Fatal Frame


    In the vast numbers of horror titles released over the last half-dozen years since the first Resident Evil, gamers have been assaulted and terrified by zombies, mutants, demons, zombie mutant demons, aliens, vampires, and even dinosaurs - but, oddly enough, no ghosts, spirits, or specters. The team responsible for Tecmo's Deception series, however, decided to take a break from impaling villagers on stakes to rectify that. The result is Fatal Frame, a unique and often terrifying adventure that only falters in the places where it sticks too close to the survival horror norm.

    Fatal Frame places players in control of Miku Hinasaki, a young girl gifted and cursed with an extrasensory perception that allows her to see things "other people can't see." Miku's ability has always alienated her from other people; her closest companion is her brother Mafuyu, who shares the same sixth sense. When Mafuyu goes missing, Miku takes it upon herself to track him down.

  Yes, she has E.S.P.
She has special powers

    Her investigation eventually leads her to the Himuro mansion, an abandoned manor in rural Japan. The dilapidated house has a local reputation as the scene of bizarre cultist rituals and mysterious disappearances. This is exactly what drew Junsei Takamine, a renowned novelist and Mafuyu's mentor, there to do research several weeks before; disappear mysteriously is exactly what he and his entourage did. Mafuyu followed suit and now it's all up to Miku to get to the bottom of the strange events.

    The story that unfolds is genuinely frightening, full of betrayal, revenge, and human sacrifice. Despite some of the more outrageous elements, Fatal Frame keeps its tale subtle and restrained, never falling into the camp that often plagues horror games. While the game's English dub isn't fantastic, it never dips below competent and manages to carry the creepy atmosphere without serving up unintentional giggles. The plot does falter occasionally - like many ghost stories, once the mysteries begin to unravel, things become a bit less frightening - but on the whole it offers something more consistent and cohesive than the norm for the genre.

    The spooky narrative is helped along by some of the best presentation yet seen in a horror title. While the graphics themselves aren't anything too spectacular, the living and the dead are both well modeled and the Himuro mansion is filled with tiny details, such as Japanese dolls complete with kimonos and suits of traditional samurai armor. The textures and modeling in some of the environments is downright poor, but the judicious use of an excellent lighting engine and atmospheric sound help distract from the game's other technical shortcomings.

Beware the people traps
I am suffering from the itchy scratchy hell

   But what really sets Fatal Frame's presentation apart is the excellent camera direction. Gamers have long since grown accustomed to the jarring angles and quick cuts used in games since Resident Evil, but Fatal Frame takes the idea a step further. Though the game still uses pre-determined camera angles, they're extremely dynamic and used to heighten the tension is subtle ways. Players may see one angle when first exploring a room, only to thrown off by a new set of angles which highlight different areas when they return. The dynamic camera work truly excels in the manner it's been applied to the mansion's ghostly manifestations. There are spirits everywhere in the Himuro mansion - under the floorboards, in the rafters, just around the corner - and when Miku stumbles across one, or near one, the camera will shift to a new angle to highlight the specter, while still keeping the player in control of the main character. It may sound confusing, but it is handled expertly throughout and good job of keeping the player on edge without interfering with the playability of the game.

    After some time, the mansion itself begins to feel as though it's alive and no place is quite safe from the wandering ghosts. Instead of lengthy exposition, much of Fatal Frame's story is conveyed by simply seeking out the dead and hearing them recount the events that lead up to their deaths, or by watching the events recreated through Miku's sixth sense. While your foes in most games are faceless drones, almost every ghost in the Himuro mansion has a tortured past and story to tell. Though the game does fall back on documents and diaries for some of the storytelling, it's at its best, and most frightening, when it lets the dead tell their own tales.

    While the story and atmosphere by themselves make Fatal Frame worth a look, it's the game's unique play mechanics that truly separate it from the scores of other titles. Miku's only weapon against the ghosts is an antique camera with the mystical ability to capture them on film. Fatal Frame's entire combat system revolves around the camera and, though it may sound gimmicky, it actually works quite well.

  I hate, I hate, I hate mosquitoes so much
Inflict punishment upon them now!

