In the grand arsenal of survival-horror games, Fatal Frame's weapon of choice is the least reassuring. Resident Evil's Leon Kennedy sports a grenade launcher and Silent Hill's Harry Townshend packs a hunting rifle, but what are either of those compared to Rei Kurosawa's camera? While you gun-toting Americans are off hunting bad guys, I'll be over here with the Japanese tourists taking pictures of them.
Yes, the Japanese love their cameras, and now the rest of us know why: cameras kill evil ghosts. In the first two Fatal Frame games, the protagonists battled their way through scary haunted Japanese ruins with only a camera, taking pictures of ghosts from as close up as possible. In turn, both games were off-the-charts scary, but suffered from slow pacing and antiquated camera angles.
Unfortunately, the newest Fatal Frame doesn't strike a new pose as much as it redevelops another print from the same negative. Luckily, though, that original picture was both pretty and scary. Kind of like Scary Spice, except that it sounds good, too.
You play as the intrepid Rei Kurosawa, a photographer who is struggling with the trauma of her fiancee's death and with her own abnormal sleeping cycles. Oh, and with ghosts. Recently, it seems, Rei has been having nightmares in which she sees and follows the ghost of her dead lover. Rather than quickly getting some Xanax and moving on with her life, Rei chooses to sleep it off, exploring, in her dreams, a giant haunted manor. In this nightmarish dwelling, Rei (and later her friends Miku and Kei) fights off ghosts and unravels a tangled story involving tattoos, impalement, adorable puppies and ritualistic evil. It's dark, sinister, scary, and has no puppies at all. I lied about the puppies.
They say a picture tells no lies however, and as Rei you will take a lot of pictures. The same camera mechanic that was so deliciously tense in the first two games is back again. Switching between the third-person perspective and the first-person "camera" view, Fatal Frame's unique take on survival-horror combat is virtually unchanged. Battling ghosts requires that you take their picture in the stationary camera view, while evading them requires third-person running away.
This meets with mixed success. It's still nerve-wracking waiting for horrifying ghosts to approach while your camera charges up. Clicking shots at the exact right time will drive the ghost back and repeated good timing will rack up combo attacks, doing more damage and gaining more points with which to power up your camera. However, the camera mechanic requires a lot of shuttling between first and third-person views since evading ghosts is as much a part of the game as taking pictures of them.
And these aren't leaping, ducking and rolling evasions. While Rei and company move abnormally slow, the ghosts are even slower. That's fine when you're baiting them in, waiting for the critical moment to take a picture, as the slowness ratchets up the tension. But since your primary defense against ghosts is evading them by walking out of their path, the plodding moving and dodging is like watching two sloths slow dance.
The ghosts themselves only come in a few varieties, but all of them are frightening. A woman with a funky headband poking through her eye-sockets is genuinely scary, but the creepiest is the little girl with a Pillsbury Dough Boy smile who's hellbent on driving a spike through your foot with a hammer. It's not a very graphically gory game, but it still manages some pretty horrific images that have me, even now, thinking twice before I look in the bathroom mirror.
While the action is the same and the story of ancient sacrificial rituals is eerily similar, the game's use of a dream world and a real world is refreshingly new. At least, new to those of us who didn't play Silent Hill 4: The Room.
Fatal Frame III is set in Rei and Miku's shared apartment in the present day. In that immaculate apartment, Rei can develop pictures, pet Miku's cat, or go through her dead fiancee's stuff. When Rei goes to sleep, she enters the dream world, the "Manor of Sleep," which is populated with ghosts. This makes for some great scares when the dream world begins to seep out into the real world, and also helps break up the monotony of the ancient, decrepit manor.
Sadly, not enough of the game takes place in the modern day, as the bulk of the game is spent exploring, tracing and retracing your steps in the Manor of Sleep, which uses too many of the areas drawn from the first two games. Not only is this haunted manor similar to the last one, but huge sections are literally the exact same manor. Some might find this nostalgic, but I just find it lazy.
I also find it easy to get lost thanks to the repetitive room types. You might spend five minutes threading your way through the building to get to the "ceremony room" only to realize that you're supposed to go to the "ritual room" or the "tattooing altar." Was that Kimono I saw in the picture in the "Kimono Room" or the "Dressing Room filled with Kimonos?" Despite the presence of a map, you will be lost a good deal of the time simply because you don't know where to go, and the scares begin to wear off as you retread the same rooms over and over again. Hanging corpses are scary the first time you have to walk through them, but by the tenth time you'll just wish they were buried.
A new note-taking system isn't much help. When Rei has written down a new memo noting a clue, an icon flashes in the corner of the screen. You can quickly access her notebook, and navigating the notes is much easier than in games past. However, the notes are useless in telling you what you're supposed to be doing. The game throws you a few clues, but rarely do these point you in the right direction. I imagine this would be especially bad if you put the game down for a few days and forgot where you were.
The other new aspect - playing as the alternate characters Miku and Kei in the same mansion - is less fun than it sounds. Miku can go through small spaces and Kei can move big objects, both of which unlock areas of the manor for Rei. Kei's camera is weak, so the game instructs you to "hide" by using your "crouch" button. Crouching in a corner is boring and useless, as more often than not the ghost finds you, anyway. Kei's major feature? Running away.
But before these caveats make you run from this game, keep in mind there's still a lot to admire. The use of sound is spectacular. Behind the falling rain in your apartment, you can faintly hear the sound of trucks, and behind that you can sometimes just barely hear the suggestion of something else. The layered sound effects are perfect and set the creepy mood that is this game's stock-in-trade. The voices are not quite as good, sometimes squeaky and annoying when they're trying to sound scared. The writing, too, can get a little heavy on atmosphere at the expense of sense.
And the game's best point is still its polished look. Drapery and candle flames wave as you walk past them, shadows flicker on semi-translucent screens, and ghosts materialize in wavy darkness. It might be slow and moody, but that mood has never looked better.
In turn, most adventure gamers will enjoy the frequent scares and pretty scenes of Fatal Frame III. However, the slow pacing and general lack of innovation to gameplay, scenery, or story keeps this picture just slightly out of focus.