Fatal Frame

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Fatal Frame PlayStation 2 box art

Fatal Frame combines survival horror gameplay, a Japanese backdrop and photography for a distinct identity. Does it hold up, though?

ConsolePlayStation 2, Xbox (Special Edition)
DeveloperTecmo
PublisherTecmo, Wanadoo, Microsoft Game Studios
GenreSurvival horror
Release Year2001 – 2003
Game Number1
PurchasePurchase from eBay.

I won’t lie. I never really had good financial support throughout my life, so I never really got to try a lot of games as a kid. So the PlayStation 2 was one of those consoles that I missed out on. Yep. I didn’t have the biggest-selling home console of all time when it was still relevant. So it was only recently that I managed to play some key titles on the system.

Fatal Frame was one of those games that caught my attention. It’s a Japanese survival horror game where you fight off ghosts with a specially made camera. It seemed like an interesting idea so I contemplated on trying it out for quite some time now.

And well, here it is. Finally, I have something to say on this game. And just so you know, this review is based on the original PS2 version of the game. I don’t have an old Xbox for the expanded version.

 

The Background of Himuro Mansion

So one of the first things that bugged me about Fatal Frame was that it claimed to be based on a true story, right on the title screen. I looked into this to see if it was true, and it turned out to be just a marketing ploy for the American audience—seriously, people?

Well, this is partially true. The events of the story were loosely based on local Japanese legends. But I’m definitely not buying into the absurdity of a camera exorcising malevolent spirits. I mean, this is a video game for crying out loud.

Fatal Frame Miku Hinasaki

So it is the year 1986 and a young man named Mafuyu Hinasaki takes a trip to the haunted Himuro Mansion, trying to locate the whereabouts of the missing folklorist Junsei Takamine. His only means of protection is the Camera Obscura, an old-model camera that possesses the ability to exorcise ghosts. He mysteriously vanishes, so his younger sister Miku sets out to find him… without any protection.

Yeah… If your sibling vanished into a haunted mansion, would your first instinct be going out to find him, which is very risky and dumb? Where is this mansion anyway? Out in the woods or in the countryside? Why are there no professionals investigating a place that is known to be haunted and the location for disappearances? Wouldn’t the common sense thing to be just stay the hell away and don’t bother with it?

This is a fairly common problem I see in these haunted house stories. Someone or a group of people wants to investigate the place, for whatever reason, and their stupidity is what sets the plot in motion. They get stuck inside the house and have to either defeat/appease the ghosts, some lame “power of love” action or whatever bullshit. Granted, these kinds of stories CAN be fun but they generally follow the same kinds of tropes, which can get rather boring.

Fatal Frame gameplay

And just like magic, Miku enters the Himuro Mansion and finds herself trapped. And everywhere she goes, there are ghosts of the mansion’s past victims—either warning her to stay away, giving her hints on how to enter certain restricted areas. or outright attacking her. Yes, Miku THROWS HERSELF into this situation without any way to defend herself and she just so happens to stumble upon Mafuyu’s Camera Obscura. So, that ends up being a convenient coincidence.

Okay, so maybe I’m a little harsh on how the story is progressing so far and we just barely got started. But I have more issues with the game, so let’s take a look.

 

Camera “Obscura” – What a Fitting Name

Fatal Frame gameplay

Fatal Frame is a third-person survival horror game where you explore Himuro Mansion as Japanese schoolgirl Miku Hinasaki. The areas you visit are mostly going to have fixed camera angles, similar to Resident Evil, but there are occasionally panning and tilting shots.

The graphics are pretty decent for the PS2 era and the FMV sequences are well animated. I’m a little put off by the character models though. Miku herself is basically Ayane from Dead or Alive, but without the red eyes and stupid purple hair. Shouldn’t be much of surprise since Dead or Alive is also a Tecmo/Team Ninja series.

(Sorry, not the biggest fan of Dead or Alive here. Go, Ninja Gaiden!)

The sound design is serviceable for a horror game, though it’s generic horror ambiance. And none of the background music really stood out to me. There were also moments where the sound effects can get irritating, which I will explain in a minute.

