorous credits, shoddy voice acting, it all comes to the fore. Max himself is the greatest offender here, with many of his lines sounding forced, overemphatic or gratingly whiny. Mind you, we’re not talking Valkyrie Profile levels of quality (or lack thereof) here, but then Valkyrie Profile had a lot to redeem itself. This game…not so much.

It's right next to Crazyville via Bonkers RoadTo sum it all up, I’d call Sanitarium more of a curio than a must-have. It starts off with good intentions–or at least original ones–, and there are moments of genuine creepiness and unease, but the delivery is so uneven that it mars the overall product. Ultimately, it feels a bit like watching a bunch of B-movie excerpts: entertaining, perhaps even intriguing, but overall sloppy and inchoate.

Be very afraid of the dark

The culprit: Amnesia: The Dark Descent + Justine (PC, Mac)

Dracula would love this placeYou who are faint of heart, stop reading now. I thought that Penumbra was a strong contender for the top spot on my horror list, but Frictional Games have since outdone themselves and produced Amnesia, premium quality, high-octane nightmare fuel. Taking a common plot device (amnesia) and running away with it (into a dark wood) has never been so effective, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is the scariest game I have played to date. People–and the game itself, in fact–will tell you to play at night with the lights off. Well, even with the lights on, I was still terrified. Heck, to this day, I can’t look at a picture of a Grunt for more than a few seconds without wincing.

Everything that Penumbra did right is reused and amplified in this game, from lack of combat to unreliable perception. The interface is largely Carpet needs cleaningthe same (first-person view, hand cursor and physics engine), as is the menu. The game is set in XIXth century Prussia, in the foreboding Brennenburg Castle, situated in the middle of a forest. You are put in the shoes of Daniel, a young Englishman, who wakes up, confused and disoriented somewhere in the building. He can barely remember his name, and yet he must make sense of both his surroundings, which are anything but reassuring or safe, and his situation, which is downright horrifying. You discover snippets of Daniel’s history from short texts on loading screens, but also through flashbacks, letters and diary entries strewn throughout the castle…which he has left for himself. Apparently, his amnesia is self-inflicted and voluntary, and if you’re wondering what could possibly have driven him to such an action, well…play and find out. I’ll just say that he was involved in an ill-fated archaeological expedition, and it was all downhill from there.

Worse for wearDaniel is one of the game’s best assets, as a channel for fear, because saying that he has a fragile psyche is an understatement. Philip, his predecessor from Penumbra, could panic if staring directly at an enemy for a prolonged period of time. But compared to Dan, that makes him a paragon of stoicism. And where Phil was a gasper, Dan’s a professional whimperer. He whimpers like a boss. This is especially striking when compared to his normal, somewhat gruff baritone, showcasing just how much of a wreck he has become. Dan’s other defining characteristic is his severe nyctophobia. Just walk him through a dark corridor, and you’ll see what I mean. The screen will start distorting and blurring, and you’ll hear the unnerving sound of grinding teeth. Should he remain without a light source for long enough or witness one horrifying event too many, hallucinations­ may kick in. Those could be bugs crawling across the screen, imaginary corpses or a portrait distorting into a nightmarish vision (this is a particularly nasty one). That, or he will start talking to himself. This is a system most likely inspired by Eternal Just how mad are you?Darkness: besides his health meter (indicated by a human heart on the menu screen), Dan also has a sanity meter (indicated by a brain and spinal cord). You can increase it by solving puzzles or stabilise it by staying in the light, but its natural state, so to speak, is a steady downward curve. Should it ever deplete completely, Dan will collapse on the floor in a gibbering mess for a few seconds, before getting back up with a hit to his health. The problem is that if this happens when an enemy is nearby, he might as well be blowing a foghorn.

To make matters worse, since Dan can’t fight, his only recourse when faced with a hostile is to cower in a dark corner until it lumbers away. Except that, with his condition, you’d better hope that it happens quickly. This makes for some particularly tense moments, and a crucial issue in the game is balancing the amount of ambient light: enough to keep Dan decently lucid, but not enough to make him a sitting duck. This is compounded with the fact that both of his Feeble lightlight sources are limited. Where Phil had his trusty, inexhaustible glowstick, Dan has an oil lantern–and available oil refills are scant at best–and some tinderboxes, which he can use to light candles or torches. The other commodity in short supply are laudanum vials, which are used to recover health. Another clue, if you needed any, that you need to avoid damage as much as possible.

