The survival horror genre has been pretty stagnant since Resident Evil launched its first decaying Doberman at players years ago. In the years that have followed, we've seen a number of games try to mimic Capcom's classic, but very few have managed to add something genuinely different to the genre. One of the games that has successfully managed to take a different approach is Tecmo's Fatal Frame. The game was released earlier this year for the PlayStation 2 and earned positive notes for its unique gameplay, stylish presentation, and excellent sound. Following the game's success on the PlayStation 2, the developer has opted to release it on the Xbox. Rather than simply offer a straight port of the title, Tecmo has seen fit to add a host of enhancements and extras that should please fans of the game and the survival horror genre.
For those unfamiliar with Fatal Frame's premise, the game puts you in the role of Miku Hinasaki, a young Japanese schoolgirl in search of her older brother, Mafuyu, who has disappeared. Miku's investigation leads her to the mysterious and less than inviting Himuro mansion. Apparently, Mafuyu had set off on his own search for renowned author Junsei Takamine, who disappeared along with his entire research team during an investigation into the mansion's bloody history. Undaunted by the fact that the score is "Mansion: 6, Curious People: 0," Miku heads into the creepy manor. Her search will send her throughout the mansion's interior and the surrounding grounds and introduce her to a varied cast of living and dead characters.
Miku's adventures shouldn't be too hard to get a handle on if you've played a survival horror game, as the core of Fatal Frame's gameplay is rooted in the basics of the genre. You'll explore the mansion, solve puzzles, collect items, and deal with enemies. While the basics of the game are pretty standard, the actual mechanics offer up some nice twists. The most unique element in the game is an enchanted camera that Miku uses as both a weapon and a search tool. The unorthodox item is a perfect fit for the enemies you'll encounter in the game--surly ghosts whose ephemeral nature makes it impossible for you to deal with them using the tried-and-true weapons of the survival horror genre such as guns, pipes, knives, and flamethrowers. When faced with a ghost, you'll have to switch to a first person mode--basically your camera's viewfinder--to fight it. While you'll be able to damage the specter by snapping a picture as soon as it's centered in your sights, you'll want to hold out for a bit. The longer you keep the ghost in focus, the more power you can build up for your shot. If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can hold out until the target turns red before you take a shot. If you manage the timing properly, snapping a shot when the target turns red will execute a zero shot, which is a much more powerful attack. When you've dealt enough damage to your spooky foe, he or she will head off to the afterlife for good. Besides ridding yourself of an enemy, taking out ghosts will reward you with points and spirit stones, which you can use to enhance your camera's abilities. The points you earn are directly related to the strength of your attacks, so you'd do well to build up some nerves of steel if you want to buff up your camera. But if you're unable to rack up enough points to turbo-charge your camera, you'll also be able to find different types of film that will enhance its ghost-busting abilities. The system works well overall, although awkward camera angles can make exploring and combat more challenging than they need to be.
In addition to serving as an invaluable instrument in fighting ghosts, Miku's camera will also be instrumental in uncovering secrets in the game. Taking pictures of objects will reveal hidden passages, offer clues to direct your search, or help you solve certain puzzles. As far as the puzzles in the game go, you'll find a standard assortment of item collection and memorization. You'll also find some that require you to review scraps of notes to figure things out. The puzzles have actually been tweaked in a few spots to make them more accessible on the Xbox. For example, a puzzle that originally used Japanese numerals has been replaced them with standard numbers. Unfortunately, you'll still find instances in which you'll have to do a healthy amount of backtracking, which bogs down the game's pacing.
The game's control is solid, and Tecmo has done a good job of mapping it to the Xbox controller. You'll move Miku with the left analog stick. The right stick will control her flashlight in thirdperson and move her in first-person. The A button will serve as the standard action button, picking up objects when you're in third-person and snapping shots when you're in the first-person camera mode. The B button will toggle the camera mode on and off. Y will perform a 180-degree turn in the first-person mode, while X will increase the speed of your viewfinder in the first-person mode. The left trigger will let you use any of the bonus features you've equipped to the camera when held down, while the right trigger will offer another way to snap a shot during battle. The game does a fine job of introducing you to the game's mechanics in its intro, which actually lets you play as Mafuyu on the night he disappears.
Graphically, Fatal Frame looks decent, but it isn't too great an improvement on its PlayStation 2 predecessor overall. The characters feature solid detail and do look sharper on the Xbox, but they aren't a tremendous improvement in terms of polygon count. However, the ghosts--macabre shapes that reflect varying degrees of human suffering--have been polished up and sport quite a bit more creepy detail. The mansion and its various rooms have also been tightened up some, although you'll still find a few ugly textures here and there. While the game's graphics are bit underwhelming overall, they work well thanks to the game's stylized look, which is consistent throughout. The game uses lighting and different filters on the graphics effectively and presents a cohesive visual package.
While Fatal Frame's graphics could have been a bit sharper, there's not a whole lot more you could ask of the game's audio, which takes advantage of the Xbox sound hardware. The audio in the game is quite impressive, offering an immersive array of ambient sounds that pull you into the experience. The game's score is sparse and ranges from subtle bits used to set tone to louder, more-dramatic pieces designed to make you jump. The voice acting in the game is decent, though you'll hear some monotonous clunkers in the cast. The audio really pulls through in a big way when it comes to the ghosts--moans, shrieks, and disturbing phrases muttered at varying speeds and from different locations do a great job of making you jump.
Although the core content of Fatal Frame is taken directly from the PlayStation 2 version, Tecmo added quite a few extras for the Xbox version. You'll find more costumes to unlock for Miku, more than 10 new ghosts, and a new gameplay mode that will reward you with an alternate ending when completed. The new features add a solid amount of replay value to the game and ensures that you'll have plenty to do after you finish it the first time.
Overall, Fatal Frame is a satisfying entry in the survival horror genre. The game's unique concept and execution offer an alternative to the standard survival horror conventions, although it also features some of the gameplay drawbacks common to the genre. That said, the game's cohesive presentation is engaging, offering some genuine scares that are a rare treat, and its gameplay is involving enough to make it a game that fans of the genre will want to check out.