Fatal Frame gameplay

Your objectives are:

  1. To interact with the environment to find items and clues
  2. To solve any puzzles along the way, most of which require some sort of key item

The exploration and the puzzle-solving are by far the most enjoyable aspects of Fatal Frame for me. Combined with the horror atmosphere, it really does suck you into its world.

Unfortunately, there are some moments that do break my enjoyment.

Fatal Frame gameplay

Every now and then, you will have an encounter with a hostile ghost. This is the moment when you need to use your camera and fight back. This is the closest thing to a combat system this game has.

You will enter a first-person mode with a small viewfinder—and I really do mean small. To damage a ghost, you must take a photo of the ghost while he/she is visible. By focusing the viewfinder on the ghost’s head, you can charge up energy for the camera and potentially do more damage. If the ghost comes up really close to you and your viewfinder turns orange/red, you can take a photo to perform a Zero Shot. A Zero Shot performs heavy damage and also stuns the ghost for a few seconds. This would be a good time to exit camera mode and run away since the ghost may have a counterattack afterwards.

You NEED to master the Zero Shot. It makes things a whole lot easier.

This combat system sounds simple enough, but there are moments in the game where it seems to work against you. Starting with the second night, Fatal Frame enters a steep difficulty spike, where the ghosts appear more frequently, have more HP and generally move faster. This is especially the case for the mini-boss ghosts, who usually appear after a FMV cutscene plays out. You also find less healing items to help you recover. Just wait until you’ll get to the third night. You’ll get pissed off beyond belief.

One of the biggest culprits for me is the Blinded mini-boss. You know, the ghost lady who always screams, “There’s no one here!” OR “MY EYES!” From what I understand, the Blinded charges after you if you make any noise (which makes sense in context). So whenever I see them, I try to move slowly and get them close enough for Zero Shots. But for no discernible reason, they somehow hear me and charge after me anyway. They take away 40% of your health. Furthermore, you often face the Blinded at an inconvenient area where there’s little space to move around, so you’re going to get a LOT of cheap deaths.

Part of the problem is that some ghosts move too quickly or do too much damage (or both). The other part of the problem is your camera’s small viewpoint, which makes it easy for ghosts to get out of your view and work in a cheap hit. This makes the whole combat system feel clunky and unresponsive at times.

So you might be thinking, “Why not run away from battles?” Well, technically, you can. But only from regular ghost enemies. And they’re going to be persistent and still follow you. As for the mini-bosses, you have to defeat them to progress through the story. Furthermore, Miku runs slower than an obese man who’s just not feeling it today.

 

The Finer Details

Fatal Frame gameplay

An essential part of the game is collecting Spirit Points for upgrading the Camera Obscura. For those playing the game for the first time, the one thing you want to do first is upgrading the camera’s basic performance as much as possible. This will save you a LOT of headaches in the long run.

The camera’s bonus functions are special abilities that give you an advantage over the ghosts, though they’re only slightly useful. Each time you use a bonus function, you use up a Spirit Stone (those round red stones you come across).

Fatal Frame gameplay

To collect Spirit Points, you must defeat hostile ghosts and get shots of passive ghosts. Defeating ghosts with Zero Shots will get more Spirit Points. As for the passive ghosts, most of them only appear for a short moment, so you need to get a shot in as quickly as possible. There are also some stationary passive ghosts, which you can detect by listening for static and moving your camera around until the viewfinder turns blue.

So part of Fatal Frame feels a bit like a scavenger hunt, and I have no problems with that.

Fatal Frame gameplay

Speaking of which, you may occasionally hear this annoying chime sound. This means that there is a clue nearby. So, you should look for a distortion in the air and take a photo of it to reveal where you should be looking next. Combined with a good map system, you won’t have too much trouble navigating this huge mansion. And boy, that’s a load off my mind.

Overall, the original Fatal Frame’s gameplay is not too shabby but can give trouble in some places. So let’s talk about the game’s quirks. Or rather, my nitpicks.

