Fatal Frame has always been a game of two conflicting halves: the cold-sweat creep through the murk juxtaposed against brisk head-to-heads with J-horror phantoms. When these anti-Caspers materialise, out comes the Camera Obscura, entombing the spooks on celluloid. But while the teeth clench as ghost proximity is risked for stronger snaps, the sudden fizzing to life of an exhaustive points breakdown – a mess of onscreen commentary – is guaranteed to instantly deflate the situation.
Chained combos, attack strength and health bars are the arcade paraphernalia of Tecmo’s sillier, inflated-bosom ways, entirely at odds with the masterful dread-weaving of exploration. The same has been said of previous Frames, but here the flaw is magnified by the sheer quality of the softly-softly moments.
We’ve trodden these creaky paths before, but with a Resident Evil 4-styled shift from fixed camera to over-the-shoulder character trailing, the ornate mansions and hospital corridors are near unrecognisable. Designing levels to be viewed at the player’s discretion encourages subtle spooking, Tecmo relying on incidental curtain flutters and looming water stains where nasties squirreled away via awkward camera placement once sufficed. An overabundance of porcelain masks and mannequins helps too.
With Tecmo proving more efficient ghost house architects than ever – nicely eschewing Resi’s musty beiges for striking moonlight – eyes turn to co-producer Suda 51 for the tweaks that shape your time in the house. While his exact input is unknown, there are plenty of echoes of No More Heroes to fill in the gaps. Ghostly phone calls delivered through the crackly Remote speaker; the guillotine shutter of the Camera Obscura itself; a torch aimed, not by pointing, but tilting – all recycled from that earlier game.
The last of these, the tilting torch, has been written off by some as a misstep: surely pointer control would have been ideal? The aim, so to speak, is not precision but hindrance. What is there to fear in a darkness easily cleft with FPS controls? The sticky drag of the torch – and the identically controlled vertical axis of the camera – is a masterstroke of timing, just enough to have a ghost creep up undetected, but not so stodgy as to seem deliberately stubborn. If any proof is needed that awkward is often better, we look to the later introduction of a ghost-slaying torch that swiftly dispatches spooks on the spot, and any hint of suspense along with them.
Suda’s impish handiwork is felt too in a tremendous pressure-sensitive action command. Holding the A button sees your moves enacted; release it and your hand retracts. Normally automatically performed, we’ve forgotten the vulnerability of venturing a hand into places unknown. Pulling back the curtain, feeling under the bed, tapping a stranger on the shoulder; zombies, ghosts and Silent Hill’s meatsacks are revealed as the cheap scare tactics they really are.
Of course, that these actions often reward you with a new trinket to empower your ghost-melting Kodak reminds you of Fatal Frame’s ‘Say cheese!’ endgame. However, for the sake of unprecedented horror interaction, it’s worth smiling for the camera.