Fatal Frame, also known as Project Zero, is in my opinion, one of the most fun and creepy franchises released in the survival horror genre. The game is like an eerie mix between Pokémon Snap and Silent Hill, where you shoot pictures of ghosts and spirits around the mansion.
The game is played and separated by three nights in the Himuro Mansion. Each night increases in length and difficulty. Initially, when you play the game you worry about how easy the ghost battles seem, but the game bashes you for such thinking by throwing ghosts of all styles at you as you progress. Ghosts are more difficult to capture on your camera than it sounds. They can vary in patterns of movement, and since they are not bound by walls, they can come at you from the floor or ceiling, leaving you frantically flailing your camera around in attempts to hit the ghosts’ ‘core’ or photo center, which deals the most damage. A zero shot or a fatal frame is achieved when you’ve charged your camera up all the way by keeping the ghost in the finder’s center and deals considerably more damage than a regular shot would.
Later on, in the game, you’ll find yourself fighting multiple ghosts which do higher and higher amounts of damage as the nights’ wane on. Around the house, you will find different ‘film types’ to load into your camera which was handed down to you from your late mother. These film types act as a type of ammo with higher numbered films dealing more damage to spirits. As with most survival horror games the higher power film can be rare and must be rationed well to get through the more difficult battles later on in the game.
During ghost battles, your pictures are scored points based on how powerful your shot is along with how centered it is. The points you gain along with Spirit Stones can be used to upgrade the camera to increase stats like power, range and speed of the charge. Upgrading can also unlock abilities used to help you fend of spirits around the house such as the ability to slow spirits movements down enabling you to get cleaner shots. Other abilities allow you to reveal ghosts for longer push them away from you or even completely stop them in their tracks. Additional special camera functions can be obtained by completing the game and completing feats such as capturing a picture of every ghost in the game or simply beating the game on normal difficulty.
Getting photos of all the ghosts would certainly be a well achieved feat. Fatal Frame keeps the tension up throughout the game by giving you ghostly photo ops as you progress. These can come in the form of a shade wandering through the door in front of you, popping up right behind you after opening a door, or just floating through walls with samurai swords coming at you swinging. In Fatal Frame, you will nearly find ghosts everywhere, from ghosts hanging out in the rafters to ghosts peering at you from crevices around the home, all of which are photographable. The game then gives you an album in which to save or delete photos from your paranormal portfolio. All and all, I would say that the choices made for the photography aspects make this the most fun I’ve had with a camera inside or outside of a game!
The story of Fatal Frame is fairly standard horror. Our main protagonist, Miku, is seeking her brother Mafuyu who traveled to the Himuro Mansion two weeks prior in search of journalist, Junsei Takamine. Both Miku and Mafuyu are sensitive to the paranormal which explains a lot of the visions in the game. She finds the house in a state of destruction which you can clearly see while wandering the lonely dust covered halls of the mansion. There are holes and felled beams in various places in the house giving the atmosphere a well abandoned feel. As you wander deeper into the mansion you come across the mysterious spirit of a woman in a white kimono named Kirie. You further learn about the strangling ritual which is said to keep the Hell Gate below the mansion sealed along with the, now broken, true holy mirror. I found the story to be well written and classical Japanese horror. It resolved well depending on the ending you end up with, of which there are three, and the twist of the game is very pleasing.
The atmosphere in the game is one of the greatest achievements in the series. The sound design was perfectly done for this entry. While exploring, you’ll come across disembodied voices here and there along with heart beats and just creepy ambient noises. The main complaint I would have about the sound is some of the voice acting which can be off at times. Another survival horror element is the use of files to further tell the story of the mansion and the fates of the varied visitors and inhabitants of the manor. The files describe brutal findings and lament the pain of the ghosts within the mansion such as finding a body with no limbs. My favorite aspect of this is one of the first uses of cassette tapes in survival horror. You can collect these colored tapes to play on your tape recorder which just adds to the tension and terror this game provides. I’ve always been a strong believer that audio is the key to horror. If you get a chance, play this game with headphones. It makes the experience all the more worthwhile.
The visuals for this game were wonderful when the game was released although they are a little dated. They were originally inspired by the success of Silent Hill’s use of polygonal characters. The design was well done at the time as they succeed in genuinely making you feel like you’re wandering around a Japanese style home. The cultural essence of this game is amazing, especially if you are a big fan of Japanese culture and style. Cut scenes in Fatal Frame remind one of the VHS tape from The Ring as they are also black and white and appear to be ‘recorded’ on low quality film. This gives the cut scenes and visions Miku has an eerie unsettling factor to them. Occasionally you will come across a smoky floaty looking wall. These are places in the environment in which you can take photos. These photos will often reveal ghosts that couldn’t be seen until the picture is taken and will often reveal clues as to where to go next. Sometimes photographing these areas can unlock seals on doors giving you new routes to explore.
The controls of the game can take a minute to get used to. When you hit the run button it doesn’t just turn your controls into a run, it automatically runs in whatever direction you’re facing which can get in the way during some battles causing you to run directly into the ghosts you’re currently attempting to flee. I find the controls a little dated and clunky although the camera controls are well done. One of the most useful control elements is the quick turn which allows you to 180 in order to get quick pics behind you. The health bar in this game takes up quite a bit of the right hand side of the screen in the form of a large blue bar. You can heal yourself using herbal medicine and sacred water found around the environment. Sacred Water is to Herbal Medicine as a Fine Aid Spray is to a Green Herb in Resident Evil. The ‘Phoenix Down’ of the game comes in the form of a stone mirror, of which you can only carry one at a time, which will automatically revive you if you fall to the hordes of ghosts roaming the halls. You can find these spots with the help of a meter near your health bar that alerts you to paranormal activities. You can save your game using blue lamps placed around central points in the mansion. I found the save points to be well placed and frequent enough to not cause too much frustration. Fatal Frame does well with its puzzles, mostly consisting of photographing certain points in the environment and remembering where those places were in the mansion. There is an occasional locked door that you need to use runes with Japanese symbols on them to open. Some of these puzzles can be difficult initially to get but once you’ve figured out one they all become fairly easy.
Fatal Frame has many positives and very few negatives; it is a genuinely creepy and tense experience, has very fun gameplay elements and plenty of distractions and jump scares along the way. Collecting ghosts is rewarding and the unlockable special functions allow for good replay value. Sound and visuals were wonderful and added beautifully to the already creepy atmosphere. While there were a few issues with running controls, the camera system was set up well and has tons of potential to add onto. Puzzles could have been more challenging but were adequate for the time of the games release. As far as the survival horror genre, very few games have lined up all their elements like Fatal Frame has, to create a classic horror game that you will never forget!