SilhouetteEnemies…oh god. The most common type–and, unfortunately for me, the one I find scariest–is the Grunt. Affectionately dubbed ‘Mr.Face’ by the fanbase. This should clue you in as to the most distinctive part of its anatomy. And I’ll leave it at that. If you want a clearer image (think very carefully before deciding), look here. I just don’t want this thing staring back at me every time I look at this review. *shudders* Although your mileage may vary: some people find the Brute, which shows up in later levels, scarier. It’s certainly more deadly, as it will usually down Dan in one hit, whereas he can weather Wet footstepsa couple of Grunt slashes. The third enemy goes by the uncouth moniker of ‘Kaernk’ and…it’s invisible. To some, that’s even more terrifying than visible monstrosities. Fortunately, it’s the rarest enemy of the three. Unfortunately, the sequences involving it are pretty harrowing. There’s one other hostile out for Dan’s blood, but I’ll leave you to experience that one for yourself.

There are three endings to the game, and while one of them is indisputably bad, it’s a toss-up as to which of the other two is the best. Up to you to make up your mind, but there’s certainly food for thought involved. The other positive aspects are the graphics and the music, composed by Mikko Tarmia, who already worked on Penumbra. Where Safe for nowthe former game had that gritty, semi-industrial feel to it, Amnesia is unabashedly baroque, with wooden furniture, thick red curtains and carpets, and old stones dimly lit by flickering candlelight. An old castle is a perfect setting for horror, and Amnesia  is more pleasing to the eye than its predecessor. Especially the Back Hall…at first. The Back Hall also features my favourite piece from the game’s soundtrack, a surprisingly calm, solemn and soothing track, which contributes to giving the place a temporary aura of safety. The rest of the soundtrack is none too shabby either, successfully upholding a creepy, gloomy atmosphere, with some disturbing sound effects interspersed with the music.

Several months after the release of the game, an expansion titled Justine saw the light of day. While it’s also set in the XIXth century, it bears no relation to Daniel’s story (or a very tenuous one), and features a different protagonist–amnesia being the only common characteristic–and a very different perspective on things. The goal She's got a plan for youthis time is to find a way through a series of psychological ‘tests’, set up by Justine, a French noblewoman, who is a sadistic sociopath (it’s no wonder she’s named after a book by Sade). You find yourself in her Cabinet of Perturbation, and she guides you through a series of phonograph recordings she has left behind. It’s a shorter experience than Amnesia, but no less intense. There’s still no combat and only three enemies, but they all used to be Justine’s suitors…before she decided to experiment on them: Aloïs, the tennis player, Basile, the carpenter, and Malo, the violinist. Each represents a different kind of ‘love’ and exhibits the corresponding personality: Aloïs is needy and devoted, Basile is rough and abusive, and Malo is passionate and…well, insane. And if I were in their shoes, I’d swear bloody revenge on Justine as well.

No guardian angelJustine is also made significantly dicier by the inability to save. Your character dies, you start over from the beginning. And considering that there is an excruciatingly difficult chase sequence towards the end, the likelihood of having to start over is a very real one. So if you become frustrated after being repeatedly mauled, like I did, you may consider installing a mod which implements saving, fittingly titled “Softcore Justine”. This problem aside, I did enjoy this storyline for its difference in tone. It even has a chilling twist ending. Special commendation goes to the profoundly unsettling messages on the wall of the mazelike Crypt corridors (“death shall move across the floor”Writing on the wall gave me a hearty wave of goosebumps) and to the adrenaline-charged music which plays when a Suitor gives chase. Still gives me a jolt when I hear it.

Into the darknessAll in all, Amnesia is a heck of an experience. There is room for improvement, such as randomising enemy encounters, which are currently scripted and therefore lose some impact after the first playthrough, but don’t let that deter you. It would just be the cherry on top of a deliciously terrifying cake. If I had to recommend one horror game above all others, this would be it. But I decline all responsibility for any involuntary yelps, screams, nightmares or sudden trips to a different room which may ensue.

