Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
‘Creepy’ is an altogether difficult aesthetic to pull off in a horror game. What is easily evoked in other mediums, like movies and books, can end up coming off as corny, misdirected, or some weird combination of the two when applied to video games. Instead of chewing your nails down to the quick, you might be compelled to chuckle at what the game devs think is frightening.
That’s why the Fatal Frame series is such a welcome addition to horror gaming. It does what a lot of other games try to do, but without the kind of strained effort of trying to ‘look’ overwhelmingly scary. It evokes that sincerely unsettling experience through simply providing the audience with a compelling premise, haunting visuals, and controls that enhance rather than ruin the overall mood of the game.
Given that ten years have elapsed since the game’s release, however, it’s easy to wonder how this widely-lauded sequel holds up. I’ll spare you the tension: it’s still a really great game.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly for the PS2 picks up where the first game left off, though not in the way you’d think. The story is completely different, but it is a strange philosophical sequel, and Project Zero, the game’s developers, managed to take the best aspects of the first game and ratchet them to a nearly perfect tautness. The first game was no slouch, but the fact is that with the second game, Project Zero solidified the Fatal Frame series as one of the best in the survival horror genre.
You play (mostly) as Mio Amakura, who, along with her twin sister Mayu, serves as the game’s protagonist. Mio and Mayu are not exploring haunted Himuro Mansion but The Lost Village, where the sorts of violent travesties you’d expect to have happened in something called The Lost Village have actually happened. The game keeps the occultish vibe this time around, as well, but the effect of the story is more dramatically unsettling. It seems to have grown up even by the standards of the first game, which felt quite mature in its execution.
The ‘twin’ theme was not lost on the developers, either, and references to pairs pervade the game. You’ll often find yourself fighting more than a single enemy at a time, for example, and even the landscape seems to be littered with parallel paths and pairings of rooms or houses.
Additionally, if the first game somewhat vaguely revolved around familial bonds, this one can’t seem to avoid them. Of course, the idea of siblings is key here, but without revealing too much, suffice it to say that there are other, equally disturbing kinds of relationships sprinkled throughout Fatal Frame II.
Beyond the thematic concerns, Crimson Butterfly looks better, and it is also more self-consciously cinematic, to boot. It could almost serve as a non-canonical sequel to the Ringu movies, or some other J-Horror franchise. The cut scenes exist as small, artistic showcases, rather than being mere expository sequences, as the ones in the first game unfortunately tended to be. You get a sense from watching them that the developers were reaching for something genuine here, rather than just rehashing the past.
The amount of variation in both environment and combat is also something that sets this game apart from the first installation. In Fatal Frame II, you will not be confined to a single house but will traverse a vast village, including the surrounding areas. You will do some backtracking, but it isn’t quite so noticeably tedious this time around, and though you will undoubtedly get lost, it feels more tied to the experience, rather than being the result of poor design choices. Doors are strategically locked to force the paths you take, yes, but the effect is that the world takes on a hair-raising surrealism, making you question where you’re actually supposed to go. It’s a great way to enhance tension, and it keeps players perpetually off-balance.
As far as the combat goes, the devs seemed to have paid attention to the criticism leveled at the first game. The more frustrating aspects of the combat, both the camera and the enemies, have been fixed. It is still the same combat, so there is a modicum of clumsiness existent, but the Camera Obscura seems to handle better this time around, and the types of enemies and their attacks are much more varied. For example, some enemies can’t be injured until they show their faces, while others are shielded from your attacks until they are within range. This keeps your fights from feeling like obligatory, random encounters, which is definitely appreciated.
Not only that, but through exploring the tattered old ruins of what must have been a fantastic place, players will face a whole bevy of new ghost types, from tag-happy children to old men of varying types and women with broken necks. There is just something different about the whole approach to the enemies and the combat that makes this game feel like an entire step forward.
Additionally, the points system has been enhanced so that the totals don’t feel entirely arbitrary. It seemed as though the first game allowed for players to level their cameras up, but there wasn’t enough combat to really make significant changes to their cameras, but the second game gives players enough points and Spirit Stones to play around with the camera’s configuration from the get-go. Being able to upgrade the camera early and often is just another minor touch that adds so much to an already-incredible experience.
If there is a complaint about Fatal Frame II, it has to do with having a sister tag along for some of the adventure. She doesn’t really add anything to the game, other than companionship – not that she really adds any of that, either – and more often than not she gets in the way. Only a few of the puzzles require two people, a disappointment considering the possibilities. It was a design choice they committed to in spirit but not in execution, so had they used it to a greater effect, occasionally having Mayu get in the way during a battle would be almost no problem at all.
The changes made to the second game in the series take it from a curious cult classic that could have easily been forgotten to an exemplary gem of the genre. This series could have easily rested on a tired stereotype, but instead the developers strove to do something with the material, and as a result they created something wholly engrossing in a weird and unsettling sort of way.
The Final Word: If you are interested in J-Horror to any measurable degree, or if you – like me – missed these games upon initial release, then you should give Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly a once-over. It doesn’t feel as cripplingly dated as some other early-gen stuff for the PS2, and it does some really interesting things with mood and combat that others either couldn’t replicate or chose to ignore.