Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
In the late 90s, Resident Evil set off a slew of also-rans in a developing genre called survival horror. Though many of them have fallen away and been forgotten, the really great ones still resonate even today with gamers of all types.
Fatal Frame falls into the camp of being a critically-lauded masterpiece but one that stood somewhat in the shadows of its more prevalent contemporaries. Unlike titles like Silent Hill and the aforementioned Resident Evil, no one clamored to make Fatal Frame into a movie – or, gods forbid, remake it – so it has remained relatively untainted by interests milking it as a franchise.
“Cult classic” is a well-deserved moniker for the game. The title’s acclaim is well-deserved, and even though it doesn’t hold up in all ways, many aspects don’t feel all that removed from more recent games in the genre.
How great you think Fatal Frame is, though, will depend on how critical you want to be of flaws that are ten years old. You could nitpick things that have been naturally corrected through years of game design innovation, but then you would also kind of be missing the point.
If you take Fatal Frame for what it is and understand its flaws as genre-wide – or even console-wide – problems that have been corrected over time, then you will more than likely have a great time with this creepy haunted house game.
In Fatal Frame, you play as Miku Hinasaki, on the trail of her missing brother. The search, of course, leads her to a haunted mansion. The only “weapon” throughout a treacherous multi-night stay in the Himuro Mansion is the “Camera Obscura,” which possesses the unique ability to reveal and then trap ghosts so that they cannot harm Miku.
It is here where the game shines. Even though the camera is just a weak stand-in for a gun or a proton pack from Ghostbusters, something about having only a camera to protect you makes you feel insanely vulnerable. Also, the fact that being perpetually low on health or health packs gives encounters with ghosts a particularly tense air. If you are anything like me, you’ll shriek when ghosts disappear and then appear right beside you, and it only gets worse as enemies become increasingly dodgy and powerful.
You can upgrade the camera and give it special abilities. Your currency throughout consists of points rewarded for the pictures you take of both unsuspecting and harmful enemies. The better the shot, the higher the score. It is a mechanic that separates it from most other survival horror games, which are largely scoreless. A nice touch, if you’re looking for something gamey to keep you interested during the combat sequences.
The “based on a true story” line is about as true as it ever is in this sort of thing, but the writing is believably creepy, even if it is sometimes also pretty clumsy, as evidenced in the following paragraph: “Late yesterday, a human body with no limbs was found in Himuro Mountain…The body’s hands, feet, and head were all torn off. The police is investigating the case as both a murder and accident.”
Exposition is delivered through what would probably be considered traditional means today – flashbacks, audio logs, diary entries, news articles – but the variety feels welcome, especially considering that it was probably a somewhat new means of storytelling. It is evident that the Project Zero team was unusually concerned with the fidelity of story, at a time when game plots could still largely be considered laughable.
Nevertheless, the story, when pieced together, is quite interesting on its own regard, so it’s not quite the chore it usually is to wade through all of the story materials. In fact, it is quite astounding how confident the developers seemed to be in their story, because gameplay can be quite spread out early on, so it is story that takes the lead in drawing the player into the experience.
Over the course of Fatal Frame, you come to find out some pretty heinous things have gone down at the Himuro Mansion, some of them connected and some of them not. There is a tendency for the game to veer toward cloaked conspiracy, but no one plotline feels as though it dominates the other, and the story wraps up a lot better than I thought it would, considering the disparate threads that persist through most of the game.
Some of the diary entries and audio logs are quite frankly shocking, in a stark sort of way, which was refreshing, considering how many games take their sense of scary from Tales From the Crypt rather than something genuinely moody and serious.
Graphically, the game still holds up. The cut scenes are beautifully dated. They almost look like a contemporary artist’s rendering of a cut scene from that era, and I mean that to be complementary in a nostalgic way.
But there are some problems.
What actually ends up hampering the experience of playing Fatal Frame is the pacing, which seems good-to-slow in the beginning and then insecurely hurried in the end.
Furthermore, the combat isn’t good or satisfying enough for there to be a lot of it. The game seems to understand this point early on, because the encounters with ghosts are somewhat rare and also – at points – randomized.
However, beginning about halfway through, the number of paranormal encounters goes way up, ramping up to the point that “boss” battles are stacked atop one another.
You battle different iterations of the same ghost, but the combat isn’t varied enough to stay interesting, so the choice to include so many encounters later on is befuddling.
It would be different if the game varied some of the mechanical elements, but it doesn’t, and even though the upgradeable camera is a nice touch, it doesn’t do enough to provide the right kind of variety.
Not only that, but the puzzles and environment traversal become dominant, much more than the story, which makes me think they rushed the last third or so of the game in order to make it fit. Granted, the first half feels slow, but the second half feels almost frenetic by comparison.
It’s as though there was some internal pressure to make the game more traditional as it progressed, or that – for some reason – they became dissatisfied with the more intentional pacing of the entire thing and so decided to cram a bunch of enemies together.
Still, as the encounters become more frequent, they also become more tense, because the limited number of herbal medicines (heals) means that, in all likelihood, you’ll have to be wary and conservative in how you battle your foes.
And, to be fair, I played the game through without paying close attention to how I was replenishing my health, so I spent the better part of the second night limping from encounter to encounter, out of breath and nearing death.
For the complaints I have about Fatal Frame, I can’t recommend the game enough. There’s plenty to keep players enthralled and creeped out for several finger-biting hours. You will undoubtedly jump on several occasions when unexpectedly encountering a menacing ghost. You’ll probably also curse the game for putting so many difficult enemies right in a row – the Blinding Woman section of the second night, ugh – but very rarely will you blame the game’s design for the flaws.
I’m amazed and ashamed that I never picked up Fatal Frame the first time through, and so I probably don’t have any rose-colored vision through which to view it. However, the game is solid and different – and also much better than 99.9% of all horror and/or survival horror games ever – so it deserves a playthrough, especially if you want to consider yourself well-played. Sir.