Double, double toil and trouble

The culprit: Fatal Frame 2/Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly (PlayStation 2, Xbox, Wii)

Dark skiesA common trend with sequels is to go the ‘bigger, better, more’ route. And while the ‘bigger’ and ‘more’ parts are easy enough to achieve, they don’t always equate to ‘better’. This, however, is not the case with Fatal Frame 2, or Project Zero 2, as European markets stubbornly persist in naming the series. While the game is bigger than its predecessor in every respect and offers a lot more content, I also find it distinctly better. In fact, I think it’s the best entry in the series. And if you thought the first game delivered in the chills-and-scares department, you won’t be disappointed here either. It’s not actually necessary to have played the first game to understand this one, as it is, in fact, a prequel, but if you have, then you may spot a couple of familiar names.

Neon butterfliesThis time, you get two heroines for the price of one, as well as an entire village instead of just one haunted house. The story follows a pair of 15-year-old twins: Mio, the plucky one in the white skirt, whom you’ll control for most of the game, and Mayu, the shy, more spiritually-attuned one in the brown dress. Mayu had an accident as a child, which left her with a limp, and Mio is very protective of her. While out on a walk near the future site of a dam, Mayu spots a crimson butterfly and follows it through the forest. Mio chases her, only to find herself in an abandoned village. The sky has darkened, and the path back through the woods has mysteriously vanished. The sisters therefore have no choice but to figure out what’s wrong with the place. The problem is that Mayu’s spiritual sensitivity soon causes trouble.

It's my party, and I die if I want toThe Fatal Frame series is nothing if not formulaic, and many things make a comeback from the first opus. You explore a haunted locale with a female character whose only weapon is a camera which has the ability to see and harm spirits: an effective combination which compounds a feeling of vulnerability with the necessity to get a good close look at ghosts. Most of the important protagonists are female, including the villains, of which the main one successfully combines creepiness and insanity. A gruesome, failed ritual is, again, at the source of the haunting, although this one has an added layer of psychological torture which ranks it a step above its peersIs it Halloween already?. It’s also early enough in the series for suspension of disbelief to work: later games suffer from the fact that you start wondering just how many gruesome rituals there are in Japan. Once you finish the game, your playthrough is graded, and you can use the accumulated points from the pictures you’ve taken to purchase goodies for any subsequent playthroughs. These include camera upgrades and different costumes for the girls. The first playthrough also unlocks an additional difficulty, an additional ending and a mission mode in which Mio can battle various combinations of ghosts. Oh, and just like in the first opus, leaving the game paused for a while produces…interesting results *shudders*.

Are we receiving?In terms of exploration and storyline progression, the tried-and-true spiel of solving puzzles, and finding notes and recordings applies. However, the puzzles are more diverse than in the first game, and, instead of an old cassette player, Mio finds a portable spirit stone radio. The idea is that some ghosts’ thoughts are trapped within gems that she’ll find lying around, which, when used with the radio, play these thoughts out like recordings. Well, whatever works.

Hey, sister, MOVE!As with the majority of action games where partners are involved, Mayu tends to be a hassle, and this is probably the most annoying aspect of the game. She’s a slow walker (or hobbler) and will complain if left too far behind. Hostile ghosts may also attack her during combat, and while this may provide Mio with a handy decoy to land a shot, Mayu’s not invincible, and if she dies, it’s Game Over. You can’t use items to heal her either, unlike Mio. Fortunately–or is it unfortunately?–this is a sporadic problem at best, because Mio spends most of the game chasing after Mayu, who quickly falls under the village’s spell and wanders off on her own; you control her for short bursts, but all she can do is walk towards a predetermined destination. On the other hand, when she does follow Mio around, Mayu is handy for pointing out important clues, as she will stop and stare at them.

