Creepy. Mysterious. Atmospheric. These are just a few words to describe the spine-chilling survival horror game Fatal Frame. For anyone viewing the online gaming footage now, this doesn’t look like your everyday survival horror video game released during the era. Sure, you had a “Final Girl” exploring terrifying locations, monsters that you needed to escape from, and puzzles you had to solve – basically it had the tried and true requirements for a horror title. But, what set it apart from the other games on the scene back then, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, was its setting and unique weapon mechanic.
Released on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, Fatal Frame is a 2001 survival horror game set in an abandoned Japanese haunted mansion. The story followed the adventure of Miku Hinasaki, a girl in search of her missing brother, Mafuyu, who was last seen at the Himuro Mansion. When Miku visits the mansion at night and starts experiencing strange supernatural occurrences, she realizes the building is infested with ghostly spirits who are out to kill her and anyone who enters the building. Miku must explore the mansion and find out what happened to her missing brother.
Fatal Frame is a video game not for the faint of heart. Trust me; if you’re scared of horror movies, this is not the game for you. And especially if ghost movies make you uncomfortable, the wandering spirits and poltergeist enemies alone will give you nightmares. Horror is infused EVERYWHERE in this video game…and I’m not just talking about cliché tropes like blood and jump scares. Fatal Frame utilizes design choices to create an eerie atmosphere. From only hearing the sound of Miku’s footsteps to using a flashlight for walking through locations, the designers made choices to make us feel like we’re alone in the haunted house. Whereas Resident Evil had a mansion filled with zombies meant to scare us, Fatal Frame’s Himuro Mansion is simply scary on its own.
As I mentioned above, Fatal Frame uses a unique weapon mechanic to fight off the ghostly enemies that roam the building. The Camera Obscura is an antique camera which can track and capture enemy ghosts. When you load up the camera, the screen will fill with runes to power-up the weapon when a ghost comes into view. The ONLY way to deal damage is whenever you take a photo – this can be especially tough whenever a ghost fades in and out of view. The more points you receive from defeating enemies with targeted photos, the more points you can use to upgrade your camera. This is an interesting element as it forced the player to use the same weapon instead of switching them out. I was never great with the Camera Obscura – it takes a bit of finesse to get the hang of it.
Though, while fun to use, it is also hard to find film within the Himuro Mansion. When I was a teen playing this game, I got more scared running around the building looking for ammo at crucial moments than fighting the ghosts. Panic and desperation took hold of me that day.
One of my favorite parts of Fatal Frame was finding the cassette tapes. In addition to the documents explaining more to the story of the house, the tapes shed led on the backstory of previous victims. The sounds were creepy, and witnessing their deaths in a haunted mansion that would change from color to black and white made the environment even more terrifying. Having their ghosts appear to chase after me is an adrenaline experience.
The downside of Fatal Frame is definitely the graphics. I can’t deny that even for a 2001 video game the graphics weren’t amazing. Looking back at it now, the ghosts are cheesy and their character designs don’t age well in the current next generation era. You have to really rely on loving the survival horror elements to push your urge to not laugh sometimes. The locations, on the other hand, make up for it – they aren’t perfect in design, but the fine details heighten the horror elements to make it a scary experience.
Fatal Frame is more than 15 years old, but it is still a terrifying survival horror experience. We don’t get many ghost games nowadays; in fact, I can’t remember the last one we’ve had in a really long time that wasn’t an indie release. The series is still active sporadically, but it hasn’t made a big splash. Fatal Frame has essentially become a cult video game series. Maybe we need the ghosts to return for another go? Just think about the smartphone capabilities…a guy can dream.