I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts!
Available on: PlayStation 2, Xbox
Despite 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 spawned 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.
The premise of the game is the tried-and-true haunted house setup: a famous Japanese 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 of the story is nothing new, the execution is genuinely effective.
One peculiarity of the Fatal Frame series is its decidedly feminine angle: the great majority of the protagonists are female (usually with short skirts…), as are the villains, who aren’t so much villains as vengeful victims, as Asian ghosts tend to be. There’s probably a lot to be said about the victimisation of women and the sublimation of female fear in response to that, 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 burly Marine 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.
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 that 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, crumbling floors and collapsing ceilings, bloody handprints on the walls, dusty kimonos stretched on stands, a disturbingly 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.
Ghosts are the only enemies and the only allies in this game, most being designated by a straightforward description of their appearance (e.g. 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 damage. 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 up 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.
Non-hostile ghosts come in two flavours: hidden ghosts, which 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 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.
All 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 that 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.