Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Your spine shakes with chills as your heart begins to race. Your mind wanders with the fear of the unknown, and just when you think you were safe from whatever hunts you, you feel it’s grip across your throat. It’s almost Halloween, and you know what that means, a series of reviews on some of the scariest horror games out there today! Welcome to my 13 days of horror reviews, where we honor the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious and spooky side of video games, both past and present. Today, we look at Fatal Frame 2, Crimson Butterfly.
Survival Horror games have run the gamut of heroes and heroines. From tough as nails Special Forces to John Everyman, if there is a survival horror game out there, chances are some character archetype is in it. But it takes something special to not only go against the standard molds, but to also go against the normal conventions of a game, in order to make it work.
Enter “Fatal Frame.” The series, which spans four games thus far, is a survival horror quartet that deals with defeating undead spirits in Japan with a magic camera. You heard me correctly, A camera. While it sounds somewhat ludicrous, the premise is actually augmented by the fact that you’re a young, Japanese girl, or in the case of “Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly,” twin girls, which actually serves as a prequel to the first game of the series. The two pre-teen girls essentially stumble upon a seemingly abandoned Japanese village in the middle of the woods, and while this cliché is as obvious as glasses on a librarian, it does set the tone for the game. Something dark and sinister is about to happen, and of course, does.
Without giving away details to the plot, because it is likely that few of you reading have played this, “Crimson Butterfly” is more of an adventure game over a straight up action title, reminiscent of grandpa “Alone in the Dark” and even some other siblings like “Clock Tower.” The point of the game is not to kill ghosts and zombies with a gun, but with a camera. You need to take photographs of the ghosts in order to exorcize their spirits, instead of pumping them full of lead every now and again. Your characters move slowly, similar to the control schemes of “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill,” which is pretty much par for the course in most games of this genre, but what helps is that the controls are smoother than most games, thanks to the camera work.
To use the camera, you need to press a button to enter first person mode, and then press another to quickly snap a spirit. Other factors such as clarity and focus actually add to the mechanics, as the clearer the shot is, the more damage the spirit will take. The developers at Tecmo made this almost simple mini-game actually really fun and good reason too since this will be the bread and butter of your experience, as the only way to truly survive is to take down spirits with your camera, sometimes at the last minute, which means you need to be quick and concise when snapping photographs. Plus the fact that you can upgrade the camera is a nice touch, adding some extra power to your paparazzi abilities when necessary.
And this is also one of the few survival horror games to actually do puzzles correctly. For example, finding a seemingly random item in the beginning of the game, only to use it for what seems like an unsolvable puzzle late in the game, adds a degree of immersion to the overall experience. There are a few timed races here and there and some locked doors which need an obscure key, but in the grand scheme of things, they actually fit in the setting for once, over the random “find the red triangle that goes into the statue in the police station.” gimmick. The only “puzzles” I hated were the escort ones, where you had to protect your twin sister from the vengeful spirits; since her A.I is kind of stilted it doesn’t help much when battling ghosts for her soul.
I also didn’t like the fact that there was a lot of backtracking in the game. You will get used to looking at the same areas for hours on end, sometimes multiple times, just to trigger different events each time. Granted it adds a degree of believability to the experience, especially since you’re in the open and ghosts don’t really sit still, but overall it feels like padding just to make the game longer than it should be.
The game is, however, extremely scary in the cerebral sense. This is all thanks to fantastic imagery in terms of the graphics and the sound. When playing the game, you will be fearful of what you don’t see, because until the last minute you won’t see anything, leading to some of the scariest moments in video games ever. The graphics reflect this, everything seems washed out in terms of color and every environment is finely detailed down to the last stitch in the dilapidated dress hanging in a closet. The character models are a bit flat when compared to other games, but the spirit models totally make up for it. It is clear a lot of attention was given to the fine details in the graphics, and the washed out look of the game just adds to the sense of fear, rather than detracting from it.
But perhaps the greatest aspect is the sound design. It is so good; I can’t find any flaws in it. Seriously, it is that good. The voice acting is amazing in English, the music is subtle and barely audible, every bump, bang, creak and shriek is augmented by the silence around you, and it makes your skin crawl with delight while playing. It is that effective.
So effective, that frankly, “Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly” is the scariest game I have ever played. It has atmosphere, a strong story, great graphics for its time, and working gameplay mechanics that do not feel stiff, despite being modeled after the stiff controls. The camera system works amazing and the overall presentation is fantastic. It’s a shame “Fatal Frame 4” will never come out to the U.S, because this is a survival horror game that you should truly be afraid to play, for all the right reasons.