I am mixed on the sound design. For the most part, it’s decent and does set the right atmosphere for the game. In other times, you’re faced off against ghosts who constantly repeat the same voice clips twenty fucking times in a row. It gets grating real fast.

And speaking of voiceovers, they’re mediocre. The human characters sound generic and dull. Every now and then, you may pick up audio tapes across the mansion to listen to voiced diary entries. And let me tell you, these voices sound so robotic and monotone. I almost thought the dev team decided to use Microsoft Sam to do all their lines.

Miku’s voice in particular lacks emotion. For a high school girl who’s heading straight into a paranormal situation, she seems a little too remarkably calm during the whole thing. The only time she really lets out a screech of terror is while she’s being attacked by a ghost.

The voices of the ghosts, on the other hand, either sound just as robotic as the diary entries or they’re overdoing the “OOooooOOOOooo I’m so spOOoooOOkyyYYY” voice. Overall, these voiceovers never really creep me out and I’m trying not to laugh while playing through this game.

Miku herself seems too doll-like. I swear, she is either the most stupidly brave Japanese schoolgirl out there or she is unable to feel fear. Her facial reactions don’t really show terror, but more like mild surprise.

Fatal Frame Miku Hinasaki
Oh my goodness, that was startling!

Okay, okay. To be fair for one moment, it was heavily implied that she and her family have a sixth sense. So in all likelihood, they have seen ghosts before. It just feels like Miku only has a small selection of facial expressions to show here.

Also, in a game with constantly changing fixed camera angles, it can get real disorienting when you’re trying to fight off a tough ghost enemy. This seems like one of the main reasons why I keep getting hit. Because the camera angle suddenly changes and I accidentally ran towards the ghost, who just teleported in front of me or comes right the fuck out of nowhere from a random direction. This is one instance where the PLAYER needs to control the camera so he can see where the hell his enemy is. Fixed camera angles are great for a more cinematic experience, but not so great for gameplay.

Also, more minor nitpicks regarding Fatal Frame:

  • There is no text scrolling. A lot of times, I accidentally close a message from trying to interact with the environment and I miss what it said. When I made the same interaction again, the text is even shorter than before.
  • Sometimes, items are tricky to get because they are set right next to another interactive object. So many times, I interact with this object instead of the item.
  • Climbing a ladder is slow as ass. I almost thought Miku is deathly afraid of heights or something. The climbing process is also automated. So if you accidentally select the ladder without meaning to, you have to sit through the whole climbing process until Miku is done.
  • Any documents, photos and hints you get are poorly organized. The game doesn’t organize them from the order in which you pick them up. Instead, the order feels random and you don’t remember which documents are important for a current situation or not.

You got all that so far? If not, it’s probably better to experience the game yourself to see what I mean.

 

The Story of the Rope Shrine Maiden

Fatal Frame Miku Hinasaki and Kirie

One last thing I ought to address is Fatal Frame’s story, which I can only describe as “serviceable.” It’s nothing great, but nothing terrible either. Much of the story is told through notes and audio cassettes that Miku picks up throughout the mansion, left behind by past investigators. Occasionally, Miku also receives random visions of past residents. It was never properly explained why Miku gets these visions. Was it because of her sixth sense? Or was it because someone showed her these visions?

The story revolves around a young woman named Kirie, the previous Rope Shrine Maiden who was a victim of a ritualistic sacrifice. But because the sacrifice went terribly wrong, an onryou version of Kirie came into being and transformed Himuro Mansion into a den of malevolent spirits.

It’s just okay, really. There was an effort to make Kirie into a more sympathetic character, but it feels a little flat at times. As for Miku and Mafuyu, they’re quite the bland protagonists and don’t add much to the experience.

And the ending…

*sighs*

Fatal Frame Ending

Fatal Frame Kirie and Kirie's Love

As you uncover more about the Himuro Mansion, you will discover that Kirie had once fallen in love with a young man who had frequently visited her. Because Kirie was supposed to be raised specifically to die, she was taught by the priests to never interact with the outside world, which caused her to be a shut-in. However, the priests caught wind of Kirie’s interactions with the young man.