Mayu-related annoyances aside, atmosphere is just as successful as in the previous game, if not more, because of the scope of the locale. The music–or rather, the background ambience–is still as unnerving, with its eerie chimes, distorted noises and furtive whispers. Random ghost encounters can occur anywhere, especially if Mio idles for too long, even in rooms containing save points (red lanterns which will turn off if a ghost is present). The decrepit village is shrouded in thick darkness, there’s Keep that camera downan ominous-looking altar located right at the entrance, the largest house is situated beyond a bridge over a murky river, a path winds off into the forest towards a dilapidated shrine, and there is also a very gloomy cemetery, where ghosts enjoy popping up as soon as Mio raises her camera. There were four influential families in the village, and thus, there are four main houses to visit: Osaka, Kiryu, Tachibana and Kurosawa. I shall take this opportunity to warn you about the Kiryu house. The unsettling atmosphere is off the charts, and it contains two of the game’s scariest/most disturbing ghosts: the Kiryu twins, of “why did you kill?” fame, and Fallen Woman, who is simply painful to look at. Another highlight of the ghost cast worth mentioning is Woman in Box, who is a direct reference to Sadako, of Ring fame.

Hey, psst, turn around!One aspect of the game which has received a substantial upgrade is combat. There are noticeably more ghosts, which often appear in groups and still come in the hidden, vanishing and hostile variety: hidden ones are only detectable when the camera’s capture circle turns blue in a specific spot, while the vanishing ones, as their name implies, will only appear for a short time, some being particularly difficult to snap. Some of these cannot be captured on your first playthrough, since they appear before Mio has the camera or require a camera function which only becomes available upon clearing the game. But since Mio will start each subsequent playthrough with the camera already in hand, this maximises replayability.

The camera itself has more diverse functionalities than in the first game. Each photo Mio takes will still grant points which can then be used to upgrade the camera’s basic functions, but it can also be further spruced up with attachments (including one which enables Mio to evade attacks) and extra lenses. These require both points and Spirit Orbs to upgrade, and serve to either cripple ghosts or deal more damage. The camera also has Don't be fooled by the cute facean infinite supply of the weakest available film, meaning that Mio will never be strapped for ‘ammo’. You still receive extra points for specific kinds of photos (close-up, well-framed, multiple ghosts), in particular the ‘fatal frame’ shot which gives the series its name. This can be taken at a moment when a ghost is particularly vulnerable (usually right before or right after an attack), but is only detectable via the aforementioned attachments. More importantly, if you hit a fatal frame, you can now combo it with a second fatal frame and possibly even a third one, if your timing is good and provided the ghost hasn’t been knocked too far back, thus racking up the damage and the points.

Unsafe corridorsAll in all, I find that this game improves on every aspect that made its predecessor successful, thus making it a big hit in my book. If you’re a fan of psychological horror, this is for you, and if there’s only one Fatal Frame game you must play, make sure it’s this one. As a heads-up, it has been recently re-released in Europe on the Wii, with updated graphics and an additional ending from the Xbox version, but also a two-player mode and some of the less successful gameplay aspects from Fatal Frame 4, which leaves me feeling ambivalent about it.

He should’ve listened to his old man

The culprit: the Penumbra trilogy (PC, Mac, available through Steam)

That can't be good...It’s off the beaten track that you often come across the most interesting things. This applies to videogames in general, and the horror genre in particular. Like the infamous shortcut through the woods without which some horror films wouldn’t exist, taking a turn into indie title territory can yield spectacular results. Penumbra is a shining example of just such a lucky find. Created by a small Swedish company called Frictional Games, it displays such a mastery of the mechanisms of fear that it simply begs to be tried out. If Dead Space left you unimpressed, Silent Hill barely affected you and even Fatal Frame didn’t quite do the trick, or if you’re simply looking to broaden your horror horizons, do try this one on for size. Sure, the game has its kinks and flaws, and it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t made on a big budget, but let it not be said that more is better. None of the aforementioned games have scared me to this extent.

