This series of Playstation 2 games is a nostalgic blast from the past. It is definitely my favorite of the 3D survival horror franchises that appeared on the first two iterations of the Playstation system. I can’t say that I cared for Resident Evil (before the fourth game) and Silent Hill, mostly because of the tank controls that made moving difficult. Fatal Frame still moves clunky and a little too slow, but at least the character moves in the direction you want it to. Since you aren’t fighting with the controls, you can better appreciate the foreboding atmosphere as you explore the series’ haunted locales.
The Fatal Frame series is inspired by J-Horror cinema with its sense of isolation and preoccupation with pale-faced, lank haired ghostly women out to reap retribution on the living. In each of the games, a young Japanese girl is unfortunate to enter and become trapped in one of these haunting grounds and can only pacify the spirits out to get her by discovering the horrible history of what transpired there. The only way to do this is to survive long enough to piece together the evidence in old documents and strange visions about horrific rituals that can only be spoken about in hushed innuendo.
The only weapon capable of taking on these supernatural malefactors is the Camera Obscura. When the ghosts come out, the camera goes up and you can damage any specter that wanders into your viewfinder. The closer they get to you, the more damage you do, but if you wait til just the right moment, the viewfinder flashes red. If you press the shutter then, you’ll score a fatal frame for massive damage that will temporarily drive the ghost back. This is a good thing as you’ll often be facing down malicious spirits in tight quarters.
The first game starts out strong. Teenager Miku’s brother, a supernatural researcher, has gone missing. She sets out to find him by going to the Himuro Mansion, a rotting shell of an abandoned estate that is said to be haunted. When she arrives, she gets more than she bargained for when she quickly discovers that the members of her brother’s research team are dead and have become part of the mansion’s army of spooks. To make matters worse, she has an encounter with Kirie, the most wicked ghost of them all, who curses her so that rope burns start appearing on Miku’s extremities. Miku only had a few nights before the curse kills her.
The Himuro Mansion is three stories and an underground chamber of scares. You’ll never forget the first time you walk in and find ropes dangling from the ceiling of the entryway. The effect is almost enough to make you want to turn back.
The sequel, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, is my favorite of the Playstation trilogy. It takes the original concept and polishes it further to make a brilliantly terrifying experience. In this installment, twin sisters Mio and Mayu become trapped in village that dropped off the map after Mayu, in a mesmerized state, follows a red butterfly through the forest. The isolated All God’s Village has for centuries been the site of a terrible secret ritual involving twins. Something went awry during the last ritual and it wasn’t properly completed causing the village to be swallowed up by darkness and the residents to become ghosts.
Now that twins have arrived in town, the ghosts are determined to complete their ritual no matter what. Now Mio, the player character, not only has to find a way out, she has to find a way to break the hold the village has her twin. Mayu has become possessed by Sae, a homicidal ghost in a bloody kimono that is determined to play out the drama she had with her twin sister using the bodies of the twins.
Crimson Butterfly is a bigger game than its predecessor. You have a whole village to explore rather than the grounds of one mansion. While most of the time you’ll be exploring spooky abandoned houses, you do have some unique locations like fog shrouded graveyards and abandoned shrines even if you’ll be seeing them briefly. This somewhat backfires in that you’ll be going back and forth between the large houses throughout the game and the misty, dark streets are often empty, devoid of enemy specters to fight or evade and the harmless ghosts that appear and serve as both guideposts to your next location and jump scares.
Its true brilliance lies in the relationship between the twins. Mayu has an unhealthy co-dependence on Mio that echoes the similar dysfunctional relationship between Sae and her twin. With Mayu under the town’s evil influence, there is a definite sense that saving your increasingly creepy sister may be irreconcilable with your desire to save yourself. The story climaxes in two endings – which are determined by which difficulty mode you play the game on – but I always felt that the easy/normal ending (considered the bad ending) had more impact. The hard/nightmare mode ending is a ‘happier’ ending but just lacks the pure shock value of the bad end.
The final game of the Playstation 2 era is Fatal Frame III: The Tormented. I did not like this game. They tried to make it bigger and just made it bloated. There is more of everything. Instead of one playable character, there are three – one of which is a spiritual dunce and takes forever to dispatch ghosts with the camera. But he can move heavy objects. The short, punchy documents from the first two games are replaced by journals that go on forever. The haunted location of The Tormented exists in a dreamworld. The Manor of Sleep is large by itself but made larger because it starts to graft on sections of All God’s Village and the Himuro Mansion from the earlier games.
The Tormented is about a young Japanese photographer whose boyfriend was killed during a car crash. The protagonist, Rei, was driving that night and escaped the accident without injury. As such, she is ‘tormented’ over her guilt. At night, Rei starts to dream about the Manor of Sleep and encounters a ghost known at the Tattooed Priestess. The Tattooed Priestess draws in people grieving over loved ones and makes a tattoo appear on their body. It grows each time they dream about the house until it gets to a point that they fade from existence and leave only a smear behind them. Rei must explore the mansion with help from Miku from the first game and Mio’s (from Crimson Butterfly) uncle, Kei, who have also fallen under the curse.
In addition to the other things I don’t like about The Tormented, I feel like this one was just out of ideas. Instead of having the look and feel of a J-Horror film, The Tormented starts to rip off iconic movie moments. When Rei witnesses a curse victim turn into a smear on the wall and carpet it’s a direct reference to the movie Pulse. Rei goes to investigate a sound coming from the crawlspace above her closet and it’s an almost exact replication of the opening scene from The Grudge. I suspect some of the effective moments, like when Rei spots the Priestess through the steam in her shower, are actually pulled from movies I just haven’t seen.
Since you are divided between the creepy world of the Manor of Sleep and the waking world of Rei’s apartment, the relentless terror of having no escape is gone. Rei’s apartment is bright and safe in the early part of the game so the scares don’t begin until you go to bed at night and get pulled into the dream world. However, you aren’t stuck there. If things get to hairy, you can walk out the front of the mansion and return to the waking world until you are ready to go back in. This ability to retreat undermines the sense of isolation and helplessness. To give the game credit, Rei’s apartment does get corrupted the closer she gets to cracking the mystery behind the Priestess but you only see those set piece specters that don’t actually harm you. They are just there for scares and to photograph for bonus points.
It was all downhill for Fatal Frame in North America after the Playstation era. The fourth game was made for the Wii and stayed in Japan. We did get a spin-off for the Nintendo 3DS handheld system called Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, a game that was aimed at showing off the AR function on that system. AR cards are basically cardboard slats that the 3DS’s camera can read and turn into moving 3DS images on the screen. Spirit Camera’s main idea isn’t bad. The player receives a mysterious notebook that draws spirits to their house. You use the handheld as the camera obscura as the game creates evil ghosts that only appear in the handheld’s camera viewfinder. It’s a neat idea, trying to create an immersive first person experience, but it falls short for one reason. The 3DS needs copious amounts of light (natural light works best) for it to work properly. Nothing ruins the oppressive atmosphere like a sunny living room.
It’s not all bad though. After the property sat dormant for a while, it was revived a few years back with Fatal Frame V. This did get an international release for the Switch as a digital only game. Unfortunately, I don’t have a Switch and have no desire to buy one. Still the franchise managed to produce two excellent horror experiences and I would count that as a win.