Developed by: Tecmo
Genre: Survival Horror
Platform: PS2, Xbox
Rating: ELSPA 18 (UK), ESRB T (US)
Original release date: 5 March 2002
SoS mission date: 8 August 2006
Where to get it: This game has become a little harder to find over the last few years, particularly for PS2. Search the bargain bins and eBay and you should be able to find a cheap copy. The Xbox version and its sequel, subtitled “Crimson Butterfly” are both backward-compatible with the Xbox 360.
Original Briefing by Beige (08/05/06)
If you've ever been more frightened by the sight of an empty chair after watching The Changeling than you were at the prospect of getting your limbs sawed off after watching Saw, then maybe... just maybe... you're Fatal Frame material.
Fatal Frame is the third party member in the Survival Horror Series triumvirate. Unlike the campy slasher-flick jumpouts of Resident Evil, or the creepy psychosexuality of Silent Hill, Fatal Frame is all about the implied horror. And as we all know from reading ghost stories, it's what you don't actually see on camera that has the greatest potential to scare the pants off you.
First of all, some basic rules. There's only one way to play Fatal Frame, and that is: In total darkness, alone. Don't even try to boot this thing up in the middle of the daylight hours... you're just doing yourself a disservice. Playing Fatal Frame with friends, or when the sun is shining is like trying to get to the nuances of a Dostoyevsky novel while blaring Kool and the Gang. Just don't do it.
Seriously. Turn off the lights.
Now, about the game itself. Fatal Frame is, in the purest sense of the term ever seen in a video game, a ghost story... and not just any ghost story either : a Japanese ghost story. A very VERY JAPANESE ghost story. So Japanese, in fact, that the naturalization team may indeed have decided that after a certain point no Westerners were even going to play it - so why bother translating stuff like numerical puzzles that rely heavily on an understanding of Japanese characters?.. or a schoolyard knowledge of the Japanese version of "Ring around the Rosy"? You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. These are obstacles which you will overcome in your quest to uncover the secret of the haunted mansion.
Fatal Frame is also a ghost story told heavily through implication and inference. Cutscene skipper? Well, you won't have any issue with Fatal Frame. Here is a game which likes to tease you relentlessly with teeny weeny bits of information and then force you to draw inferences between such things as environmental details or scraps of someone's found diary before you can even start getting the 'big picture'. It's worth the effort, however... by the end of the game you'll have uncovered a haunting and lingering tale that will stay with you after you put the controller down... it'll just take a while to get going.
Fatal Frame tip 2: SEARCH EVERYWHERE. Here is an aggravating truth about Fatal Frame games: "Key items" will gleam with tantalizing obviousness, but the juiciest morsels are often hidden in plain sight, invisible to the naked eye. Press that X button over everything... desks... bookcases... Random piles of crap just lying around. You'll be amazed at what kind of things people throw away. To truly decipher the depth of the game's storyline and uncover all the weird diaries and plot pointers, you must be thorough. This goes double for "hidden ghosts" (of which there are many). Whenever you see your camera reticule glowing a faint blue you know there's a secret ghost hiding around somewhere. Get your camera out, start sweeping for that faintly shimmering patch or indistinct blur. The more secret ghosts you uncover, the more 'currency' you'll get to buy items and powerups for that Camera Obscura.
Tip 3: Don't worry if you don't know right away what the hell is supposed to be going on. Fatal Frame's story is broken up into 4 "Nights"... each one representing a farther and farther back period in time in the house's history. As you progress deeper in the game you will slowly go from the "Present Day" back into to the deep past... and to the source of the mystery surrounding the house and its inhabitants. Understanding this takes a little explaining up front... they don't really give you any kind of indication at first at what's actually going on.
Tip 4: If you intend to be a completionist, you will need a ghost list. Many times the only glimpse you will get of a certain person or event will be a fleeting shot of someone's ankle disappearing up a set of stairs. Do your best to capture every weird little detail on film. The harder the shot, the more "currency" it's worth. And often these momentary glimpses will end up shedding light on the game's story, or expand on some particular element of a character's past. You WILL get to know most of the ghosts in the house personally, by the way. This is one of the greatest things about Fatal Frame. By the time each boss showdown comes to pass, you will have an intimate knowledge of your adversary.
Tip 5: Composition Counts, bigtime. Use your camera's abilities and special powerups to their fullest advantage. The more National Geographic the quality of your photography, the more damage (and the more points) you will get. Film is limited... especially the super-rare/high damage kind (this is survival horror after all). It pays to wait until that last possible second when the indicator goes red so you can snap the coveted "Fatal Frame" snapshot during those intense fights. Unfortunately this ususally happens at the precise moment something is reaching for your throat from up out of the floor. Stay focused.... those logey controls, the claustrophobic environments and the agonizing slowness of the "run" button. (Ha ha... ha. ha ha. ) are all that way for a reason.
People confused about what the hell is actually going on can check out Beyond the Camera's Lens : the most comprehensive fansite on the Internet devoted to the Fatal Frame series.
Bonus Messageboards Contest : Whichever one of us gets the most ghosts on their ghost list is TEH W1N!!!!
Squad Archivist Report
While most survival horror titles choose to focus on blood, guts and running away as fast as possible from large slobbering monsters before tooling yourself up with a variety of military-grade hardware in order to send said monster into next week, Fatal Frame casts you in the role of a typical Tecmo schoolgirl with an improbably short skirt armed only with... a camera.
Yes, you heard that correctly. Fatal Frame pits you against the forces of darkness armed with naught but a retro camera. Fortunately, as these things tend to go, said camera has magical ghost-capturing powers - which is distinctly helpful, since you spend the vast majority of your time in Fatal Frame exploring a spooky old house which is, inevitably, populated by spirits of the restless variety.