    When a hostile spirit approaches (indicated by a yellow glow on the camera's "filament" sensor), players can shift into a first-person mode to battle it. This functions like a cross between Pokémon Snap and a first-person shooter; the left analog stick moves the viewfinder, while the right stick can be used to move. The amount of damage dealt to the attacking spirit is dependant on the "composition" of the photograph. Keeping the ghost centered in the frame builds up a meter, and the angle and distance of the final photograph helps determines the amount of damage dealt. It's also possible to receive bonuses by snapping the picture while the ghost is just about to attack, or when it is extremely close.

    A successful picture not only deals out damage, but also rewards the player with a corresponding amount of "Spirit Points." These can be spent to level up the camera's basic functions and add new abilities, such as "Pressure," which will push a ghost back when you snap a picture, or "Search," which will automatically track your target's movement. While Fatal Frame's camera-based combat may not offer the visceral thrills of popping of zombies' heads with a shotgun, it's fast-paced and, more importantly, fun. The variety of ghosts is relatively high, and each kind has its own attack patterns and movements, which keeps the battles interesting throughout. However, it does begin to fall apart a bit later in the game when you're faced with multiple ghosts at one time. Miku's slow movement and the camera's small viewfinder make facing off against multiple opponents more frustrating than fun. Thankfully, these situations are fairly rare.

I had a romantic drive with a pretty girl /
We lost our way and we got wet in the rain
Devil house, a danger is near at hand

    Though the designers have endeavored to make Fatal Frame's puzzles photography-themed as well, they aren't nearly as original as the rest of the game and fall prey to the same flaws that have plagued the genre since Resident Evil. Paper talismans replace locks on the doors in the mansion, and the only way to open them is to photograph the ghost that placed the seal. Taking a picture of the locked door will reveal the spirit's hiding place, and then it's up to the player to recreate that scene. While the areas are usually easy to find, the necessary backtracking can become tiresome, especially later in the game. Fatal Frame's more traditional puzzles, however, are so bland that you'd be hard-pressed to remember any of them after the game's finish. All of them are easily solvable once you have the necessary items and serve as only a means to slow your progress through the game.

    Beyond this, Fatal Frame suffers from a few other classic problems of the horror genre. If players aren't careful, item management and game difficulty can become a major issue in the third of the game's four chapters. Though healing items and powerful film (which serves as the game's ammunition) are plentiful in the first two chapters of the game, they become extremely scarce by the third. At the same time, the difficulty takes a huge leap in the third chapter - you begin to face multiple ghosts at one time and enemies that can shoot projectiles. The game gives you no indication that you might need to conserve your items early on, and many players will find themselves facing the toughest challenges in the game with no healing items and the weakest film possible. To make matters worse, the third chapter consists almost entirely of backtracking to find the necessary items to solve an inane locked door puzzle. It's as though the designers tried to fit every survival horror shortcoming into one compact section.

  She can read your mind
She knows about ghosts

    Fortunately, these problems are confined to the third chapter of the game and don't really affect the playability of the rest, nor do they ever really dull the impact of Fatal Frame's good qualities. But the game does have one other problem endemic to horror games: length. Most players will breeze through the game in less than eight hours, and at least two of those will likely be spent backtracking. The game does offer plenty of replay value, however. In addition to unlockables such as new costumes for Miku, a ghost battle mode, and the "Nightmare" difficulty level, subsequent playthroughs offer a checklist for all 108 spirits in the mansion. While some ghosts will inevitably be photographed during battle, the large majority of them are not spirits you fight. Some only appear for a brief time in a certain location and players must be quick on the shutter to catch them on film. Others are hidden completely, and can only be found by paying close attention to audio and vibration cues. Finding all the ghosts can become a game in itself, and players can unlock further rewards.

    Even without these extras, however, Fatal Frame would still be a worthy game. Despite the constant stream of entries into the horror genre, disturbingly few of them ever manage to be scary. The fact that Fatal Frame consistently succeeds is probably enough to recommend it to horror fans, but anyone looking for a unique and atmospheric adventure will find plenty to like about Fatal Frame.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.
Fatal Frame
Developer Tecmo
Publisher Tecmo
Genre Adventure
Medium DVD
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  12.13.01
Fatal Frame ships
262 screenshots
U.S. box art
Director Makoto Shibata
Producer Keisuke Kikuchi
Character Design ZIN
Stage Design Director HRY-CHN
Full game credits