Spectral photography in real life is a difficult task. You’re relying on your equipment to capture inexplicable phenomena that you can then add a reasonable supernatural explanation to. While attempts to connect with the dead through photography in reality hinge on the unreliably paranormal, video games can take the activity and not only guarantee plenty of results, but in a game like Fatal Frame, they can up the ante with openly hostile spirits who you not only capture on film, but actually exorcise with the power of your specialized equipment.
Fatal Frame, also known as Project Zero in Europe, takes place entirely in the confines of the Himuro Mansion, a long-standing Japanese estate that was abandoned many years ago. The dilapidated building has quite the history to it, especially due to its part in macabre religious rituals in the past, and that history draws in an author hopeful for inspiration, a young man named Mufuyu who comes to investigate why that author hasn’t returned, and Mufuyu’s sister Miku who the player spends most of the game as trying to uncover what happened to Mufuyu, the author, and the mansion itself to lead to so many unusual events. Fatal Frame constructs quite the detailed history for the Himuro Mansion, with plenty of details about the rituals, the accounts of people involved in them, and the sacred objects used to execute them found about the mansion as the player explores. The estate itself seems to gradually yet subtly change the longer you stay in it, reflecting more and more of its past as new parts open up and areas change to match their meaningful past. The mansion is large but not overly so, meaning that you will double back on familiar areas as exploration is somewhat constrained by the layout, but what you find will at least gradually change, some areas containing obviously important objects that prove their usefulness only after you’ve actually learned what they’re for. Fatal Frame definitely puts a lot of effort into establishing folklore that, while contrary to the game’s misleading claim of being based on a true story, is entirely fictitious, but it still feels like it could have some root in ancient Japan before the supernatural is painted on top of it. The game heavily embraces Japanese history and culture in its design but won’t alienate those unfamiliar with it, instead better grounding it in believability and making sure that players should be able to follow along even if they’re unfamiliar with real Japanese traditions and iconography.
The ghosts haunting the Himuro Mansion of course have a strong bond with the rituals and past of the location, many of them having clear ties to the history you’re gradually learning. The restless spirits of the estate are aggressive whether they wish to be or not, and there are plenty of unique specters for you to encounter as you try to explore the mansion for the truth on what happened to your brother. However, there also seem to be some generic ghosts that tend to pop up whenever the game seems afraid of too much of a lull being between moments of action, and it somewhat hurts how well the game themed its other angry spirits. The regular enemy ghosts only draw on a few designs repeatedly and their history is not nearly as clearly defined as the boss ghosts, making the random encounters with them more like the developers thinking they needed an action section rather than being like the more important ghost fights that serve as meaningful punctuation marks to segments of exploration.
Before we delve too deep into the nature of the ghosts, it’s important to know just how the player is meant to deal with them. When a ghost is encountered, the player can use a specially designed camera to photograph the spirit, the film inside helping to exorcise the angry spirit depending on the strength of its supernatural power. You can always top off your weakest film at save points that, which thanks to the mansion’s interconnected design, aren’t too hard to locate, but you can also find special film along the way that will make your shots deal more damage in an encounter. Taking shots requires a bit of photographic skill, as you must keep the head of the ghost in the center of your frame to build up spiritual energy for more powerful attacks. No matter how strong the shot is when you take it though, the ghost will always be slightly stunned if you managed to capture them properly. During the time its disabled you can’t take another picture, but the ghost does linger in place, making it easier to take follow-up shots when it’s vulnerable again, but it’s not likely you’ll have the film reserves to settle for the quick safe shots. Balancing the time you spend focusing your aim with how close the ghost is getting to you is the core of most every battle, with the ghost’s movements being mostly how it counters your efforts. If it goes for a direct attack you can counter it with a stronger shot if you snap it at the right moment, but you otherwise gradually can gain upgrades for your camera’s traits and some special powers that can do things like slow down or knock back ghosts, although those are limited in use and often don’t leave the biggest impact on the battles.
Snapping photos of your foes is an interesting way of structuring combat, and the ghosts have a few skills that make it more difficult than it would otherwise be. Many of them will be invisible until you can focus your lens on where they are, only having a small distortion of the air to give them away as well as a nifty feature of your camera involving a special light. A blue light will help you find supernatural aspects of the environment and lingering spirits, but if it glows orange, something dangerous or story relevant is nearby, with the intensity of the light telling you if you’re facing towards this potentially unseen assailant. The ghosts will turn material at times, especially the easier ones, but for the most part, the spirits rely on very simple tactics of trying to move around you before drifting in close to deal some damage. Here it seems the random ghosts come up short again, mostly relying on those baseline tactics so that it’s not really asking too much of the player during the fight. Drag your vision around until you can find them, snap some photos, and it’s over, although some later random ghosts will add annoying teleports that can lead to unexpected ambushes. Overall, this is partially the problem with Fatal Frame’s combat. Ghosts deal a lot of damage if they can snag you, and while you can find healing medicines and revival items along your journey, many of the battles boil down to standing in place or lightly backpedaling as you snap photos of ghosts zipping around the air. The game does try to get more interesting than just catching a moving target enough times to win, but your photo taking really is your only reliable skill, leading to some enemy tactics being less effective than others in adding good variety. A boss with a sword that you have to bait into striking adds a sort of matador style to the affair, and some ghosts move in unique patterns like circling around you or disappearing up into the air before coming back down, requiring you to anticipate their movements, but these battles are the highs to the lows of bosses that fire homing blue flames at you or just keep popping around a room until you finally manage to get your camera up in time to intercept a quick attack. Most ghost battles fall into the comfortable middle zone of just asking for the player to get better at tracking moving specters and snapping photos, but that also means that things like the random ghosts make the simpler spectral encounters blend together and prove to be less challenging because of it. It trains you up too much on the weaker spirits that the more unique spirits that don’t deviate from that design all that much feel more typical. As far as building fear, the random encounters do come with a surprise factor, but even though most important ghosts inevitably come with a cutscene to introduce them, the atmosphere and lead-up lends more gravitas to the ghost than just having one pop up with no reason besides adding another fight to the game.
