Oh dear, how survival horror has changed. The later entries in popular survival horror franchises such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dead Space and Alone in the Dark have all slowly started drifting towards more combat oriented gameplay. We’ve started to see a bit of an attempt at beating the genre back into shape with titles like Slender and Amnesia but I don’t think purely removing all combat is quite the right formula either. Enter Fatal Frame, developer Tecmo’s take on Silent Hill, when survival horror considered what your character couldn’t see to be just as important, if not more, than what you could see.
The haunted Himuro Mansion is home to first entry in the franchise. Following the disappearance of his mentor, Junsei Takamine, Mafuyu Hinasaki has yet to return from within the aged estate. Two weeks have since passed and Mafuyu’s younger sister, Miku, takes it upon herself to enter Himuro Mansion in search of her brother. She soon learns that Junsei’s assistant and editor both accompanied him as he was conducting research on his latest novel.
While you explore, you’ll be likely to stumble across research notes, diary entries and recorded tapes detailing both the sightings of those who have entered as well as the folktales surrounding the mansion. The story of Fatal Frame is broken up into four nights. Each night is dedicated to a central mystery. For example, the first night focuses on uncovering the reasons that Junsei and his companions entered the mansion, their discoveries and ultimately, the consequences of their findings.
Most main elements of the story are told through both on-screen happenings and sometimes confusing visions. Conversely, a large amount of the back story is fleshed out through the various documents that are left lying around. If you are the type of player who loves diving into the lore of a game, I’d recommend checking every nook and cranny on your way. This is also true just in general as there are a wealth of hidden items that will inevitably serve to help you.
You don’t have any firearms to protect you from the numerous ghosts that appear throughout but rather, the gameplay twist of the series is the Camera Obscura. If the name hasn’t given it away already, shortly into the game you uncover an old camera that has the ability to capture images of ghosts in two different ways.
As a gameplay element, the camera is used to defeat your various otherworldly attackers by taking aim, charging up a shot and snapping a picture. As simple as it might sound, the dead have a few advantages such as being able to briefly turn invisible, stalling the protagonist’s charge meter in the process. Some will just mess around strafing while others might disappear into the walls to keep you on your toes.
The camera can be upgraded to shoot further and faster with a longer and stronger charge time. The basic upgrades start out fairly cheap in contrast to the more expensive special functions that allow you to afflict enemies with paralysis, push them back or slow them down momentarily. Like any antique camera, you need film rolls which are found throughout the environment or you can find free rolls of the weakest film at any save point. You’ll want to swap between stronger, rarer films that you should save for tough fights and try to rely on weaker film which is sufficient for random encounters.
Alternatively, the camera can capture images is a literal sense too. The shots that you take are stored in an album and you are awarded points for the best shots. Points are the currency used to upgrade your camera so it pays (quite literally) to perfect shots if you can. Throughout the mansion are a number of hidden ghosts (108 in total!) who may only appear for a few seconds or are just well hidden. You can actually come back to these once you finish the game to fill out your ghost list. Each ghost has an entry and once you collect all 108, you’ll unlock a special extra that makes you very overpowered. There’s quite a few New Game+ type features which I consider surprising for a game of this sort. If you like a particular shot, you can also opt to lock it so that it won’t disappear or even save it directly to your memory card, although the data required can be quite a bit for an 8 MB memory card. If you’re playing the Playstation Network version, you shouldn’t run into any space issues.
The actual gameplay camera also stood out to me quite a bit. The presentation is a bit like Resident Evil where you flip between camera angles but you don’t have the tank controls of that franchise thankfully. While it spends most of the time just acting like a normal camera, every so often it might act up by pulling focus off you for a bit as if it’s anticipating someone, or something else entering the frame. Nothing happens of course and it starts to seem normal so you begin to let your guard down. The areas also change ever so slightly. You might your guard down as you traverse a hall for the 3rd time and for a split second as you turn a corner, the camera may look down at you from the rafters showing something sitting up there staring at you and then you’re in the next room. You could rush back if you had the courage but you wouldn’t find anything there.
Fatal Frame does have a few ghost fights which I think are almost universally considered a pain. A few in particular have a tendency to float out through the walls and then ambush you before you can react. Some ghosts seem to have an automatic attack if they are behind you but if they catch you, you can’t effectively run backwards while facing away so I’d get caught in a loop if I couldn’t stun the ghost properly. Miku controls fine too but a few times it feels like the controls lock up and you keep going in the same direction for a bit. She also travels a bit too slow for my liking and there’s no sprint function to offset it. No doubt you’ll run into a few instances where just that bit extra of a boost would have been the difference between life and death.
Despite the gripes, most of them were just minor setbacks that I was able to overcome after a few attempts. I didn’t any major issues that spoiled the game for me and I quite enjoyed the title. I really didn’t expect to like Fatal Frame a lot to be quite honest. Even though I was fully expecting the camera gameplay to be an annoyance, it works quite well. The ghosts aren’t hugely scary but they definitely can be unnerving when you have a distorted ghost face peering right at you which isn’t eased in the slightest by the somewhat aged graphics. Quite a few times, you may encounter things that change upon revisits or just give you false impressions to make the game ever so slightly unsettling as if something feels… off. After a while, you may even start to feel that maybe the camera isn’t meant to serve as your viewpoint. Maybe it’s actually watching you.
Publisher: Tecmo (JP + NA) / Wanadoo (PS2 | EU) / Microsoft Game Studios (Xbox | EU)
Released in 2001 (PS2) and 2002 (Xbox)
Platforms: Playstation 2 and Xbox