The best-selling video game console in history, Sony’s PlayStation 2 is definitely not lacking when it comes to games. In particular, the console is often praised for its wide selection of horror games to chose from. Instantly great titles such as Haunting Ground, Resident Evil 4, Silent Hill 3, Clock Tower 3 and Forbidden Siren spring to mind. Today however, I am going to talk about the first instalment of a series that really stands tall amongst the bunch, the highly unique, and genuinely chilling Fatal Frame.
First released in Japan as Zero in 2001 and developed by Tecmo (of Dead Or Alive and Ninja Gaiden fame), Fatal Frame suffered with what I would like to refer to as ‘why can’t they just pick one name and stick with it for every region?!?’ syndrome. Being from the United Kingdom, I instinctively refer to this game and its sequels by the name they were given for their European release, Project Zero, but for the purpose of this Underrated Games article, I’m going to go on a whim and assume that a lot of The Punk Effect’s readers are from the United States (your country is awesome, you have the NBA!) and refer to it as Fatal Frame, which I personally think is a much cooler name than the one we got over here in Europe. So, now that is out of the way, let’s get this show on the road. So turn off all the lights, grab yourself a torch, a blanket, and perhaps a snack (just in case I end up going off on some kind of tangent) because things are about to get spooky!
Fatal Frame begins with a brief prelude where you play as a boy named Mafuyu, after this small tutorial, sister Miku Hinasaki (who you play as for the rest of the game) goes to the defunct Himuro Mansion to search for Mafuyu. The only trace she finds of him is their mother’s old ‘Camera Obscura’, which Mafuyu brought with him. Miku soon starts to discover dark and disturbing secrets about what went on in the mansion, and learns about the malevolent spirit of Kirie Himuro and something called ‘The Calamity’. The game takes place over the space of four nights.
The storyline is intriguing and definitely had me wanting more. Like other survival horror games, Fatal Frame relies on notes and diaries that are scattered throughout its environment to tell its story. I found myself wanting to find these notes to unveil each and every secret this spooky mansion had to hide and finally reveal the mystery behind Kirie and what caused The Calamity. The game also has a very good attention to detail too, with several of the ghosts that haunt the mansion having their own back stories. Little touches like this are proof that a lot of love and passion has clearly been put into the creation of this game.
The gameplay of Fatal Frame functions like other Survival Horror games, searching round in pitch black areas (often with a lot of backtracking), looking for clues and solving puzzles, with only a torch to show you what is directly in front. Where this game find its individuality is the weapon of choice, the ‘Camera Obscura’, an antique camera that can photograph and expel spirits. Pressing the Circle button on your controller, you go into the viewfinder mode. To inflict damage you must first charge up your spirit power which increases the longer you aim at the unlucky ghoul. The more power you charge, the greater the damage you inflict. If you are patient and wait for the spirit power to change colour, you can fire a special shot that inflicts even more damage than usual, these aren’t common though, so sometimes it’s best to assess the situation before deciding whether or not these shots are worth the wait. What is interesting about the camera feature is that it switches from the typical survival horror puzzle solving to almost arcade-like gameplay. You can spend points you earn on upgrading the camera to make it better. The camera element is fun and incredibly tense, although at times difficult (never trust a ghost that can teleport). The only flaw with this mechanic is the controls. Everything is fine with aiming, using the left analog stick to move the viewfinder around, but when it comes to moving your character around in this mode, the right analog stick can prove to be a pain to use and it takes a lot of getting used to, especially if you are a gamer who is used to the analog sticks being the opposite way round in other games that require first person aiming. This really adds to the game’s already high difficulty, so I would probably say that the best way to move around in this game is to come out of the camera mode and move in the third person view.
The difficulty of the puzzles can be anywhere from easy to challenging. I found them very fun, with the exception of one recurring puzzle, which was incredibly annoying, as it involves Japanese characters that mean numbers, and as an English speaker, I found that they were incredibly hard to memorise. Also, the fact that the note detailing the meaning of the characters is in a different type face to that of the puzzle caused some trouble too. I honestly had to turn to a guide to figure this one out, which was a bummer, as I do hate cheating in video games.
The atmosphere is chilling, and I mean, really chilling. I am not one to get scared at things, but playing this game in a room with the lights off proved to be a very frightening experience, and I am sure playing with headphones on would add even more to that feeling. The game has its fair share of jump scares, especially when using the camera, as ghosts can disappear and reappear right in front of you, scaring the living daylights out of you. The game’s excessive darkness really adds to the atmosphere, you can only see directly in front of you with the torchlight, meaning that the majority of the screen is pitch black, and in that darkness could be something potentially lethal. This really underlines the player’s feeling of isolation. A fear of the unknown is definitely a factor that drives up the scariness levels, especially when you are made aware that a ghost is close, but you can’t see the ghastly apparition anywhere.
Building the atmosphere is music which, while not being completely memorable, does help to drive up the tension effectively. The score is very bizarre and skin-crawling, it follows a style which I often consider perfectly suited to a horror game, being unusual and unconventional, as this can really unsettle the player.
Also worth a mention, is that the game has a very Japanese aesthetic to it. Of course being in an old abandoned Japanese mansion helps push that (just a little), as well as the storyline, which touches a lot on freaky and disturbing Japanese rituals of old (although I doubt they are true). There are many items you pick up and inspect that are based around traditional Japanese culture too.
Fatal Frame is definitely one of the most memorable experiences I have had in the horror genre. With such a gripping storyline and innovative gameplay, it is no surprise that it has developed a cult following over the globe. Unfortunately I still find that this game and its equally fantastic sequels are slowly being lost to time as gaming moves on as a medium, so that is why I brought Fatal Frame to your attention. If you love horror or puzzle games, and you haven’t played this one yet, I absolutely recommend it, as well as its sequels. Don’t get left in the dark when it comes to Fatal Frame, and yes, that pun was absolutely intended!
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