Unforgotten, unforgiven

The culprit: Myst III: Exile (PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation 2)

After Riven, the Myst series changed hands, with both a different developer and a different publisher (Ubisoft), and Myst III: Exile went back to its roots. Instead of one very large age and two tiny ones, there is now a hub age and five smaller ones connected to it. Moreover, after the Gehn parenthesis, the story returns to its root villains, Sirrus and Achenar, or rather, the direct consequences of their actions in the first game.

Curious architectureThe problem is that changing developers is always risky. Some people were disappointed with the return to a Myst-like exploration scheme, after the evolution effected in Riven, but as this kind of hub-based exploration has since become the staple for the series, it’s Riven that now stands as an exception. Of course, this is largely what makes it the best game in the series, in my eyes, but no matter. The other controversial change is a more…‘gamey’ approach to things, for lack of a better term. Many felt that the puzzles were less integrated into their environment than they previously were, and that the game was overly intrusive in pointing certain things out. While that may be true in comparison to Riven, which has been criticised for being overly subtle, I don’t feel it’s accurate in comparison to, say, Myst. In fact, considering the in-game reason why the ages in Myst III were created, I feel that the puzzle presentation makes complete sense. I also feel that it justifies the ‘reward rides’ which conclude three of the ages. Another noticeable change lies in the soundtrack. Robyn Miller, who was responsible for the music in the first two games, left the team after Riven and was replaced by a certain Jack Wall, who has since achieved fame by working on the Mass Effect series, Call of Duty or Splinter CellMyst III was his breakthrough, and its soundtrack is therefore a lot more dramatic, elaborate and noticeable, which may have been jarring for some. I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but some of the tracks are very good.

The end result is that Myst III wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, which I don’t feel is entirely fair. I genuinely enjoyed the game: it’s my second favourite in the series, and I would even rate it above the original Myst. It notably features my favourite age of all, Amateria. Graphical improvements are apparent, which, in a game so heavily dependent on outstanding visuals to create its worlds, can only be a good thing. While the point-and-click movement scheme of the preceding games is retained, the ‘slideshow’ look isn’t. Instead, you now have a 360° (or almost) camera, which allows for unbroken perspective at every in-game node; some people have termed this ‘bubblevision’. And last, but not least, the game benefits from a solid storyline and a fantastic, ambivalent villain. In short, I can only recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Erase and rewind

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation 3, PC)

Having played and enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed games, I became curious about Prince of Persia. Ubisoft took over the series from the PS2 trilogy onwards, and I’d heard that it involved similar gameplay to AC. So I got my grubby mitts on its HD re-release for the PS3 and got cracking on The Sands of Time.

Defying the laws of gravityShocking as it may sound, the game’s protagonist is the nameless Prince of Persia. The namelessness is actually rather jarring and only becomes more so as the series progresses. I assume that this was a way to encourage player identification, but it’s just odd that no one ever calls him by name. That aside, it’s easy to see the link with AC. The Prince is an accomplished athlete, far more so than either Altaïr or Ezio. He has some rather spectacular stunts at his disposal, the most famous of which is probably the ‘wall run’. This exaggerated acrobatic prowess fits in with the series fairytale-like atmosphere. The game is even presented as a framed narrative: a tale being told by the Prince himself to an (at first) unknown recipient. Which, I must admit, is a rather clever device. If you ever get the Prince Don't leave me hanging!killed, the Game Over screen will be accompanied by a comment along the lines of “no, no, that’s not how it happened”, as if the narrator had had a sudden lapse of memory, or as if his interlocutor had tried to butt into the story. Similar comments accompany pausing or saving, thus integrating these actions into the narrative.

It's right over thereThe story begins as the Prince’s father, King Shahraman, allies himself with the traitorous Vizier of a small Indian kingdom. He helps Shahraman to sack the local Maharajah’s palace and retrieve the Sands of Time from his treasury. These supposedly confer immortality to whoever can control them (which is the Vizier’s goal, as he appears to be terminally ill), but turn all other living things into sand monsters. The Sands are contained within a giant hourglass and can be unlocked by means of a dagger, which also protects its user from the Sands’ corruptive power. Additionally, a staff and a medallion have the same effect. The former is in the possession of the Vizier, while the latter is worn by the Maharajah’s captured daughter, Farah. Prevented by the Prince from obtaining the coveted dagger, the Vizier tricks him into unleashing the Sands when the Persian army stops in the friendly kingdom of Azad. This partially destroys the palace of Azad and transforms all its inhabitants, except the Prince, Farah and the Vizier, who absconds with the hourglass to the top of the highest tower. The Prince must then make his way through the palace, solving puzzles, evading deadly traps and fighting sand creatures to get his revenge. Except that this also brings the dagger within the Vizier’s reach…

