Fatal Frame 1 review (Xbox, PS2). Tecmo’s ghost-capturing survival horror game snaps my soul

Fatal Frame 1 for the XboxThe horror genre of video games has been alive and well ever since the release of Resident Evil on the original Playstation, where the “survival horror’ moniker was first birthed.

However most horror games go for standard enemies like zombies, psycho people, monsters and demons, and it’s pretty rare that you find a horror game that has the protagonist fighting against something else. Fatal Frame though is one such game.

While it maintains most of the other standard survival horror conventions, from the way you explore the environment, open doors, find ammo and letters and slowly unravel a mystery in the game’s storyline, it is the fact that you are battling ghosts that really sets this game apart.

And unlike most other survival horror titles, your weapons are not pistols, rifles and shotguns, but a camera. And instead of playing a masculine character, you are a defenseless (except for the camera of course) teenage Asian girl. The setting is also unique, as the game actually takes place in Japan, with a virtually all-Asian cast of characters inside a Japanese-style mansion.

It’s a pretty safe bet that if you enjoy other survival horror games, particularly Silent Hill, you will most likely enjoy Fatal Frame, which has enough different that it feels unique. It’s definitely worth a look. Thanks to the fine folks at the NumbThumb rental service for giving me the chance to review this game.
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System: Xbox
Also On: PS2
Genre: 3rd Person Survival Horror/Adventure
Release Date: Nov. 22, 2002 (US) – Feb. 6, 2003 (JAP) – May 2, 2003 (EU)
Save: (can save at any time using “blue camera” save points) ??? of blocks
Players: 1
Fatal Frame 1 Miku Wallpaper (PS2 & Xbox)
Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Rating: Teen for: Blood and Gore, Violence.

Fatal Frame for the PS2Fatal Frame (which went by the code-name Project Zero in Europe & Japan) was first released for the Playstation 2 by Tecmo and then later ported to the Xbox on Feb. 6th 2003 in the United States. New features for the Xbox version included better graphics and effects, new endings, and more ghosts to fight. And this is the version that I’ll be reviewing, so keep that in mind (even though they are essentially the same).

Take the survival horror mold popularized by Resident Evil, add in ghosts in the place of zombies, take away the weapons and replace them with a camera, and you basically would have Fatal Frame.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot Hallway (PS2 & Xbox)
Although Fatal Frame is a mixture of survival horror conventions and styles, it manages to basically do everything right, and has just the right mix with enough unique attributes to make it feel fresh and new and not like a retread of previous survival horror territory. In fact, the game’s mood and atmosphere are extremely creepy. It actually, IMO, is scarier than Silent Hill in many ways (it’s most closely related to that game). It gives you the extremely creepy music of Silent Hill, along with that game’s slower pace, with the jump scares of the Resident Evil series and the psychological “Did I just hear/see something?” horror of Eternal Darkness, all rolled up in an extremely Japanese style, something like Ringu.

Miku artwork from Fatal Frame 1 on the Xbox & PS2The game’s storyline (which is supposedly based on a true story, although it’s definitely been called into question and was probably just a marekting ploy) is very complex and involved, although unfortunately it doesn’t have much of the double-meaning symbolism that you find in Silent Hill, but I would say the storyline is at least as good as that of the Resident Evil series.

In the game you play as Miku Hinasaki, a young teenage/early 20-something Asian girl who is looking for her missing brother Mafuyu, who has disappeared inside the old creepy Himuro mansion (an old Japanese-style building). He came in search of a famous novelist Junsei Takamine, who disappeared himself while doing research. Since Mafuyu himself is an aspiring journalist, he thought he would solve the mystery himself, while also looking for the one he admired.