Cursed legacyPenumbra is technically a trilogy, consisting of Overture, Black Plague and Requiem. However, considering the three games have one common protagonist and storyline–which has all the makings of a good X-Files episode–, take place in immediate succession, are each rather short and use the same gameplay, it makes sense to view them as a whole. The story is narrated in what you eventually find out is an e-mail by Philip, a 30-year-old physicist with an estranged father. On the day of his mother’s funeral, he receives a mysterious letter from said father, directing him to a deposit box in a bank and instructing him to burn everything he finds in there without asking any questions or attempting to locate him. The box contains an indecipherable journal, Dude...BEHIND YOU!but also a set of coordinates, which point to somewhere in Northern Greenland. Three guesses as to what Philip decides to do. The coordinates designate an abandoned mine, where he soon discovers that something is very wrong. You’d think that any sensible person would just try to get the hell out, but curiosity is a powerful drive. It also has a nasty habit of terminating inquisitive felines. But I digress.

The people who made this game understand perfectly well that being isolated, defenceless and confused/disoriented/in doubt of your sanity is an ideal recipe for horror. There’s really nothing scarier than what an over-active imagination can conjure up, even if the game also contains very real hostiles who want nothing more than a tasty physicist snack or some chopping practice. Imagine for a moment how it would I sure hope these beams are safefeel to be stuck in an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere with strange whispers periodically fading in and out of your hearing range (my god, the pause menu in Overture…), alarming messages left behind by miners and scientists whose corpses you periodically come across, bizarre Inuit artefacts that give you out-of-body experiences (those are the save points), escape and concealment as your best means of defence, and god-knows-what prowling in the shadows. Philip’s frightened gasps, which punctuate some of the more intense events, really don’t help. Contrary to what you might expect, there are other people down there…But a) you can count them on the fingers of one hand, b) they’re really not all that helpful…or reassuring, for that matter, and c) Philip begins and ends the game alone; you do the math. I find that these additional characters only serve to exacerbate the deep sense of loneliness and fear the game instils, with help from a minimalistic, cold and forlorn-sounding musical track. Black Plague also adds a nasty–and very successfully Where's the cleaning crew when you need it?executed, might I add–twist into the bargain, whereby Philip finds that he can no longer trust his perception. I would also like to remark that, if you manage to get through the kennels in Black Plague without having to pause the game to collect yourself at least once (especially with headphones on), you’re a better man (or woman) than I.

Penumbra takes place in first person, with a hand cursor on the screen to handle interactions. It uses a physics engine, whereby controls and movement are influenced by gravity. Say you’re trying to roll a boulder: not only do you need to mimic the movement, but it’ll also keep rolling if it’s on a surface where it would be realistically expected to roll. Same thing when trying to spin a valve or pull out a drawer. It takes The bare necessitiessome getting used to, but the game gives you adequate time to ease into it. Other than that, there’s a basic inventory, available at the press of a key, which you can also use to combine items or assign them to keyboard shortcuts, as well as check on Philip’s general health (which regenerates over time if he gets hurt and can be remedied with painkillers) and the state of the flashlight’s batteries. However, since the glowstick is just as useful as the flashlight and doesn’t need batteries, this is a moot point. There’s also a journal, in which Philip collects the various notes he picks up, as well as jotting down his thoughts on what to do next.

The game’s major downside is combat, but, thankfully, it’s only a factor in Overture. Philip’s only weapons are a hammer, a pickaxe or debris he can pick up and throw. And let’s just say that ‘imprecise’ doesn’t even begin to describe what swinging a pickaxe with that type of game engine is like; ‘extremely frustrating’ is probably a better description. Black Plague mercifully does away with weapons altogether, but not hostile Now would be a good time to...RUN!creatures, thus ramping up the fear factor. Philip can still try fighting them by throwing debris, but it’s really not safe and takes so long that you should understand that you’re simply not meant to do it. The point is that Philip, being a physicist, and not, say, a marine, is just no good in a straight-up fight. What’s more, he’s actually not half bad at hiding: enemies are far less likely to notice him if he crouches in a dark corner with his flashlight or glowstick off. The game even automatically switches to night-vision when he crouches undisturbed for a couple of seconds: this is signalled by a relieved sigh, a slight change of angle and everything taking on a bluish tint. Conversely, you’ll find that staring directly at an enemy for too long will make him panic, jolt out of night-vision and become more noticeable.