Just try it, punkThe dagger is the basis for the game’s combat and gameplay. It contains a small portion of the Sands, which allows its user to manipulate time, slowing it down, stopping it or rewinding it for a short period. All of this functions with the help of sand tanks and power tanks. Sand tanks are indicated by a string of circles at the top left of the screen, which become yellow when full. These are used for rewinding time (one tank per rewind), or for a special attack which freezes all enemies on the screen. This bad boy requires six sand tanks, but also six power tanks. These are indicated by crescent shapes next to the sand tanks and are used for all other time-related special attacks. Sand tanks and power tanks can be replenished either by absorbing sand from the enemies the Prince vanquishes or from sand fields, which look like small puffs of sand dotted around the palace. Each sand field fills all power tanks and all sand tanks, while Got sand?absorbing sand from an enemy fills one sand tank at a time. Once all tanks are full, it begins filling half a power tank at a time. Absorbing eight sand fields will create a new sand tank, while absorbing sand from 16 enemies will create a new power tank (although you can only have as many as you do sand tanks). Overall, this is a rather redundant and convoluted system, and subsequent games in the series wisely get rid of power tanks altogether.

Care for a drink?Other gameplay elements include fountains…or any body of water, really. You see, drinking water recovers the Prince’s health. A good steak would’ve made more sense to me, but what do I know? There are also several hidden areas (recognisable as corridors hung with draperies) which all lead the Prince to the same mysterious fountain, then inexplicably vanish. Drinking from that fountain increases his maximum health. Finally, there are also sand clouds, which enable the Prince to save, but also provide a sped-up flash-forward of his progression through the next area. And while these are accurate at first, they gradually become disturbingly less so, showing the Prince falling to his death and so on.

Leap-frogAs far as combat is concerned, the Prince fights with a sword in one hand (which he’ll be able to upgrade twice over the course of the game) and the dagger in the other. He can block enemy attacks and has several combos at his disposal. But by far the two most effective tactics are making him vault over enemies to stab them in the back, or propelling him from a wall to knock them over.

Invasive hairThe Prince is also eventually joined by Farah, as they would both like to do very nasty things to the Vizier, and the dynamic between them is one of the game’s stronger points. She’s a pretty little thing, and he’s not half bad himself, even allowing for the somewhat cartoonish graphics, but they’re both rather pig-headed, so expect belligerent attraction expressed through abundant bickering. That aside, Farah also provides assistance in various ways: not only will she help in combat with her bow, but she’s also skinny enough to fit through various cracks and holes which are inaccessible to the Prince, thereby helping in exploration as well. Although he’ll still spend a good deal of his time opening doors for her. You also need to make sure the enemies don’t swarm her, as, if she dies, it’s Game Over. Moreover, she’s entirely capable of accidentally nailing the Prince with an arrow if he stands in her way. The joys of a sidekick, I tell you.

The game has several other annoying aspects. First of all, there’s the Prince, who, to be entirely honest, is a bit of a jackass. He’s proud, rash, snobbish and more than a little whiny. The snobbishness wears off a bit, but the rest remains, so he’s not exactly You can leave your hat onthe most likeable hero ever. Also, he inexplicably ends the game topless. You’ll see him rip off a sleeve, then another, then the rest of his shirt (including his chest-guard) for seemingly no reason. Presumably, it’s because his clothes are torn, but surely, going bare-chested into combat is hardly going to help? Another drawback is repetitiveness. It’s not a very long game, but while the puzzle solving mostly keeps you on your feet, the combat does get rather old after a while. One other thing that irritated me considerably was the lack of subtitles. I don’t know what it is about the sound in this game, but it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what some of the characters are saying (the Vizier especially swallows a lot of his words), and there’s no way to remedy that except trying to fiddle with the background music volume. You’d think this could have been resolved in the HD remake, but apparently not.

Sandy princeStill, I found this to be an enjoyable, spirited romp. The graphics are colourful and stylish, Stuart Chatwood’s music has flair and a nice Middle-Eastern vibe (special mention goes to the ending credits song “Time Only Knows”), and overall, the game does an honourable job of what it sets out to do. What’s more, the ending provides a surprising little twist. Well, unless you’ve seen the film based on the game. Then you know what the twist is. But if you have to decide between the two, pick the game. It’s just better, Jake Gyllenhaal’s abs and Gemma Arterton’s curves be damned. Although Ben Kingsley does look remarkably like the Vizier.

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.

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.