Title  : Fatal Frame
Platforms  : Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox
Publisher  : Tecmo
ESRB Rating  : Mature
Game Rating  : 7.6
Review by  : Ken Gagne

Generations ago, Native Americans refused to have their pictures taken, believing cameras could possess their souls. More civilized folk scoffed at them, but never proved them wrong. 

Good thing for us; that belief grants salvation in Fatal Frame, a PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox survival-horror game from Tecmo. [PS2 version reviewed here.] 

It's 1986 Japan. Somewhere in the world, Ryo Hazuki is petting kittens, drinking sodas, and seeking his father's murderer. But on the grounds of the abandoned Himuro mansion, a famous novelist has disappeared, followed shortly by Mafuyu, his journalist pupil. Miku, Mafuyu's sister, will be the next victim unless players can safely guide her and rescue her brother from the haunted mansion. 

Haunted — by a gaggle of ghosts that would like nothing better than for Miku to join their ranks. Fortunately, she's armed with some mysticism herself: a powerful, antique camera. When a ghost attacks, gameplay switches to first-person perspective, where Miku's photography skill will determine her fate against these shutter-shy spooks. Taking an up-close and well-centered shot can banish the spirit to the netherworld, earning Miku thousands of points, while a nervously poor picture will have little effect. Points can be spent to upgrade the camera, and more powerful film can be found throughout the mansion. 

Mistake neither the poltergeists nor the protagonist for Resident Evil cast members. The ghosts are not zombies: they rarely appear in swarms and are not easily disposed. Spirits are bound by neither the limitations of the physical world nor the rules of fair play, and are frustrating adversaries. They can float through walls, or suddenly disappear from one location and reappear somewhere entirely inconvenient. Even a single spectre is sufficiently sinister to slaughter our star, who is surely an accidental heroine; Miku is more Japanese schoolgirl than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though the ghosts are spooky, they're also somewhat generic and, being non-corporeal, less threatening than real monsters. They'd like us to believe otherwise, but the worst they can do to Miku is drain her life bar and slap a "Game Over" on the screen. There's hardly a drop of fresh blood in the game. 

The rest of the gameplay is the stuff of generic survival horror: solving puzzles, finding keys, and the like. Since little can be accomplished in the company of the undead, the atmosphere shifts between fighting and exploring moods. Fatal Frame taxes the memory as players are required to backtrack to find new items in old areas, or indulge in a photo shoot to open locked doors. The slightly foreign architecture may confuse some gamers, but fortunately, clues are often handy to lead the way. There's plenty of required reading, giving the environment a rich background but also making the game more academic than horrific. 

The mansion is viewed from a mix of static and dynamic perspectives, similar in fashion to Silent Hill, but without the graininess or fog found in that game. Some visual static is introduced during full-motion video sequences as Miku becomes aware of things normal people would miss. 

The Himuro estate is not at all akin to the psychologically deficient Silent Hill, or violent Raccoon City. It's a typical-looking house with no blood-caked walls or ransacked rooms. If it weren't for the poor lighting and occasional state of disrepair — and, well, the countless tortured souls of flesh-hungry undead — it would be quite nice. 

The lack of background music focuses on the ghosts' creepy moans, making a frantic situation tenser. Even as they throttle Miku, they can be heard to cry, "Help me!" The spirits become more agitated should she attempt to run away. In contrast, the words of the living are articulate and rehearsed — that is, stiff and unnatural. 

Fatal Frame doesn't offer many staples of the survival horror genre, making it unique among its survival-horror contemporaries. It does not try to imitate them, but instead provides a more slowly paced adventure with a fuller history and less surprising environment. Players are unlikely to experience Fatal Frame as "the scariest game ever", as the box claims. 

Fatal Frame is innovative, but when faced with a ghost, I can think of better things to wield than a camera.


This article is copyright (c) 2002, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 11-Mar-02