Fatal Frame - Box

Fatal Frame
Ages: Teen - Blood and gore and scary too

Titles such as Myst, Amber and Obsidian set the bar for atmospheric adventure games on the PC. It's rare that such a game is released on a console platform. With a couple of notable exceptions like Silent Hill, console owners have had to make do with Tomb Raider-style action/adventure games or RPGs like Baldur's Gate. Fatal Frame is a breath of haunted air for Xbox and Playstation gamers.

The game's premise is a classic in the horror genre. Miku Hinasaki's brother Mafuyu has gone missing while visiting the abandoned Himuro Mansion. Mafuyu, in turn, was investigating the disappearance of novelist Junsei Takamine and two of his associates. As Miku, the player must search the mansion and unravel the mystery of the disappearances.

It's no surprise that the ramshackle old mansion is haunted. Some ghosts merely go about their business. Others are malevolent, life-draining horrors who attack the living. Fortunately, Miku's mother left her a special antique camera. The camera has supernatural properties. By taking pictures of the ghosts, Miku drains the ghosts' spiritual energy before they can attack her.

As Miku moves through the mansion, she solves puzzles, picks up items, and collects clues. Some clues are marked by twinkly white lights; some are hidden in and around the mansion's furniture. The "hotspots" (i.e., areas that are active when you click on them) for these items are annoyingly small, requiring careful positioning by the player. In many cases, Miku can stand directly on top of an item and still not be able to pick it up. The player must move Miku in little circles while rapidly pressing the action button in order to compensate. For items in plain sight, this soon becomes second nature. For hidden items, though, it adds unnecessary effort to the task of searching.

Fortunately, the controls don't compound the problem. They are simple and straightforward. The thumbstick moves Miku around. One button is an "action button", used for searching, picking up items, and taking pictures. One button is to toggle camera mode, and the last button is to open Miku's inventory. She does not crouch, jump, roll, wall-crawl, or play the banjo. Why can't all games of this type use a similarly simple, intuitive control system?

The puzzles themselves are challenging but not overwhelmingly so. Unlike Riven or similar games, Fatal Frame doesn't require a hint book at one's elbow at all times. On the few occasions where I got stuck, it was because the game's awkward hotspots caused me to miss a secret item or hidden door.

Capturing the ghosts is more challenging. When Miku encounters a hostile ghost, the player toggles into "camera mode", a first-person view through the lens of the camera. When the camera's viewfinder circle glows blue, it is ready to capture the ghost. The longer the ghost remains within the circle, the more of its essence is captured when the picture is taken. Wait too long, though, and the ghost will lunge, knocking the player back into third-person perspective and draining Miku's life away! It usually takes three or more pictures to completely capture a ghost. This forces the player to play smart - take a picture or two, then run away a little bit, take a picture, run, et cetera. If the player isn't careful, Miku will wind up in a corner or other dead end...and I do mean DEAD.

Yes, Miku can and does die if her life points get too low. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for Fatal Frame's approach to saving games. There are save points located throughout the mansion. Players can only save games at these save points. This means that in a tough ghost battle, the player is forced to trot through the same rooms and corridors over and over in order to refight the problem ghost. This approach to saving games is annoying in any kind of action adventure game, but it's worse in Fatal Frame. Racing through the same areas repeatedly and fast-forwarding through the pre-battle video clips just wrecks the mood.

That's too bad, because mood is what really makes this game exceptional. The mansion is dimly lit and decrepit. Miku's flashlight, which doesn't affect gameplay at all, adds to the feeling of gloom within the rooms. The audio track is dissonant and chilling, amplifying the player's feeling of dread. Fatal Frame's designers did a great job with ghost appearances too. Every appearance is startling, even when the player is expecting something to happen. After watching me play this game for about an hour at night with all the lights off, Nina pronounced it "too scary" and refuses to watch any more of it.

I'm usually a crotchety reviewer, unwilling to stick with a game for long if it suffers from gameplay glitches or mediocre graphics. Fatal Frame won me over in spite of these factors. The storyline and mood (not to mention the fearless heroine!) make Fatal Frame an extremely entertaining experience for those that like chills with their thrills.

Summary: A superbly creepy adventure story, only slightly marred by awkward gameplay.

Reviewed by: Finn Kisch - 05/03

  • Fatal Frame
  • © Tecmo $49.99
  • Xbox
  • To Order: XBox http://www.amazon.com