A trailer for “Project Zero” (Fatal Frame US)
Of course, things only escalate from there. You start out playing as Mafuyu for a short time, but soon after you will take control of the sister, and play as her throughout the entire game. As you probably imagine, the storyline goes much deeper and only gets more complex and involved as you discover the dark secrets of the mansion and it’s ancient inhabitants. You’ll learn all about the brutal rituals that were performed there, why and how both Mafuyu, Takamine the journalist, and a number of others disappeared, as well as the history behind the mansion, the camera you use in the game, and much more. Suffice it to say that in the end words like “The Calamity”, “The Malace”, what the Camera Obscura was created for and The Blinding and Strangling Rituals, will have significant meaning. But in the early portions you will not quite understand what exactly is going on, of course.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice unique aspects of Fatal Frame. First off, it starts out using a black and white filter, which is a very neat effect, to show that you are playing as Mafuyu, and it’s taking place in the past. You’ll notice that the game is very Japanese, using all Asian characters and taking place in an old-style Japanese mansion (the Himuro Mansion), which is a very far cry from the modern look and locales of games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Riku Searches Mansion (PS2 & Xbox)
And like those games, Fatal Frame tasks you with exploring this dank, dark and creepy mansion room by room. You’ll walk around the game’s environments, using the A Button to search the area like in all these games (you can check most parts of the environment and objects you come across, and the game will give you a little info about it), and navigating your way through the games many hallways, up and down stairs, and through a seemingly limitless amount of doors, all in full 3D, no pre-rendered backgrounds here, and also no load times! (except when saving) Like the Resident Evil series, the game switches to a kind of cut-scene when opening doors, although unlike that game, it all takes place in real-time here, which means you can turn around if you don’t want to go through the door, which is a very nice touch that you don’t find in any other Survival Horror titles (and was a personal complaint of mine until they changed it with RE4).

As you explore, you will come across a limited number of different items and many various notes, left by the games interesting cast of characters. These notes will give you more info on the history of the Himuro mansion, the history of the people that have been in the mansion, and will sometimes provide you with crucial clues that you will need in the future (any really important details will be highlighted in red).

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Mansion Room (PS2 & Xbox)
Items you can pick up will shine, although you have to search well cause sometimes they’ll be hidden from view, like under a table or tucked in a corner. Items you’ll come across include: Health (little & big), types of film (the higher the number the more powerful), Spirit Stones (used to power your Camera’s special abilities), Stone Mirrors (Refill your life if you die) and occasionally key items that you will need to use to get through the game, such as masks, shards of glass, ropes or what have you.

To access the game’s menu press the Y Button. On this screen you can check a number of things. You can view all the files you’ve collected, all the photos you’ve taken, change camera settings and update your camera, view the map, as well as see how many Ghosts you have vanquished and your play time. There’s even a really unique “Correlation” option where you can view how the main characters to the storyline relate to each other. As you find notes and encounter more people the file will be further filled out. A very cool touch, especially for keeping track of who is who (the game gives a description of each main character and how they are related to other characters).

Fatal Frame 1 - Camura Obscura ArtOf course, the biggest difference between Fatal Frame and other survival horror games is the fact that the Himuro Mansion is haunted . . . by ghosts. And you must use a camera (The Camera Obscura) to capture and destroy them.

The game is viewed from a third-person perspective until you use your camera, in which case it switches to first person. While exploring the game’s environments, you will also be required to use the camera for a few other things in addition to fighting ghosts. You will at times feel the controller rumble and/or you’ll see the icon in the corner of the screen light up blue, if this happens it means you need to use your camera somewhere in that spot to uncover something. Look through the lens, and when you’ve found the correct spot you’ll see the Capture Circle glow blue. Sometimes it is just a ghost spirit (which will give you points, and you’ll find these scattered in various areas throughout the game, they are not required to find), but other times you’ll snap the shot and a photo will come up of a place that you need to go to to progress in the game.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Camera View (PS2 & Xbox)
You’ll also sometimes come across Spirits that will appear quickly then disappear. These only appear once in the game and give you big points if you can snap a photo of them. If you successfully capture them their name will appear in the photo and sometimes they’ll give you a hint. While some of these are easy others are pretty difficult and you’ll probably need to restart a few times before you can successfully capture them as you’ll need to be really quick with the camera and know just where to point it. These Spirits are also nice and won’t attack you.

In Fatal Frame you use the control stick to make Miku walk, and hold the X Button to make her run. When she’s running however, she will always go straight (although this can be changed in the option menu. It’s default on the Xbox version, the PS2 version starts off with the Resident Evil style “tank” controls as default).

So really what you do is press the X Button to make her run, and use the stick to guide her around turns. The A Button is used to check your environment, while the B Button brings up your camera. Pressing R while in Camera Mode will snap a photo. The Y Button brings up your Menu, while the Start Button pauses and brings up the system menu, where you can exit the game and the Back Button lets you quickly access your map.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Miku Runs From Ghost (PS2 & Xbox)
The controls take some getting used to, because you’ll want to just turn and make Miku go in any direction, instead of holding the button to make her run straight. But what this unique control scheme does is technically rids you of the oft-complained about “tank-style” controls of the Resident Evil series and most other survival horror games (where up always makes you go forward, down always makes you go back, and you use left and right to turn), while still offering you an easy way to navigate corners with changing camera angles, which is the reason tank controls were alway used.

