A long time ago Steven King produced a movie based on one of his short stories called Maximum Overdrive. Having read the story, I was pretty excited when the movie came out. But what really got me going was that King himself did television commercials to support the project.
"I’m going to scare the hell out of you!" King would say.
So I went into the theatre expecting a fright. Unfortunately Maximum Overdrive was so bad it was almost comical, and nothing at all like the book. So while some people say beware of Greeks baring gifts like giant wooden horses, I tend to be wary when someone says they are going to scare me. "Yea, right," is normally my response.
So when the kind folks at Tecmo sent me Fatal Frame, I was a bit skeptical. Other reviewers have claimed that it was the scariest game ever for the PS2, but come on, the PS2 is not exactly a bastion of horror titles. So I thought it might beat Crash Bandicoot in a scary contest, but was not expecting much beyond that.
Boy, was I wrong. I made the mistake of coming home from work late one night. The wife was away so after feeding the cat I decided to dim the lights and give Fatal Frame a try. Nothing like taking a little work home with me, and I was not expecting a horrific experience.
The opening sequence is done in black and white. You are Mafuyu Hinasaki, who is apparently a huge fan of a famous Japanese novelist. The novelist has disappeared and Mafuyu has learned that the last place he visited was this haunted mansion. As you move around the place in your third person view, floorboards creek and shadows dance at the tip of your flashlight. You can move the flashlight using the right control and move Mafuyu using the left.
As I crept along the hallways, occasionally I would see what seemed to be phantasms just out of reach, up on balconies or thorough windows into other rooms. I was beginning to get that creepy feeling, like someone was breathing on the back of my neck. When I came across a mirror I nearly jumped at my own reflection. "Not bad," I thought.
The game does an excellent job of integrating cut scenes into the mix. Every time I went to open a door, the game pulled back so I could get a view from behind. Then there was a long pause as if something was about to happen, and then the door slowly creeks open. Of course sometimes bad things happen when you open doors, but not till later in the game.
Eventually you find a camera and learn that you can use it to capture spirits. This is your only real weapon in the game, and let me tell you it’s a bit disconcerting to be walking though a haunted house without the normal "Resident Evil" arsenal of weapons comfortably in your backpack. What I would not have given for even a single .45 clip pistol. Here I was in a spiritual hotbed, armed with only a magic camera.
Fatal Frame uses every trick in the book to keep you afraid. Your first encounter with a malevolent spirit is a great indication of things, much worse things, to come. I was standing at the top of a staircase, feeling a bit uneasy because the steps had no backs on them, something I can’t stand even in non-haunted houses. Suddenly I realized that the footsteps I heard were not being made by me. I was standing still.
"Creak" What was that? It sure sounded like the noise that I made at the bottom of the steps. Something was coming up behind me?
Suddenly, my controller began to vibrate slightly. As the footsteps and creaking got louder, the controller began to vibrate even more violently. Something was defiantly coming up the steps at my back. I clutched down onto the shaking controller, afraid of what I would see next.
A semi-transparent form came into view at the top of the stairs. It looked like a human with a twisted expression on his face. He seemed to be apologizing for what he was about to do. Fingers extended into warped claws and he drifted toward me with murder in his sunken ash-colored eyes. My heart beating so loudly I could hear it, I wished I had never dimmed the lights in my basement study that night. As I got Mafuyu to raise the camera in defense, I prepared to snap a shot to injure the specter.
Unfortunately for me, my cat chose that exact moment to show her affection. Having finished eating, she had slinked across the darkened carpet unnoticed and jumped into my lap.
The end result is that I jumped and screamed like a little girl, my annoyed cat went flying, but not before sending claws into random targets all across my body. And Mafuyu nearly got killed because I was too busy rushing over to the dimmer switch to worry about his problems.
Steven King take notes. Fatal Frame knows how to scare someone. Even without the help of my stealthy cat, which I suppose probably got an under-the-table payment from Tecmo, the game had me close to maximum fear anyway.
It turns out that no matter what you do, Mafuyu gets captured by the spirits in the house and you play the rest of the game as Miku, his younger sister – and in full color.
Miku is pretty cool and seems to know a lot more about what is going on than her brother anyway, thanks to a sixth sense she has. She wears a pretty sexy mini-skirt which is not exactly the best ghostbusting outfit, but it makes her look good.
As Miku explores the house, she finds several puzzles along the way that need solving. A few of these are pretty blatant, like a door with a combination lock, but most are actually pretty subtle. Thanks to her sixth sense, she can often see what transpired in the past, and watches as the famous author’s and his research team are taken down by spirits one by one. It’s very creepy. If anyone has ever played the pen-and-paper RPG Call of Cthuhlu, then you will notice that this game almost exactly follows that format of research, discovery and combat.
The only really negative aspect to the game is that you have to use special save points along the way to ensure your progress is not erased by some awful apparition. These save points are pretty spread out, so it’s likely that when you do get killed, you are going to have to backtrack quite a ways till you catch up again. And when you know something is going to jump out from the third closet on the left, it’s not nearly as scary.
In the end, Fatal Frame (you get the clever name right? – the camera’s frames are fatal to the ghosts and also the house itself is a fatal frame) does what most mainstream movies try and fail over and over. It scares you.
It scared the hell out of me time and time again all the way through the entire title. Just when you think you have the game figured out, it will do something different just too keep you on your toes. As an example, I found an old dining room. On the map I could see that there were four sets of door dividing the room. I figured, "Great, a ghost is going to attack as I open one of the doors, probably the last one."
As I opened each one I watched the cut scene, ready to pounce on the threat. But at the end of the room, nothing happened. I started to laugh and walk back to the main door, thinking how silly I was to fear a room with a lot of doors. That’s exactly when the specter swooped down from the ceiling to pounce on me. The designers knew I would have my guard down at that point, and got me yet again.
Fatal Frame earns a full 5 GiN Gem rating. Play it and have fun, but you better be prepared to sleep with the lights on.