In the final stretch of the game, you may find the ghost of Kirie’s love at a nearby pond. This heavily implies that the priests drowned him to put a stop to his visits. Dickish? Yes it is. They could’ve just told him to leave or else they will take action against him.

So the priests eventually sacrifice Kirie in order to keep the Gates of Hell closed and prevent an evil force known as the Malice from leaking out. Kirie’s purity was supposed to keep the gates closed and therefore keep the rest of the world safe. But because Kirie’s purity was “tainted” by her lover, she felt great distress upon discovering that he went missing and she failed to keep the prevent the Malice from being unleashed upon the world.

This is a pretty well fleshed out backstory for Kirie. It’s tragic and it portrays her as someone who wants nothing more than to see her lover again.

And then the ending comes. Damn it all.

So there are actually THREE endings to this game, one of which is exclusive to the Special Edition on the Xbox. The one I got is the Normal Ending, which is the canon one.

So Miku manages to exorcise the Malice from Kirie’s adult spirit. The spirit once again uses herself to seal the Gates of Hell, to fulfill her duty as Rope Shrine Maiden. But Mafuyu, who is somehow unscathed throughout the whole game, decides to sacrifice himself to comfort Kirie in the afterlife.

Why? Because Mafuyu just so happens to be the spitting image of Kirie’s love. That’s it. And AFTER that, we saw all the souls floating to the sky, presumably resting in peace. And Miku loses her sixth sense.

The one thing that bothers me about this ending is Mafuyu’s needless sacrifice. He threw his life away for some ghost lady he just barely knew about. And also, we SAW Kirie’s love as a hidden spirit on the mansion. So presumably, Kirie’s love would also find rest in the afterlife and perhaps get reunited with Kirie herself. So this just feels unrealistically corny.

As for the other endings, you can get the Mafuyu Ending by completing the game in Nightmare difficulty. Basically, this is the “Mafuyu lives” ending and he bears his bleeding heart that Kirie will be in pain forever—not that his sacrifice would’ve changed anything anyway.

The third ending is the Photograph Ending, only on the Xbox version of the game. You get it by completing the Fatal difficulty. Basically, it’s the same thing as the Mafuyu Ending. However, Kirie is reunited with her love in the afterlife. This is easily the best ending the first game has to offer, but it’s ruined by the fact that it’s non-canon. Ugh.

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I know I complained a lot about Fatal Frame, though this may possibly be how games were made in that era. Is Fatal Frame a bad game? No. Is it annoying? Yes. Even the first Silent Hill and the first Resident Evil had their flaws, which continued to pile up and would be considered far obsolete and even sloppy by today’s standards in gaming.

Fatal Frame ending

The first Fatal Frame is a flawed, but decent, survival horror game. It has a good horror atmosphere and the fixed camera angles help make the game feel more like a cinematic experience. However, its combat system is a stressful experience and those same camera angles can easily mess you up while fighting off tough enemies. I like the exploration and puzzle-solving aspects, but not so much fighting ghosts, oddly enough. Take that as you will, but I heard the sequel is much better received overall.

Fatal Frame

Price Varies
7

GAMEPLAY

7.5/10

STORY

6.5/10

GRAPHICS

7.5/10

SOUNDTRACK

6.5/10

Pros

  • The FMV sequences looked pretty good for the time. The fixed camera angles during gameplay help give the game a more cinematic feel.
  • The exploration and puzzle-solving are the best aspects of the gameplay.
  • The combat system is fairly interesting and the camera upgrades really do help in the long run.
  • The story is serviceable and has some interesting aspects.

Cons

  • The voice acting is sub-par and some of the sound effects can get annoying.
  • The combat system is clumsy. Some of the ghost enemies have too much of an advantage.
  • The fixed camera angles may work against you during combat, especially against mini-bosses.
  • While the story has its moments, the canon ending wasn't good and our protagonists aren't very memorable or relatable for that matter.
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