While walking through the game’s mansion, you will come across ghosts. Ghosts haunt the mansion everywhere, but they won’t always reveal themselves until the time is right. When they do, you will notice the music change.

Fatal Frame 1 Artwork - Ghost (PS2 & Xbox)Ghosts fade in-and-out (like the specters they are), which can make them hard to track, particularly if they are fast moving, cause naturally they can pass through objects and walls in the environment! They will also attack you, and every enemy ghost uses a different pattern of attack. If they get too close, they’ll grab onto you and take energy (or “stamina”) away, which is indicated by a blue bar in the bottom right hand corner of the screen (you can pound the buttons to try and escape quicker). This is your health, and if it depletes entirely then you’ll die.

To fight the ghosts, you whip out your camera and point it at them. In the middle of your camera is the Capture Circle, and this is what you will want to make sure the ghosts are inside by moving the Capture Circle over them. When a ghost gets inside the Capture Circle, Mystical Power will start flashing and building up. As long as you can snap a picture while the ghost is inside YOUR Capture Circle, you will deal damage to it. But each ghost also has a circle of their own, that is usually small and will move with them.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Ghost (PS2 & Xbox)
To do the maximum amount of damage, you will want to keep your Capture Circle within the ghosts own reticule for as long as you can until the mystical power builds up (the small circles around the Capture Circle will flash, these can also help to point you in the direction of a ghost) and you will see the Capture Circle glow solid blue. Snapping a shot when it’s blue will do a great amount of damage, but to do the most you want to wait until just the right moment (generally right before or in the process of a ghost’s attack), and during this moment the Capture Circle will glow red (errr, “amber”) and if you snap it then, you will do the greatest amount of damage and put some real hurt on the enemy. You’ll also score the most points.

Beginning of Fatal Frame (low quality)
All the ghosts attack in different patterns, with different ranges of speed. Some will circle around you, some will slowly come towards you (and are easily avoidable), others will come straight at you at full speed, etc. Obviously, they get harder and harder the further you get into the game, and you’ll come across some ghosts that are a real pain to fight. Particularly later on (Fear the old man with the hat. FEAR HIM!)

To help you in your ghost exorcising, you will use various types of film. You start out with weak film but will eventually find film that is much more powerful and will do more damage to the ghosts. To see how much film you have left, take out your camera and you’ll see the number displayed in the bottom left, along with the type of film and how many Spirit Stones you have.

One of the coolest features of Fatal Frame is the fact that you can upgrade your camera using points that you get from capturing ghosts. These points accumulate, and by going into the menu and selecting “Camera” (where you also change the type of film you want to use), you can upgrade a number of functions. First off are “Basic Functions”, these stats include: Range, Speed and Max Power. Each category has four levels, and the higher the level the more points it will cost to upgrade.

You then have five “Bonus Functions”. These are special abilities that use Spirit Stones. The Bonus Functions are:

PRESSURE (16000): Pushes the ghost away from you.
SLOW (16000): The ghost can only move in slow-motion.
SEE (12000): The ghost will not turn invisible.
PARALYZE (18000): Completely immobilizes the ghost.
SEARCH (14000): Your finder will track the ghost automatically.

The Bonus Functions can be used by making sure you have a ghost within the Capture Circle, and then hitting the L Button (once you have set a function on the Camera screen, only one can be set at a time) and these special abilities will go a long way in helping you to defeat your enemies and can give you a huge advantage in battle.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Ghosts are scary!
You will also notice another category of functions. These are called Special Functions, and they don’t become unlocked until you beat the game. But once they do, you can buy them with points just like with Bonus Functions, except these do not cost Spirit Stones to use! They really are just for fun, since they make the game much easier.

Generally you’ll want to save the Spirit Stones, health and stronger film for boss fights or ghosts that you have a hard time defeating. There are plenty of boss battles in the game, always a plus!

If you are looking for puzzles with your survival horror though, you may want to look elsewhere. It’s not that Fatal Frame doesn’t contain any puzzles, it’s that the ones that are included repeat, and they are very simple and will hardly tax your noggin.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Miku Doll
You will often come across doors that are locked with a device that has numbers in a circle. You of course, have to hit the right code. Where is the code, you ask? Highlighted in red in one of your files, of course! The other puzzle is slightly more difficult, but only slightly. Stones are arranged in a pentagon shape, each with a symbol carved on the stone, and a symbol for that particular slot. You then move the stones around, to make what’s on the stone match what’s on the slot. The catch is that you are only given so many “moves” to do this, and moving a stone makes the two slots switch. But lining them all up in the right configuration isn’t too difficult, and could probably be completed on accident with enough luck. So putting some thought into it will easily solve the puzzle. You will come across both of these “puzzles” many times in the game, as well as a few others, but they are not hard at all and barely warrant a mention really.