Gives a whole new meaning to weight-liftingAnother part which might disappoint some people is Requiem. Developed as an expansion to Black Plague, it serves as a sort of coda to the storyline. It’s much shorter than its predecessors, and while it looks and feels similar, it’s also more unorthodox, in that it clearly doesn’t take place in reality, as indicated by several not-so-subtle hints…such as exploding ketchup bottles or infinite batteries. There are also no enemies. Or well…no real enemies. Just a succession of puzzles. And while some of them are set in rather disturbing environments, the fact that there’s no actual threat of bodily harm, except from falling, does tend to somewhat defuse the sense of fear, which may be disappointing. Still, once you figure out why Requiem is the way it is, I find that it’s not a bad conclusion to the game. Certainly atypical, but…why not? It also has two endings, one of which is more obvious than the other, but this is the only game I know of where the “hidden” ending is actually the bad one.

Other things which might cause minor annoyance are some of the textures (eg. rubbish bags on the floor which should be 3-dimensional, but aren’t) and one particular voice actor. There’s also very little in the way of optional things to do, only a bunch of statuettes located in improbable places, which you can collect to unlock some Easter eggs on a subsequent playthrough. They’re rather underwhelming, though, so I Do I really have to go this way...?shouldn’t worry if you can’t find all the statuettes. Just goes to show that replayability isn’t exactly the game’s strong suit. Still, I find that none of this quite mars its effectiveness. If you’re receptive to psychological horror, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself too frightened to turn a corner or open a door, every once in a while. It certainly happened to me on more than one occasion.

I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts!

The culprit: Fatal Frame/Project Zero (PlayStation 2, Xbox)

Enter if you dareDespite scaring extremely easily, I am a confirmed fan of psychological horror. You know, the kind that doesn’t involve limbs flying in all directions and litres of haemoglobin gushing all over the place. One of the scariest films I’ve ever seen was the original Japanese version of Ring, and despite having its own set of clichés, J-Horror, as the genre is called, usually proves very effective on me. So, in my hunt for something that would unsettle me more than the Silent Hill series–which isn’t completely up my street–, Fatal Frame naturally caught my attention. European releases of this game (and the rest of the series as well) are inexplicably titled Project Zero–the name of the team that created it–but that’s beside the point. The point being that if you like psychological horror in general and J-Horror in particular, you should definitely give this a try.

How cosyThe premise of the game is the tried-and-true haunted house setup: a famous novelist goes missing on a research trip to an abandoned mansion, his assistant goes to look for him and suffers the same fate, and finally, it falls to the assistant’s sister, 17-year-old Miku, to make sense of it all and attempt to find her brother. Exploration and plot advancement are also rather traditional: Miku will find copious notes, journals and cassettes that will fill her in on the mansion’s past (and the genuinely gruesome ritual that’s at the source of it all), and will periodically need to solve puzzles to progress. Still, even if the structure is nothing new, the execution is genuinely effective.

Yes, there is someone right behind youOne peculiarity of the Fatal Frame series is its decidedly feminine angle: most of the main characters are female, including the villains, who aren’t so much villains as vengeful victims, as Asian ghosts tend to be. There’s probably a message about the victimisation of women and the sublimation of female fear somewhere in there, but what can I say? Horrific situations definitely have more of an impact when you’re put in control of a terrified girl with no real means of defence rather than a guy with a big gun. Miku’s unease is both contagious and literally palpable, since the controller vibration is put to use to mimic her heartbeat when she becomes frightened. She also walks and runs veeeeery slooooowly (it’s more of a hesitant jog than a run, really), which, besides being infuriating at times, does actually contribute to the feeling that, all in all, she’d much rather be anywhere else than in that godforsaken house.