Ghost battles aren’t the only thing you’re doing in the mansion either, but Fatal Frame might have been too afraid to place too much of the experience’s weight on its puzzles and hence padded things with the random ghosts a bit more. To get between areas of the mansion often requires getting more familiar with it, with its most common progress blocking puzzle types relying on that angle. Early on the player finds a research paper with some symbols translated into numbers, and for the rest of the game they’ll be consulting that document as they encounter doors that want those symbols put in in accordance to the numbers’ ritual significance. Some doors are blocked instead by seals that must be broken by finding a related area revealed by a photograph, meaning you’ll have to identify parts of the increasingly familiar mansion by only a glimpse at part of their design. The last repeating puzzle type involves finding special tiles and then arranging them to match in only a set amount of moves, those also involving the mansion exploration as you must finding the missing piece first. None of these are bad puzzles, they just stand out as being the ones the game falls back on a lot, their designs getting marginally harder with each encounter but never really evolving beyond their initial makeup. You know you need to whip out the translation document every time you find the numbers puzzle, but these repeated ideas are balanced out by the puzzles the game uses only once. There’s usually enough space between the repeated designs that seeing them again isn’t too annoying.
Besides the puzzles and ghost fights, there is one more thing to do in Fatal Frame as you explore, and that’s take pictures of hidden spirits. At first, this seems like a little extra to break up the game some, the player able to search environments for secret specters, but while you will be encountering these on your first playthrough and you can snap pictures of them, it turns out to be entirely pointless until you’ve beaten the game at least once. The game will only give you the ghost list that tracks the progress of your ghost finding after you’ve cleared the story once, and the pictures you took during that first run won’t count towards it, partly because, unless you mark a photo to be saved in your limited album, new pictures you take will eventually erase those images. Completion of this ghost list is also required to get some of the stronger features for your camera, something that plays into the other post-game unlockable of a ghost fighting mode where you try to aim for the highest rating you can get on the photos you take. The game scores the photos you take in the regular mode as well for an end-of-story rating, but to get the highest scores in the battle mode requires playing through the regular game you just beat to unlock the equipment required to do so. Replayability is not something I feel is necessary in a game but can make for a nice touch if done well. Some titles aim to make huge impressions on a single playthrough and others are made to be enjoyable across repeated runs, but Fatal Frame withholds some of its interesting content to try and staple on a second run through of the same game without any other substantial changes save a slightly different ending for the unlockable difficulty. The ghost list could have added an extra layer to the first experience instead of being relegated to post-game content, as their presence could have made Himuro Mansion’s history richer and add a new aspect to the gameplay to engage with.
THE VERDICT: Fatal Frame puts a lot of care and attention into making the Himuro Mansion a place teeming with history that ties together well with the more meaningful malevolent spirits you encounter. The identity and folklore of the game’s setting gradually unfold as you explore it, but along the way you begin to walk the same floors, encounter the same generic enemy ghosts, and are asked to solve familiar puzzles. There are still plenty of cases of new locations, spirits, and puzzles despite the repeated parts, but when you’re asked to pull up your camera and fights ghosts with photography, the area that needed the most work reveals itself. Your options in a battle are limited, as are the ways the spirits try to attack you, leading to a situation where the defining feature of the title comes across as only so-so with too many encounters feeling similar to each other.
And so, I give Fatal Frame for the Playstation 2…
An OKAY rating. A lot of effort clearly went into making Himuro Mansion a believable setting with a strong history and an unsettling atmosphere, but the ghosts that are meant to back up that work can’t put up the fights needed to make the experience totally come together. Your camera’s main attack routine is pointing at something, waiting a bit, and then taking the shot, and since even a weak photo stuns them briefly, the battles aren’t quite as impactful as they should be. Enemies who do start breaking away from the common mold of gradually drifting towards you sometimes step into areas of uninteresting attack methods that force you into running about rather than meaningfully repelling the attack or firing back with some special skill of your own.
The other issues with Fatal Frame could be brushed over if the moments of conflict were engaging enough, but as is, the battles feel a bit too passive. This attack method being photography doesn’t mean you have to be so detached from your subjects. Right now, the spirits landing attacks depend a lot on the player’s limited movement and ability to track them, and the player’s edge comes from the ease of stunning a spirit. Some more complexity to either skill set and less dependence on the opposition’s limitations would lead to a more interesting interplay of abilities between photographer and ghost, but Fatal Frame at least doesn’t exhaust the simple route it went with fully, providing some interesting moments and unique battles despite its combat style.