The environments and mood in Fatal Frame are one of it’s strongest features. The old mansion that the game takes place in is as scary as haunted mansions come, and it’s done in an extremely realistic style, more of a Silent Hill than Resident Evil. And the Japanese culture pervades every aspect of the game. From most all of the characters being of Japanese descent to many Japanese objects (like dolls and kimonos) lying about the environments, it goes a long way in separating Fatal Frame from other Survival Horror titles you may have played by giving it a unique look and locale (even though the whole mansion thing may be played out by now).

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Ghost Attack
And the environments themselves look gorgeous. There is a great attention to detail, and the mansion is made up of many rooms and lots of long, creepy hallways. You’ll come across a lot of little details too, like mirrors that fully reflect to ropes that swing from the roof of one hallway. And unlike a lot of games, you will rarely come across locked doors, pretty much every room is accessible, and if it isn’t initially, it will eventually be. This makes the mansion feel more like a real environment, and not a contrived design-decision where you feel that doors are locked simply cause the developers didn’t have the time to model each and every room or some-such (players of Silent Hill 2 will know exactly where I’m coming from).

And while it is a little disappointing that virtually the entire game takes place in that one mansion environment (and the later environment isn’t a unique one in the least), the game is paced extremely well (with more of the mansion becoming accessible as you reach more days in the storyline, which is divided into chapters and “time periods”) and the mansion is so well designed that you won’t really notice.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Miku (PS2 & Xbox)
Each and every room is unique, no part of the mansion feels copied (again, very different from Silent Hill 2) and the layout of the mansion is also well done. It’s not terribly difficult to keep track of where you are going and to memorize the layout of the mansion (I rarely had to use my map) which is definitely a plus, but like always there will be times when you will forget the exact layout and wander around for a bit before you figure out where exactly you are (or consult the map) in the sizable mansion. But the layout is very logical, so you will learn fast.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Miku Atmospheric (PS2 & Xbox)
The graphics themselves are very good. The model for Miku is very high quality and looks just like the character you will see in cut scenes, and as mentioned above the environments all look great and unique, with lots of details. Like Resident Evil 4, Fatal Frame has “door-opening sequences” that are done in real-time. This is good cause it means that you can turn back around if you don’t wanna go through the door, but it’s bad because it also means that enemies can attack you while you are opening a door! Thus there isn’t much running from the ghosts in Fatal Frame, especially considering the fact that they can follow you through rooms!

One minor (but sometimes deadly) annoyance is the ladder climbing, thankfully you won’t come across it often, but when you do it can be very frustrating due to Miku’s extremely slow speed and the fact that ladder climbing is completely automatic, but also real time . . . so once she starts climbing slowly on her own (simply run her into the ladder at the exact right point and she’ll start climbing) then there’s no stopping her till she reaches the top, and if an enemy is nearby he can keep on hitting you until you die. But it’s a minor quibble cause of the scarcity of ladders in the game.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Miku Ghost Effects (PS2 & Xbox)
The effects for the ghosts are also really well done. You definitely aren’t used to seeing these kinds of extremely realistic and human-looking ghosts in video games. The effects of them fading in and out, going through walls, and particularly when you destroy a ghost are really well done. The death animation in particular is really creepy the first few times you do it, as the entire screen warps and starts twirling around into the shape of an orb, which then explodes. Very cool looking, although it might get annoying to some cause it happens after you kill every ghost in the game.

Music-wise, Fatal Frame’s music is slightly understated, but it’s much in the vein of something like Silent Hill, with creepy tunes that are meant to arouse fear in you and it does it’s job well for haunted mansion music. I wouldn’t quite say there is as much emphasis on music as there is in Silent Hill or Resident Evil, as Fatal Frame doesn’t really have a great soundtrack, but the music could hardly be considered bad.

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Ghosts
The sound effects in the game are great, and you’ll hear a lot of voices, from the screams of agony and pain of ghosts to whispering voices that can make you question whether someone is really around or you’re just hearing things (Much like Eternal Darkness). The creepiest points definitely have to revolve around the cries and laughter of children . . . and you will hear that in Fatal Frame like any good horror product. And like always, the scary demon-children are as creepy as ever here.