First things first. This game is SCARY. Not in a Resident Evil “jump at loud noise” way, but in a “lurking horror” kind of way. The sound design and music in the game in particular do an absolutely masterful job of immersing the player into the whole, terrifying experience. Later in the game, recognising ghosts by their distinctive “calls” becomes particularly important, as many of the spirits have their own “attack” patterns which demand particular tactics in order to battle effectively.
The gameplay itself is a curious fusion of ideas from several different genres. We have the wandering around and picking up useless items of the adventure genre. We have first-person action when battling the ghosts - defeating a ghost demands some careful work through the eye of the camera (along with battling with a somewhat clunky control system). We have the “gain points, power up” of the RPG genre. And the whole thing is tied together with the fixed spooky camera angles of the survival horror genre.
The result? Effective and addictive. The story itself, while almost indecipherably (at least initially) rooted in Japanese traditional culture, is compelling, interesting and reason enough to plough on through the rest of the ordeal. And yet at the same time, there are enough things to do to keep those who are more interested in the gameplay than the narrative occupied - there’s the powering up of the camera, the taking of “candid” shots of ghosts to fill up your ghost list and unlock the game’s secrets, the exploration and the huge amount of satisfaction derived from solving some very difficult puzzles.
Playing the game, as Papapishu notes, is exhausting:
“There is something about really good survival horror games that just wears me the hell out. Part of me thinks its from being on edge for two hours non-stop. Another part of me thinks it's Hypoadrenia. Either way, I have a throbbing migraine and it feels like my sanity meter has been slowly ticking away.
Perhaps one of the big draws of survival horror games is simply that: Adrenaline. Unlike a lot of contemporary horror movies which offer only shocks and psychological terrors, Horror games exploit a basic underpinning in human nature: the "Fight or Flight" instinct . Whenever the game drops a ghost right behind me and forces me to react, I panic. The adrenaline kicks in, I begin to sweat ice cold magnum bullets and then fumble quickly with the controller like it's a foamy bar of soap. It's funny, looking back at some of the clumsy and poorly framed photos I've taken, I'm reminded of just how frenzied and panicked this game can make me.
Another thing that seems to be inherently different about horror games is their ability to take their time. Unlike movies or even books which have to keep throwing things at you, a good survival horror game can just sit back, allow you to soak in the world and let you stew in your own uncertainty.”
Angry_Jedi summed up his experiences with the game thus:
“I'm liking the way the story is told. While there are cutscenes, they are kept pretty much to a minimum, with the player left to a large extent to draw their own conclusions about what is going on based on things they read, see and above all, hear. In a game with no subtitles, it's all the more important to listen to the things the ghosts are saying since they often provide clues or at least give you an idea of what happened to them.
The thing this most puts me in mind of is being a young child and being afraid of the dark, or things that lurked therein. When I was a little kid I used to be terrified to walk past my bedroom window at night (my bed was in a little alcove off to the side, then the room widened and I had to pass the window to get to the door) for fear of "something" lurking behind the window and waiting to grab me. I literally used to get out of bed slowly, then almost leap past the window so I wasn't "spotted", then creep out of the door. This game very much puts me in mind of that feeling with the sounds and the atmosphere it creates. Catching a glimpse of a ghost out of the corner of your eye makes their appearance all the more powerful. As several people have said, this game is far more about the implied horror than the actual horror, though some of the ghosts themselves are pretty horrific, and the brief flash of a cutscene at the end of the first night was particularly unpleasant!
It's difficult to describe experiencing a game like this as "enjoying" it, since it's designed to make you feel uncomfortable, but I'm certainly appreciating what it's doing and the masterful way in which it is going about creating an atmosphere and drip-feeding you bits of information about an interesting story.”
Feenwager unfortunately fell partway through the mission, but was good enough to give us his reasons:
“Man down! MAN DOWN!
You knew it was coming eventually, didn't ya?
Not really diggin' Fatal Frame. Why?
Easy answer? I'm a User Interface snob, always have been. Hell, I used to type ,8,9 on my C64 because the 9 is closer to the 8 than the 1. (By the way, if you know what I'm talking about: A. You're old. B. You're a huge dork. Like me.)
Anyhoo...every time that I tried to play the game, the interface took me right out of it. This is a common problem for me (it's why I haven't played through any GTA to this day). I have an incredible lack of patience for bad cameras, silly save points, and characters that control like tanks (or cars that drive from the middle, for that matter).
So, while I have to admit that FF does a lot of things right, I'm movin' on. Got a long way to go (including Fallout 2, which very well may have the same result for me) and a short time to get there...”
It’s true that Fatal Frame’s controls are somewhat sluggish and the interface could be better. It is, however, worth bearing in mind that we are dealing with a title from 2002 here - relatively early in the PS2’s long life and still holding up surprisingly well. While the protagonist’s controls are somewhat sluggish, there was some discussion amongst Squad members as to whether or not this was intentional in order to mess with the player. Whatever Tecmo’s reasons for doing it, it caused a few brave soldiers to unfortunately fall by the wayside.
This said, Fatal Frame is still an excellent and terrifying example of the survival horror, and well worth checking out. I will leave you with Papapishu’s After-Action Report:
“Fatal Frame is more or less a landmark of gaming. Chilling and atmospheric, with brilliant sound design and a fluent understanding of the underpinnings of Horror. While I definitely think that it is in need of refinement, the overall feel is that it does enough things right in the relatively new genre of Survival Horror to merit its inclusion in our pile.
I only wish that more of our members could have stomached it.”