It can be difficult for a survival horror game to make its mark on a genre already full of bloodthirsty zombies and narrow-beam flashlights. The original Fatal Frame managed to stand out due to both its dark, strongly Japanese atmosphere and its unique gameplay mechanic, which used a camera imbued with special powers to dispatch spirits to their eternal rest. At its core, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly doesn't deviate much from the formula established by its predecessor, as it treads the same ground of mysterious, ancient Japanese rituals and features innocent young girls pitted against perpetually unappeased ghosts. While the game isn't terribly difficult and doesn't create an entirely new mold for itself, it still manages to weave an unsettling tale--full of secret sacrificial rites--that draws you inexorably deeper.
There are two protagonists in the game, the twin sisters Mio and Mayu Amakura, though you'll control Mio nearly all of the time. After the twins become lost in a forest, they stumble upon a village that was supposed to have mysteriously disappeared on the night of a special festival. Unfortunately, their return path seems to have vanished, so the girls have no choice but to venture into the old, ruined village in search of help. They eventually find an old camera that seems to be able to take pictures of things that aren't really there, and soon enough they're caught up in the village's curse, reliving the night's terrible events that caused the quiet town to be forever shrouded in darkness.
Though you have an entire haunted village to roam in Fatal Frame II, large chunks of the game are still spent restricted to a single building at a time, which you'll explore thoroughly. Progressing through the buildings generally involves the mainstay of finding a key of some type, but the game does mix things up by including a few simple puzzles and presenting seals that may be removed by photographing certain locations with your camera. If your twin is with you, she'll also sometimes aid you by stopping in front of important rooms or giving you a verbal clue to indicate that something worth noting is nearby. The village's dark history is gradually revealed, both through grainy black and white film sequences and through the abundance of documents you'll find scattered as you proceed. There's also at least one genuinely "friendly" ghost in the game who believes you are someone he already knows, so he'll often give you hints for your objectives--if he's available. You gradually get a complete picture of the town's denizens through numerous diaries, memos, and notebooks as well as by grabbing choice photos--when the opportunities arise--by using the game's core feature: the camera obscura.
You find the camera soon after arriving in town, and the device serves a wide range of functions. It can be used to defeat hostile spirits, reveal clues, unseal doors held closed with spirit power, and catch hidden ghosts. It can even just take snapshots, if you'd like. You need film to take pictures, and, unlike in the first Fatal Frame, this iteration of the camera thankfully comes preloaded with a mysteriously inexhaustible supply of low-grade film. This allows you to hoard the more powerful film you obtain for combat, while letting you snap pictures of clues and the like to your heart's content. Otherwise, the camera handles just as it did in the previous game. So pressing the circle button causes you to enter first-person mode, and lining up things in the capture circle allows you to photograph hints, or it allows you to damage spirits. The capture circle glows green for hints and hidden spirits, and it glows red or orange when you've got a lock on hostile spirits. You can upgrade the abilities of the camera via lenses and other special items you acquire during gameplay. You'll spend something called "spirit points" to do this, which you'll earn through special photos and through battle.
Fighting ghosts is the real highlight of the game, as you square off against some pretty creepy foes and help send them on their way to quiescence. When you're close enough to a spirit to inflict damage, the capture circle in camera view glows orange and starts to hum with static. The closer you get and the longer you maintain lock, the more powerful your shot will be. There are certain moments when the capture circle turns red (called "shutter chances"). Shots taken at these times are worth critical damage. Battle, therefore, becomes a matter of patience and a test of nerves, since you'll often have to allow a spirit to get dangerously close to you to get the best shot. To make matters even more interesting, there's an instant within the shutter chance known as a "fatal frame." If you time this shot correctly, you'll not only inflict extreme damage, but you'll have the opportunity to chain in a second photo for a combo.
That extra level of strategy and timing makes a photo shoot with a ghost all the more entertaining, but the problem is that your foes are, in the great majority, slow-moving and highly predictable. Each spirit has its own attack pattern that it doesn't deviate from, so once you've seen a particular ghost a couple of times, hitting shutter chances while avoiding injury becomes a breeze. Camera upgrades, like spirit tracking, stunning, and blasting, only skew matters more in your favor, so when you factor in an item that allows you to dodge getting hit, battle becomes decidedly unbalanced. It's too bad, since the original game pitted you against tough spirits that would've been a welcome challenge. The lack of difficulty salts away at the notion of "survival horror," since surviving is generally not very hard at all. Fortunately, the game's story is still plenty macabre.
Graphically, the game is, on the whole, great. There's a few too many drab, featureless hallways that can make it feel like certain areas are recycled, but the rooms themselves, though dark, can have some good detail. For instance, you'll find broken dolls strewn around a master's workshop, or, in one case, extreme amounts of blood can be seen spattered across the walls. Living characters in the game look good and animate well, and the spirits have a lot of personality. While still appearing insubstantial, there's more detail and variety in their clothing and faces than in the first Fatal Frame, and some of the spirits are quite awful--like the broken form of one who died after leaping from the top of a stairwell. The village itself has a few interesting structures, but the outdoor environments can seem a bit flat, with nothing to really grab the eye.
The game's sound is also great, from the solid sound effects to the combined chatter of all the various ghosts you meet. You'll actually feel guilty when trying to dispatch the spirit of a young girl who's burying her face in her hands and weeping constantly. The voice acting is quite good, though there's not much range to some of the performances. Some spirits will also drop special crystals when they're banished that can be "listened" to in a Spirit Radio, and some of these messages are among the best-delivered and creepiest in the game. There's no music really to be heard per se, though the ending theme is a catchy song; you won't really feel the loss of it with all the spirit activity that goes on, however.
Fatal Frame II can be finished in fewer than 10 hours the first time through, and finishing the game enables you to unlock higher difficulty modes (like hard and nightmare), in addition to revealing game art for your gallery, alternate costumes for Mio and Mayu, new functions for your camera, and mission mode. Mission mode consists of timed or points-based challenges against individual spirits or groups of them, and they are wholly separate from the main narrative. This might be fun if you'd like to test your camera skills. Extras aside, the most compelling reason you'd have to finish the game more than once would be to unlock the second ending by completing hard or nightmare mode, since the game's default ending is somewhat predictable but still highly unsettling. You'll get to bring your souped-up camera with you into a continued game--as well as all the items you acquired previously--which means that the increase in difficulty doesn't really seem like an increase at all. Ghosts do more damage on the higher difficulties and are slightly harder to hit, but with a fully maxed camera, you're rarely at a disadvantage.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly may be light on challenge, but it's still rich in great, dark atmosphere. Fans of the first game will find a similar story that's still plenty creepy, and while the lack of difficulty hurts the experience somewhat, those new to the genre or those who hate the item-rationing aspect of other survival horror games will find this game a nice change of pace.