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Fatal Frame (PlayStation 2) artwork

Fatal Frame (PlayStation 2) review


"Most games are meant to entertain. Some are also meant to help us relax. Games like golf, for instance, are said to be amazing stress relievers. Supposedly it has something to do with hitting little balls while wearing baggy pants in the great outdoors. And then there’s Fatal Frame which, as far as I can tell, people play to give themselves heart attacks. It has little to do with the great outdoors and the only baggy pants involved are filled with the shit that was scared out of you ..."



Most games are meant to entertain. Some are also meant to help us relax. Games like golf, for instance, are said to be amazing stress relievers. Supposedly it has something to do with hitting little balls while wearing baggy pants in the great outdoors. And then there’s Fatal Frame which, as far as I can tell, people play to give themselves heart attacks. It has little to do with the great outdoors and the only baggy pants involved are filled with the shit that was scared out of you while playing. It’s definitely not a tension reliever. But is it even entertaining?

Fatal Frame takes place inside the Himuro mansion, which you’ll quickly discover is the most haunted place in the world and not by the fun-loving spirits of Christmas past and present, either. No, its denizens of days gone by are the victims of vicious Shinto domination-fetishists who own an exorbitant amount of blood stained kimonos and like to spend the afterlife leaping out of dark corners and killing little girls looking for their brothers. As one of these little girls, your role in the game is to stand completely still in the most frightening corner you can find and take a picture of the ghosts just before they suck your face off. If you succeed, you’ll exorcise their souls and get to continue exploring the mansion unmolested for a little bit. At least until you reach your next dark corner.

Playing the game now, a lot of the design sensibilities still work. It’s still scary to have to stand still and keep your aim steady while a ghost lunges at you, screaming for someone to end its torment. It’s still nerve wracking when your speakers burst out in unexplained fragments of frantic whispers as you pass an open doorway. It’s still a game that’s most comfortably played during the day, with all the lights on and while surrounded by teddy bears. Most chillingly, people still swear that Himuro mansion exists somewhere in Japan and that the game’s events are based on the true story of the terrifying strangling ritual. Yet, despite all this, nothing in the game is truly as frightening as the controls. I’m not being cute here, I literally mean that a majority of Fatal Frame’s scares come from not being able to control your character properly. Then that fear turns to frustration.

I have to wonder why the developers, for instance, made the button that opens the menu the same one that cancels out of options in that menu. Or why they made the circle button, almost always a cancel button in games, the button to go into your camera mode. Or why, once in camera mode, the use of the analog sticks switch with each other. The stick that used to move your character suddenly is your aim, so you'll go to back away from a ghost and end up looking at the ceiling instead. All this is stacked on top of pre-set camera angles which continually change your character's orientation. Granted, the developers did take the effort to make it so that, no matter what direction you're pushing, you'll continue to move forward after a camera shift, but then they undermined this by making the Himuro mansion more winding than a line at an amusement park. This is a game which demands that the player be quick and precise and constantly on their toes. Design that disallows that adds to the atmosphere for only so long before it ruins the whole effect.

When a vengeful spirit is floating down a hallway towards you, you won’t be thinking how scary it looks or sounds. You’ll be thinking that you can’t get your character turned around properly to face it, or that you wish the camera angle would show where it was so you’d know whether you were running right at it. Running is a bit misleading, actually. What the game calls a “run” button I call the “power walk” button or, if you’re near an obstacle or wall, the “trip over yourself” button. Usually, your best option is to just go into your camera mode and hope you’re in a good position to snap some pictures. Thus, fighting the spirits becomes a matter of luck based on what camera angle the screen happens to be showing when the ghost appears. Real story or no, that breaks immersion. Anyway, I know Tecmo is lying about that true story stuff. In real life not even the most dutiful sibling would spend more than an hour in the Himuro mansion, especially not after discovering their first eviscerated corpse.

Similarly, within the first hour of Fatal Frame you’ll know whether it’s the game for you. At the end of that first hour you’ll either be so frustrated with the ancient tank-on-a-unicycle controls that you’ll turn it off or you’ll be so scared by them that you’ll... er... turn it off. Getting scared is fun, but fright without functionality isn’t. Fatal Frame is still a unique experience in the world of survival horror, but the unique concept deserved a unique control scheme to carry it. Running into walls and straight into undead she can’t see might be okay for Jill Valentine, but she’s equipped with a shotgun, not a camera.

Rating: 6/10

zippdementia's avatar
Community review by zippdementia (December 15, 2009)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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