Fatal Frame/Project Zero
- Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox, PS3 (PS2 Classic)
- Suggested Platform: Xbox
- Developer: Tecmo
- Genre: Survival Horror
- Release Date: 03/04/02 (NA)
- Why Play It?: Atmospheric survival horror with a good story and unique mechanic.
- Why Skip It?: Somewhat silly voice acting sometimes, and gets pretty tough near the end, if you’re not careful.
Fatal Frame (Project Zero in EU) is a cult-classic that takes the survival horror genre and adds a unique twist. In Fatal Frame, you won’t be shooting zombies or bashing creatures. Instead, you’ll be taking pictures of spirits with the Camera Obscura, a unique camera with the ability to capture the soul of the spirit you’ve taken the picture of. The exploration takes place in third person, but combat will always take place in first person while looking through the view finder of the Camera Obscura.
In Fatal Frame, you play as Miku Hinasaki, a concerned sister with a sixth sense, who goes off in search of her missing older brother, Mafuyu. Fatal Frame takes place in 1986, so it’s not as though Miku can just giver her missing bro a call. Mafuyu disappeared while searching for a novelist who also disappeared when doing research for a new novel in the super-haunted Himuro Mansion. If people keep disappearing, why do we keep looking? After the initial few scenes (including a black-and-white prequel where you play as Mafuyu before he disappears), the story is told mainly through cassette recordings, newspaper clippings, and journal entries that you find as you solve puzzles and piece together what exactly happened in Himuro Mansion.
You’ll learn about grim fates, cruel torture methods, ancient rituals, desperate suicides, brutal murders and more as you tread the creepy halls of Himuro, all the while fighting off spirits with your trusty camera.
Combat in Fatal Frame is unique to the series. Your ammunition is film that you will find around the house. The less powerful the film-type, the more plentiful it is to find. When you find a hostile spirit, you look in its direction and pull out your camera. The closer the spirit is to you, the more power your camera charges. Then you can take a picture and deal damage based on the amount charged. When the spirit is about to attack you (usually with a lunge of some sort), your view finder will flash yellow and you can take a Fatal Frame (sometimes called a Zero Shot) to do the maximum possible damage as well as stagger and push back the spirit. You can also find Spirit Stones, one time use stones that allow you to pull off special moves with your camera once you’ve upgraded it, such as freezing a spirit in place, or pushing it back. If a spirit makes contact with you, you will lose health, although there are health items scattered around the mansion. As you deal with more spirits, you’ll gather points which you can then use to level up your camera attributes. Also scattered throughout the house are hidden spirits that you can find for bonus points or to open doors that were previously locked. Some spirits are not hostile and will just be meandering or placed around the house. If you want to fill up your ghost list, you’ll have to be ready to whip out your camera at any given moment.
Most of the unsettling, frightening aspects of Fatal Frame are not from jump scares (although there are a few used in conjunction with loud noises set to startle you) but instead are due to the strange and creepy atmosphere throughout the mansion. There are many spirits that act and move strangely, laugh creepily, or are just straight up unsettling to look at.
The fact that you are forced to face these terrors and look at them as long as possible to deal damage, I think, is incredibly good game design. After you complete the game for the first time, you can get bonus costumes for Miku and an extra challenge mode.
The only negative aspects for me come from the (at first) uncomfortable controls, the sometimes poor voice acting and the difficulty increase. When Fatal Frame came out, first person shooters for consoles weren’t mainstream yet. Now, it seems normal to move with the left stick and aim with the right stick. However, in Fatal Frame, those controls are reversed. The right stick moves you and the left stick aims when you’re in camera mode. This is annoying at first, but you get used to it quicker than you think you would. Next, sometimes the voices just sound straight up comical. Think of some of the voice acting in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night if you know what I mean. Lastly, in the last few chapters, things start getting HARD. Multiple fast moving ghosts and random encounters can lead to some difficult battles with only a set number of healing items in the game total. There is no shop or anything that you get more healing items from, and as a result, if you run out, you’re kind of screwed. The first time I seriously sat down to play this game, I made it near the end and ran out of healing items. I came to the conclusion that my only option was to start over. So make sure you save often and manage your inventory well.
The Xbox version of Fatal Frame got a unique release: Fatal Frame Special Edition which includes a bonus (but not canon) ending, an extra difficulty mode that unlocks an art gallery upon clearing it, new spirits to fight, a redesigned interface for the camera and graphical upgrades, but it was only released in Japan. The Xbox release in NA does have the extra ending though, so if you have a choice, pick that version. The graphics are sharper than the PS2 and the load times should be shorter. That being said, the tiny bit of slowdown on the PS2 makes Fatal Frame just a tad bit easier against quickly moving ghosts.
In the PS2 Classic on the PlayStation Network for PS3, the faster load times actually make this the hardest version of Fatal Frame there is.
The tagline “Based on a True Story” on the front of the NA release’s box was pretty much just slapped on there to get more sales from the gullible NA audience. That being said, some aspects of the story are actually based on Japanese legends, myths, and a house that was supposedly the site of many murders.
Fatal Frame 2 is ultimately the better game, but this version had a such profound impact on me when I first played it, so I just could not exclude it from my Best Games Ever List. There’s just something about Himuro Mansion that sticks with me, and really helps Fatal Frame stand out to me as one of the Best Games Ever.