Fancy a walk in the forest?Atmosphere is the big winner in this game, as it’s the main vector of fear. The music is minimal, consisting mostly of eerie ambient backdrops which end up getting under your skin. The game is set exclusively inside the mansion and on its grounds (which include a pond and a forest temple) over four nights. This equates to ubiquitous darkness, only alleviated by candles, torches and the solitary beam of Miku’s flashlight, and all the creaking, groaning, wind-whistling and what-the-hell-was-that-noise you could expect from an old abandoned house. Whispers,  footsteps, mysterious figures shadowed on blinds, doors closing and objects falling on their own. Broken windows with moonlight barely filtering through, Lovely interior decorationcrumbling floors and collapsing ceilings, bloody handprints on the walls, dusty kimonos stretched on stands, an unsettilingly lifelike doll kneeling in a corner, a pool with blood dripping onto the surface from an unknown source, a long corridor with ropes hanging from the ceiling and a mirror standing at the end, and so on and so forth. And copious amounts of ghost encounters, of course. Oh, and, for an added kick, try pausing the game and leaving it for a while. I had a nice little jolt when I did that to take care of something else, then looked up at my screen.

Ghost paparazziGhosts are the only enemies and the only allies in this game, most being designated by a straightforward description of their appearance (eg. Long Arms, Bound Man; very few of them have a name), and Miku’s only means of dealing with them is an antique camera she inherited from her mother. In a literal take on the old superstition of cameras capturing people’s souls, this camera has the ability to take pictures of spirits, damaging hostile ones. It uses film like ammo, and there are different, increasingly powerful grades of film available. The lowest grade can be found in infinite supply at any save point, which looks like an old camera on a stand. Every picture is worth a certain number of points, which can then be used to upgrade the camera. Basic upgrades enhance its range and the power of its shots, while special upgrades require Spirit Stones and may slow a hostile ghost down, paralyse it or simply inflict more The opportune momentdamage. Timing is also important in combat; close-up shots are worth more points, and each ghost has their own ‘fatal frame’: a moment when they are more vulnerable, signalled by the camera’s capture circle turning orange instead of blue. This usually occurs either right before or right after an attack, so while these shots deal a lot of damage, they can also be perilous.

An added fear factor is that not all hostile ghosts are scripted encounters. There is a randomised chance of encountering a hostile ghost in almost every room of the house, which creates a permanent feeling of dread and urgency. Really, Miku’s not 100% safe anywhere, not even in a room with a save point (its light will turn red instead of blue if something’s in the room). Ghost appearances are signalled by a chiming noise and heartbeat, and you’ll probably be pricking your ears in suspense more than once. It’s also entirely possible to have Miku pull out the camera (say, to take a picture of a puzzle clue), only to be greeted by a ghost DIRECTLY IN HER FACE. As far as specific ghosts are concerned, the first encounter with Broken Neck will more than likely have you jumping in your seat (“It hurts! It hurts!”), while the numerous run-ins you’ll have with Blinded (“My eyes…”) may very well turn into nightmare fuel. They’re not the only scary ghosts in the game, but they were certainly the main highlights as far as I was concerned. I’ll spare you the pictures to preserve shock value.

There's something there...really!Non-hostile ghosts come in two flavours: hidden ghosts, which will only appear when Miku takes their picture (her only means of finding them is the camera’s capture circle turning blue) and vanishing ghosts, which will appear at certain precise spots for a short while. Some of these are hair-tearingly difficult to snap, but of course, they’re usually also worth the most points.

Replay value has also been taken into account. After you finish the game once, various goodies are unlocked, such as a music player or the list of all ghosts in the game, which allows you to check which ones you’ve captured (and some are only available on second-or-more playthroughs). You also gain access to additional difficulties, as well as a mission mode which pits Miku against various combinations of the ghosts she’s encountered. Your playthrough is given a rating based on how much damage Miku has dealt, which grants you a certain number of points to spend on camera upgrades that carry over to your next playthrough. Finishing the game or the mission mode on different difficulties also unlocks additional costumes for Miku, which, besides changing her appearance, will make her move a tad faster. And last but not least, an alternate ending becomes available for subsequent playthroughs.

Don't fall inAll in all, this game doesn’t make any groundbreaking innovations, and it does have several drawbacks: the controls are fairly unwieldy, the graphics aren’t exactly top-of-the-line, the translation feels shoddy at times, and the voice acting is adequate at best. You’ll probably need a guide to capture most of the vanishing ghosts, and there’s an unnecessarily complicated album feature which allows you to save the pictures you’ve taken (but is separate from your game saves). Still, the main point of a survival/horror game is to induce fear, unease and a sense of danger, and that’s something Fatal Frame excels at.