A picture's worth a thousand screams...
Release date: November 22nd, 2002
Start date: January 15th, 2014
Finish date: January 19th, 2014
Completion time: 7 hours, 38 minutes and 14 seconds (not counting deaths or reloads)
Length of time in my collection: About 7 years
In Fatal Frame you play as Miku, a young women who sets out to find her brother that has gone missing. You track him to the abandoned and dilapidated Himuro mansion. Surprise! The place turns out to be haunted. Like, major wowie zowie haunted. These nasty little spirits like to hurt anything living they come across, and now they got you trapped in their own little hell hole. How do you fight back? With an antique camera that possesses the mysterious ability to hurt them when their picture's taken.
This is all really happened, too...
...at least according to the part on the box where it proclaims that Fatal Frame is "based on a true story". I sure as hell hope they dramatized the shit out of whatever really happened, because damn... this is some messed up stuff.
The game has you exploring the mansion, solving puzzles, finding keys, and fighting enemies. Sound familiar? It is, for all intents and purposes, the J-Horror equivalent of Resident Evil, right down to the "cinematic" camera angles and clunky controls.
Naysayers of the dreaded "tank" style controls perpetuated by the Resident Evil series will be happy to know this game uses a more intuitive full-3D way of moving. Just press a direction on the stick and BAM! Miku moves that way. So why are the controls still janky? The direction you move is in relation to the current camera angle, so when the angle switches, so does the the direction you need to hold the thumb stick. Miku will keep moving without interruption through angle changes as long as you keep holding in that direction, but lift up for a second and the controls reset to the current angle. This will time and time again cause a temporary dis-orientation that will occasionally lead you straight into the icy cold grip of your spectral pursuers.
This is exasperated by just how slow Miku moves. When she runs, it's as if it's through a puddle of molasses. At best, you will become mildly annoyed by this, at worst you'll be screaming "Damn girl, run for God's sake!" like you're watching a slasher film. It's most insufferable when you're just trying to explore and figure out where to go next, as it can take seemingly forever to get there.
On top of that, the game seems to suffer from a strange glitch where you keep running into invisible walls. There are times when you'll be running for your life and you'll come to a dead stop for no reason what-so-ever. It's never game-breaking, as it's fixed simply by letting go of the buttons for a moment, but there are a couple rooms in particular where this problem becomes extremely grating.
The combat is the star of the show here, as it's arguably one of the more unique systems in gaming. When a ghost is in your proximity and somewhere in front of you, the music will change and a little indicator on the bottom of the screen will light up, which is your que to switch into viewfinder mode.
There is a small circle area in the middle of the screen that, when focused on the ghost, will begin to charge. The longer you let it charge the more damage it will do, and the closer you are to the ghost the faster it will charge. Most ghosts don't simply stand in one spot waiting to be snapped, though. They bob-and-weave, disappear and reappear, and sometimes materialize right behind you (better make use of that quick 180 degree turn button).
The fights are intense and nerve-racking, and only become a bit of a drain during some of the tougher ghosts later in the game, where you'll become trapped in a endless cycle of stop, take a picture, run away and stop again. Combine Miku's lack of mobility with these ghouls penchant for cheap, out-of-range hits, and there where a handful of times I could be heard shouting "What?! Are you serious?! Asshole!" at my TV.
Every ghost you best nets you experience points, with certain skill shots earning you a tidy bonus. These points can be spent on upgrades for your camera, like increasing it's charge speed or making the capture circle larger. Additional auxiliary functions can also be unlocked, such as freezing a ghost for a few seconds or pushing them back to give you some breathing room. Each use of one of these auxiliary features requires a spirit stone. These are scattered throughout the mansion, but they're scarce, so they're best saved for the more challenging foes.
Camera film acts as the game's ammo, and you'll find boxes scattered just about everywhere. There are four kinds, with the harder-to-find ones being most useful for combat. The weaker film is best saved for the puzzles, most of which simply consist of finding a particular area to take a snapshot of which will magically unlock a door somewhere.
The one area this game truly excels in is it's atmosphere. Nearly hedging out Silent Hill for the moody tension it provides, Fatal Frame is remarkably creepy, with a perfect blend of stark, uninviting environments and chilling audio ques. Most games (and movies) emphasize an upcoming conflict with an increase in volume; this game does the exact opposite, often completely dropping whatever ambient music track is playing to complete quiet, before slowly rising to a nerve-racking monk-like chant (I hate using "nerve-racking" multiple times in this review, but really, it's one of the most suitable phrases to describe some of the best parts of the game).
Long time fans of survival horror will get the most out of Fatal Frame, as they are the ones the most likely to forgive its many shortcomings. If your looking for something that harkens back to the golden-age of survival horror, and are willing to put up with some frustrations, you could do a lot worse.
Letter grade: C+