Genre: Survival Horror Adventure
Release Date: March 2002
Platforms: Playstation 2, Xbox
Note: Originally published 16 May 2002
"Please father," pleaded my three sons in unison, "if you buy us Dead or Alive 3 for our X-Box then we shall never again misbehave." "Nah," spake I from my fatherly throne, "it will be a dark day in Utopia before another Tecmo game crosses our threshold."
Well okay, maybe we don't talk like that in my house, but truth be told, even though Tecmo's Fatal Frame is the best console exclusive adventure game ever released, when it comes to marketing Tecmo does not have a clue. In fact, they have spit upon and totally spurned the three main rules of adventure gaming: know your audience, know your audience, know your audience. For in the myopic vision of Tecmo, if you're not a teenager then you don't exist. Yet, would I expect anything less from a company whose claim to fame is an option in Dead Or Alive 3 that allows the player to control the amount of bounce for the female character's boobs? But more on this later, first lets chat about Fatal Frame.
Fatal Frame is easily the scariest, most fear-inducing adventure game released for any console system. Hopefully, it will set a standard for future developers in the survival horror genre as it has now been proven that guns are far from necessary to create a gripping, intelligent survival horror game. For in Fatal Frame, the weapon of choice is not advanced weaponry, but instead a "harmless" antique camera that can capture the souls of departed spirits.
Based on a true story, Fatal Frame takes place entirely in a haunted mansion. Clichéd - yes, but these are clichés done to perfection. The developers know the exact moment to turn the screw, cue the music or allow a brief tantalizing view of a twisting, hanging corpse. They are surely devotees of 'B' horror films. The story is based on a couple of incidents that actually occurred in a small village in the mountainous regions of Japan. The main character is Miku, an amateur photographer who is able to sense spirits. Her brother, a journalist, has disappeared inside the Himura Mansion while conducting research on three grisly murders in which the bodies were found inside the mansion, but the heads, arms and legs of the victims had been severed.
From photographs of the deceased, Miku uses her psychic perception to ascertain the horrific means of their demise and soon realizes that only she has the ability to save her brother and put an end to the murders that have haunted the surrounding countryside. Armed only with her antique camera and a flashlight, Miku now ventures forth to explore a thirty-room haunted mansion.
In an attempt to increase the tension, Fatal Frame features black-and-white sequences and ghostly flashbacks. The mansion has been designed to make the player feel claustrophobic and as ghosts can and will attack from anywhere your quick reflexes with the camera will be imperative. If there was a downside to the game - at least for me - it was the minor difficulty I experienced learning to not only use the camera quickly, but in also unlocking it's special features. But this was more a problem of bad reflexes on my part and not poor game design.
Just as important are your puzzle-solving skills for unlike most console adventure games, Fatal Frame's puzzles progress beyond the find a key, open a door variety. Storyline is established piecemeal through fragments of newspaper clippings and notebook pages and as the plot progresses so also do the cleverness of the puzzles and the variety of inventory items. Even more unique though are puzzles that can only be solved by taking pictures of doors or objects that appear normal to the naked eye, but reveal concealed clues when photographed.
We now interrupt this review for an unscheduled rant:
WHY CONSOLE ADVENTURE GAMES DON'T SELL
You may have noticed that there are not any screenshots from Fatal Frame in the body of this review. There is a good reason for this - Tecmo would not provide Just Adventure with any screenshots. Not that we didn't ask more than once, mind you. One would have thought we had requested (gasp!) an evaluation copy. Finally we received a terse response, "You can get screenshots off our website." Well, we tried but were unable thanks to Macromedia Flash. So we wrote again and again no response. We can only imagine that Tecmo has not yet figured out how to respond when approached by an adult. For in the world of console games, the teenager is king and pity the adult fool who is dumb enough to profess a liking for a console game (Tecmo obviously has some marketing savvy as they hosted a press junket in a haunted hotel for the release of Fatal Frame). So by now many of you must be saying, "Oh poor Just Adventure, they couldn't get some screenshots from Tecmo and now they're whining. Boo hoo." Ah, but now the story gets even more depressing for fans of the adventure genre.
Over the years Just Adventure has naturally developed a positive reputation with developers and publishers so it was not unexpected that a prestigious publisher should approach and ask if we thought if Fatal Frame could successfully be converted to a best-selling pc game. We gave the game our highest recommendation and also proceeded to provide said publisher with a list of contacts at Tecmo - marketing, public relations and the company president. Said publisher had plans to contact Tecmo and inquire as to whether on not Fatal Frame was planned for the computer and, if not, were the rights available. We had promises to be kept abreast of the negotiations. Except there were none. That's right - Tecmo did not or would not even respond to inquiries from a fellow publisher. Why not? Why would you pass on an opportunity to have your product converted to reach a wider audience? Or is it that Tecmo still believes that console games are only for children? The bottom line is that while there are some teenagers who play adventure games, the larger demographic for this genre is adults and females both of whom have yet to make the consoles their gaming system of choice over the computer.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled review…
So I have claimed that Fatal Frame is without peer on the console, but even it still suffers from the dreaded consolitis. As is usual for this type of game, saves can only be made in certain areas, though to be fair the designated save areas are not spread far enough apart to be frustrating. The real problem, though, rears its ugly head during the last third of the game as the dreaded "more-is-better" console mentality strikes. While the game had maintained suspense by the masterful maneuvering of spirits and shadows, the developers seem to have decided that if facing one ghost was a challenge, then facing three or four at once would be even more suspenseful. Not. If anything it degrades what had been a tense and jarring experience into a photo-snapping action fest.
If you already own a Playstation 2, then Fatal Frame is a must have for the adventure gamer. If you have been debating whether to purchase a PS2, then this game along with Shadow Of Destiny and Silent Hill 2 are reason enough if you are an adventure gamer. Or you can wait until Tecmo announces the release of the computer version which should be around the same time they respond to emails - sometime in 2010 or so.
Final Grade for Fatal Frame: A-
If you liked this game then:
Play - Shadow of Destiny
Watch - Blow-Up
Read - The instruction guide that came with your camera