Fatal Frame is very much a game that is focused on storyline. The story plays a huge part in the game, and not only through cut-scenes but also through the many various notes that you will find scattered about where you will learn much about the disturbing subject matter surrounding the mansion.Fatal Frame 1 Miku Rope Ritual Art (PS2 & Xbox)
This is very much a mature-rated storyline (even if it says Teen on the box), and is not a game for the light of heart, because even though it doesn’t feature any real blood or guts, the game does revolve around brutal and Satanic rituals that involve human sacrifice, hanging by ropes, murder, possession and exorcism and all the type of stuff you’d expect in a game whose storyline revolves around rituals. It’s heavy stuff and while the storyline is good I wouldn’t say it was great. The voice acting also isn’t too hot, but it’s hardly bad.

It took me around 15 hours to beat the game, which is about standard for a survival horror title. Thankfully the game doesn’t end there as there is much to unlock and keep you playing! And like all good survival horror games you are giving a letter ranking at the end (I got an E my first time though!)

Fatal Frame 1 Screenshot - Miku Stairs (PS2 & Xbox)
Once you beat it, you’ll unlock harder difficulty settings and a Battle Mode. The Battle Mode gives you Missions that you have to complete, where you have to defeat certain ghosts, and the missions get progressively more and more difficult. You also unlock extra costumes, a sound test, additional endings (if you can beat the harder difficulties) as well as additions that are added to the game once you retry again after beating it, these include the Bonus Functions on your camera’s menu (detailed above) which make the game much easier and fun, and a Ghost List which helps you keep track of the ghosts you have and haven’t captured, so you can work towards capturing them all and completed the list! The Ghost List is a very nice feature as it gives you an overview of the story of each character and enemy and gives you a bio. I always like when games do that.

As far as saving goes, you will find save points generously spread about the game, and so it’s not something you’ll have to worry about. You can save as many times as you want as well (My game had ten files), unless a ghost is in the room. And save points are easy to recognize cause they are cameras that you’ll find usually in the corner of a room (they’ll glow blue if you can use them, red if you cannot. If you can’t, kill the ghosts in the room then you can save). And a very cool touch is the fact that, on the save screen, if you run out of ammo, you can select the Film icon in the middle to get an extra 30 pieces of Film Type 14 (the weakest type). This ensures that you will never get stuck by running out of ammo. And you can withdraw the film at any time if you are out.

Fatal Frame 1 Miku Cut-Scene (PS2 & Xbox)
In conclusion, Fatal Frame is one heck of a scary game. The use of ghosts makes for a different kind of fear, and it goes a long way towards making the game feel unique. The music and sound really help excel it in the fear department, due to the creepy sounds of the ghosts, from babies crying to moans and screams. The gameplay meanwhile is definitely solid and I can really find few complaints with the game. If you are a survival horror fan, particularly if you were into Silent Hill, then I definitely urge you to track down Fatal Frame for the Xbox or Playstation 2, you won’t be disappointed!

Fatal Frame has just about the right balance of fun and scares, with enough storyline, characters and unique gameplay to hold your interest. And even though the game takes place largely in a single mansion locale, and there is a lot of backtracking, it is done smartly so it doesn’t really bother. Definitely a game that Survival Horror fans should try out!

Graphics: 8.0
Fatal Frame has really nice environments and effects, as well as a very detailed character model for Miku. Although it looks a bit dated, it hardly looks bad at all.

Music & Sound: 8.0
Like a lot of horror games, music and sound effects can make or break the mood, thankfully Fatal Frame has a strong score although not necessarily a great one. The ambient effects however, particularly those of ghosts’ giggles, moans, screams and such are done very well and they definitely help to get that blood pumping.

Presentation: 7.5
As soon as you turn the game on the title screen pops up without a hitch (no company logos) but saving can be a bit of a chore due to the menu and the long loading. The main menu is alright, but it can be a bit confusing at first. Overall the presentation isn’t bad.

Ingenuity: 8.5
Ghosts, a ghost-capturing camera as your main weapon, realistic graphics, an Asian setting, Fatal Frame doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but what it does is take the best of survival horror conventions you are already familiar with and places them in a shell that you haven’t seen before, making the game feel unique and fresh.

Replay Value: 8.0
There is quite a bit of extra features and things to unlock, but it won’t necessarily take you a whole lot of time to unlock them all. But what’s here is definitely welcome.

Fatal Frame Miku artwork for PS2 & Xbox