October has to be my favorite month of the year as a gamer.
As a huge horror genre junkie, this time of the year is perfect opportunity to overdose on scary movies and especially video games. The horror game scene has been somewhat lackluster these days with big titles such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill becoming more and more like first-shooters, and almost completely abandoning the core elements that made them so popular in the first place. I’m the type of person who when I sit down to play survival horror, I’m actually expecting there to be some kind of horror element to it. I want to be scared. I want the world that I’m in to feel like it’s out to get me and I’m completely helpless in defending myself, and not loaded up to my eyeballs in ammunition.
The indie game industry has seemed to fulfill that need fairly well in the past year or two. With hit titles such as Slender, SCP Containment Breach, Amnesia : The Dark Desent and plenty of other titles, these games have successfully tapped into the basic features of what makes a horror game truly terrifying. Elements such as slow build, ominous sound design, and creepy atmosphere are perhaps the top three features I consider very important when creating a horror game…and I can honestly say that I have played only one game that not only managed to do all three but also managed to scare the life out of me.
And coming from someone who tends to be hyper-critical on the horror genre as a whole, that’s a big deal.
The Fatal Frame series, to this day, remains the series that I can say still honestly terrifies me. At the height of J-horror films that were being released in the states, The Grudge being a prime example, gamers were introduced to a world were Japanese ghosts aren’t something you want to be messing with. Like, at all.
For this review, I’m not going to focused on one game in particular since all of the games are basically all the same. Instead, I want to talk about the series as a whole. The series of Fatal Frame revolves around exploring abandoned ruins of various haunted locations while investigating the violent history of that place. All the while, the player is warding off hostile ghosts with only a special camera, known as the Camera Obscura, that exorcise the spirits as a weapon. The best way to fight off these spirits is not easy. The player must allow the ghosts to get within arms reach of them in other for them to take their picture in order to deal the most damage. This can result in some very intense moments as you almost always find yourself trapped in a close space with a ghost that likes to pop in and out of sight while you’re actually allowing it to get close just for the sake of a picture. It doesn’t help that your character moves at a snail’s pace, which can be be both terrifying and frustrating.
If you’re anything like me, most of pictures will probably look like the end of result of a night at the bar. More of shots of the floor than anything else because you’re panicking to get away from the thing trying to kill you. Because these ghosts don’t mess around. These are very hostile spirits whom have all died in horrible ways and are forever trapped within their own torment. They’re shadows of their former selves, twisted by whatever terrible event took place at the time of their death.
While the ghost encounters aren’t necessarily at random, they are nonetheless very scary when they happen. The player gets no warning of when they appear and they are relentless in their pursuit.
Almost all of the locations in these games take place in very traditional Japanese homes or shrines and involve very traditional Japanese rituals. Of all the things I can praise about in the series, the locations has to be first as well as the dedication to Japanese lore. There is a regal majesty and mysterious beauty about this places and centuries old traditions that only made much more mysterious under the guise of something sinister lurking in the shadows. Let me tell you: these are some truly scary places that you don’t want to find yourself trapped in. Mansions enveloped in a subtitle fog where you can hear nothing except the gravel underneath your feet and distant rattle of shrine bells. The silence can be damn near suffocating. The full moon above provide some guidance in where you are going, more than your flashlight. But even then, it only helps illuminate the eeriness of the battered down mansion or shrine that stands before you.
There places, while beautifully rendered and hauntingly breath-taking, it’s hard to take in the ambiance while ignoring that idea that something horrible happened in just about every room you enter. You constantly have the feeling that someone is watching you, and majority of the time that’s true. There is evidence of what took place all around you. And as much as you want to investigate, judging from what you’ve already seen, you rather not know the truth.
One of the best features of the Fatal Frame series I found is it’s suburb sound design. I can go on and on about the creepy locals and the spooky ghosts encounters, but none of the that would be as effective had it not been for the honest-to-God bone chilling soundtrack. Similar to early Silent Hill, the music is very subdued and atmospheric . It’s very hard to describe the music of this game since it’s not really music per say. Majority of all the tracks sound like something one would hear during Halloween. Background noises that consist of the wind blowing, shrine bells chiming, wood-floors creaking and very subtle voices whispering in the distant.
Listen here for the best example:
The tension is then taken up a notch whenever there is a spirit about. Encounter a ghost, and the music becomes much more ominous and threatening. Perhaps what makes these moments so scary is how the atmosphere dramatically changes at every encounter. The music immediately becomes dreadful and booming. A weird whistle that sounds like strong static that is so loud it hurts your ears. With every ghost, you can hear them crying out their last words. It’s horribly spooky to encounter a ghost that has no limbs screaming out loud, “My arms! Where are my arms?” or a clever wielding priest saying “Your head…give it to me!”
The voices of the dead are everywhere in Fatal Frame. With every encounter, you will begin to feel at unease with every step you take. This is exactly what you want to have in a horror game and the soundtrack does a fantastic job at enhancing the already creepy atmosphere, making it into something truly terrorizing and dangerous.
The another gem in these games has to be story. The plot in the games almost always about a tragic event, sacrificial ritual gone wrong and spirit out for revenge. Unlike most horror games, it’s not all about the jump-scares or the creepy atmosphere. Behind the standard backdrop of a haunted house tale, the story more or less centers on the feeling of grief over a lost loved one or the grief of missing out on a chance for happiness. How sometimes that grief can sometimes cripple you and prevent you from moving on. As a result, you become consumed by that one terrible moment to the point that you don’t even recognize yourself anymore. Along the way, you will begin to sympathize with the all the trapped spirits and especially for the big baddy boss ghost who is the source of all the suffering.
There is something truly heart-breaking surrounding the fate of the main villains, and for a game that can get me to really feel for an entity trying to kill me, that’s quite a feat. There are multiple endings to each game, good and bad. And I’ve got to say, even the bad endings can leave you with some sense of closure. You don’t necessarily feel like you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, but in a strange twist, you understand that you had to lose in order to move on.
And coming from somebody whose been wanting game closure since Mass Effect 3, that’s a big deal for a game series that came out in 2001!
The Fatal Frame series is bone-chilling experience that everyone has to try out at least once. Anyone who is a fan of J-Horror will love this game! Unfortunately, these days finding a copy of any of the four games will be difficult. The first game was released back in 2001 for the PS2, followed by two more sequels in 2003 and 2005. A four game was released for the Wii back in 2008 but was never released in the states, despite fan request. These days, finding copies of the games is like finding a water truck in the desert. If you happen to find one, I highly recommend you dust off your PS2, turn off the light, crank up the volume and get ready for a tense night.