For me, it all started with 7th Guest for the PC, I was indescribably intrigued by this game at the time. The ability to journey through a beautifully rendered, haunted mansion (albeit prerendered, hey it was 1993 what do you expect?) via a first-person perspective was something that, at the time, was unprecedented. Bill Gates himself commented on the game saying something to the effect that “(The 7th Guest) is the future of multimedia.” After 7th Guest, it was Mansion of Hidden Souls for the Sega CD that really amazed me. It also featured an explorable mansion, and to my recollection, it was also haunted -- with souls trapped in butterflies, whadda concept! When I heard that a sequel was in the works for the Sega Saturn, I was giddy with glee -- unfortunately the game never saw the light of day in America. Then came Trilobyte's 11th Hour, the sequel to 7th Guest. While 11th Hour was technically superior to its predecessor in terms of a technological standpoint, it just did not hold the same sense of wonder and awe that the original game did. Enter Fatal Frame, the world’s most impressive 3D haunted-mansion explorer simulator known to man. What is it about exploring haunted mansions that is so fun? Tecmo is a company that can undoubtedly answer that question; they have taken all of my favorite aspects from the past super-naturally-charged Mansion haunts and has effectively recreated that same sense of excitement and intrigue that The 7th Guest purported way back when.
Fatal Frame puts you in the role of Miku, a teenage girl who is in search of Mafuya, her brother. Mafuya went to the mansion in search of Takamine, a famous novelist who ended up missing after doing some research for his book at the Himuro mansion. Both Miku and Mafuya are cursed with the sixth sense; they can see ghosts! Scarrrry. Takamine helped Mafuya to cope with his ghoulish affliction through various books he wrote on the subject. Mafuya, too, ends up missing after searching for Takamine at the mansion. Two weeks pass and Miku resolves to go searching for her missing brother -- this is where you come in. As Miku you will uncover the secret, disturbing past of the mansion through clues you will uncover over a four-night, one-person manhunt for your brother.
The graphics in Fatal Frame are just short of astounding. For a system that can only render one-pass bump mapping, the visuals are surprisingly rich and detailed. Interactive backgrounds, freaky grain-film filters, impressive Luigi's Mansion-quality dynamic lighting effects. Every object casts a realistic shadow on the background, resulting in an almost frightening level of immersiveness.
Prerendered cutscenes are done up in a black and white, tattered film-like package that allows for both a realistic depiction of past events and an underlying documentary-ish feel. The lighting in the game allows for a believable atmosphere that gives you the sense that anything could happen at any time. The various apparitions that you will meet will be depicted in a terrifying flickering presence, usually contorted in posititions that are painful just to look at. Perspective is primarily represented via a third-person view, the multitude of camera positions adequately follow you around to the point where POV is rarely an issue. The non-ghoulish characters in the game are rendered very well, with detailed, diverse clothing and realistically animated facial gestures that serve their purpose flawlessly.
As the game's main character, Miku, you will journey through the bowels of a haunted mansion in search of your lost brother with only a camera as protection. But not just any camera, mind you. Through an Onimusha-like upgrade system, you will be able to transform your poltergeist-friendly camera into a finely tuned spook-busting machine. Each ghost that you capture via your camera will net you a certain amount of spirit points, which you can spend on adding or improving functionality to your camera. You will come across film canisters in your quest, ranging in strength. Some film deals more damage to enemies then others. As you close in on a ghostly presence, your dual shock will begin to shake, simulating a heartbeat. A small light indicator will also gradually get brighter as you get closer. To capture a ghost you will hit the 'O' button, which will put you into a FPS view. In this mode, you will use the left analog stick to aim and the right analog stick to move. Looking through the viewfinder you will notice that the focus circle will light up to varying degrees, the brighter that circle becomes, the better chance you will have of damaging the ghost for more hit-points. Keeping a ghost in your reticle for an extended duration and then taking a picture will result in a devastating attack, where areas snapping off pictures quickly will do little to no damage. You will have to manage your film supply to an almost strategic degree in order to survive on the latter half of the game. Tecmo did not develop this game with the button-masher in mind.
The sound in Fatal Frame is composed mainly of an organic-ambience and strange ritualistic chanting music that would scare your little brother to death. Ghosts will scream in agony as you film them and taunt you in the instances when they have the upper hand. Supernatural objects will resonate with a spooky hum as you close in on them, faint voices can be heard through long corridors, footsteps sound suitably different depending on the composition of what your walking on; all this equates to an audibly impressive, realistic experience that reverberates with resounding effect.
The story is told through various clues and notes that you will happen across, ghostly sightings, and The Shining-esque paranormal flashbacks. You will also come across audio-tapes that are scattered throughout the game that tell the stories of the previous visitors of the mansion via audio log entries, this method of delivering the story adds a heightened sense of eeriness and gives you a better idea of what your up against, one log entry at a time. Cut-scenes are generously peppered throughout the experience, rarely do you play for longer then 20 minutes without some indication that you are making progress.
The game spans four gruesome, terrifying nights that will inevitably leave you quivering on the floor in a fetal position. From unsettling footfalls, to eerie apparitions, the game will fool you into seeing and hearing things that are not really there. Fatal Frame is definitely not for the faint of heart as it graphically depicts acts of decapitations, satanic rituals, and countless references to gory, unspeakable acts of violence. How this game got past the ESRB rating board with a 'Teen' rating is beyond me.
Scavenger hunting for items can sometimes get frustrating because if you do not hit the X button at exactly the right spot, you will not find anything. This makes it very simple to overlook a much-needed item and continue searching in other places.
Fatal Frame offers up a generous amount of bonus material and unlockables, increasing the life span of the title for those with the patience to reveal them. Beating the game once through will open up ‘Battle Mode,' ‘Ghost List,' new costumes, and ‘Nightmare Mode.' It will take longer to complete the game if you do not have much survival-horror gameplaying experience. For the uninitiated, expect to clock in around 20 hours of gametime; for everybody else, it will be a scant 8-10 hour experience. There are 2 different endings and you can only view the ‘true’ ending if you beat the game on ‘Nightmare’ mode. You will also have the option to snap pictures of anything you want in the game and ‘lock’ them onto your memory card for later viewing.
The difficulty really ramps up starting on day 3, so much so that it seems out of place with the rest of the game. Ghosts will suddenly start teaming up on you and attacking you with long-range weapons. This comes at a time where, if you did not ration out your health supplies and film, your resources will be critically depleted.
Fatal Frame consists of a dab of Silent Hill 2, a tablespoon of Resident Evil, and just a dash of Onimusha. While this game may technically be considered a survival-horror game, there is no denying its influence from games like 7th Guest, Shadow Gate and D2. When is the last time you played a 'survival-horror' game that featured specters, spirits, and ghosts as the main enemy? Fatal Frame clearly demonstrates a high level of innovation in its genre.
Innovative gameplay mechanics, impressive visuals, and a progressive, intricate storyline set Fatal Frame on a higher level then your run-of-the-mill survival-horror game. Fatal Frame does suffer from some of the common pitfalls of games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, however, with a healthy dose of backtracking and formulaic puzzles. Tedious puzzles and backtracking aside, Fatal Frame delivers an enjoyable, heart pounding experience that will stay with you long after the game is over.