The Survival Horror genre’s had a rough road on next-gen platforms; rather than forge a steady path as its own unique genre, for the most part, horror games have instead unfortunately evolved to suit the tastes of more action-oriented gamers, with the Resident Evil and Silent Hill both favouring gun-toting Quicktime Event action over cerebral scares and atmosphere in their respective 5th installments.
For a while it looked like the Wii might, despite its marketing image as a ‘family’ console, be the last haven for true old-school Survival Horror gaming, with Wii remakes of the RE games, along with new, original iterations of Capcom’s favourite flesh-chompy franchise and a new Fatal Frame all on the way. Things looked pretty rosy, until publishers began to question the market for more adult games on a “kid’s console” – promising old-school horror prospects like Winter were scrapped entirely, existing franchises continued to slip into action-centric territory with Resident Evil sticking with an easy-to-sell Wii lightgun franchise – a sub-genre that Dead Space: Extraction then adopted – while the latest in the cult favourite Fatal Frame (or Project Zero outside the US) series was denied a release outside Japan. It’s a sales Catch-22: Publishers won’t take chances on games with no market, but a proven market won’t be established unless more publishers take chances. And, unfortunately, when the few that do stretch out on a limb are doing so with cheap, shoddy and tepid games like the recent Cursed Mountain, and Ju-On: The Grudge, it only serves to sully the waters.
Thankfully however, while the Silent Hill reboot managed to exceed everyone’s expectations and turned out to be an incredible entry into the genre, a dedicated band of Fatal Frame fans and programmers have been hard at work to do what Nintendo wouldn’t, constructing a patch that allows Wii owners worldwide to import the game and play it with full English subtitles and menus, with nothing more than the patch and an SD card – no modding or homebrew necessary.
For the uninitiated, Fatal Frame is a survival horror series loosely taking its inspiration from Japanese folklore, with a fusion of J-Horror aesthetics. Players take the role of a young Japanese girl, wandering a run-down haunted mansion with nothing more than a special camera, dubbed the ‘Camera Obscura’, which has the handy ability of being able to capture and, in the process, kill any pesky ghosts. Plot-wise, Fatal Frame IV shares the familiar series tropes – a ghost-riddled Japanese mansion, a mysterious history surrounding an ancient and sinister ritual and the ghost-blasting Camera Obscura – but for all intents and purposes is an indirect sequel, so newcomers will have no real trouble jumping right in. This time around, the story centres on Rougetsu Island – 10 years ago, a group of young girls were kidnapped there, and while they were soon recovered unharmed, all 5 girls were unable to recall anything that happened. When two of the now grown-up girls die mysteriously in the same fashion, the three remaining survivors venture back to the island to recover their forgotten memories and unravel the creepy history of the island. Like The Bourne Identity, with Japanese girls and retro cameras instead of Matt Damon and limb-snapping martial arts.
The first and only real change to the franchise formula, as series fans will notice immediately, comes in the form of the controls. Movement has now been tweaked to fit the Wii remote, with the nunchuck stick guiding your character to walk in whichever direction you see fit, while the added flashlight is mapped to Wii remote, and that’s where a big point of contention for many lies; players aren’t given full reign over the flashlight, unfortunately, and though looking up and down is fine, attempting to shine light to either side is all but impossible, with the already limited range of movement dampened by awkward tilting controls. It’s a shame how unwieldy the flashlight controls are, especially in light (no pun intended) of how flawlessly Shattered Memories incorporates them. Hell, even Night at the Museum 2 had more natural and seamless Wii flashlight controls. That being said though, it’s more of an unfortunate missed opportunity than anything that hinders the game. Once you’ve taken a few minutes to get used to combining the up-down of the flashlight with the side-to-side turning of the nunchuck stick, the controls become second nature, and the ghost lock-on and speed-turn functions of the ‘Z’ button makes the combat even more fluid, and the first-person ghost capturing is as enjoyable as always.
Other fun added Wii gimmickry includes hearing the death rattle shriek of vanquished ghosts through the remote speaker, and in a trick later borrowed by Shattered Memories, spooky phone calls are heard through the speaker, too. Rather than simply push ‘A’ to find the item collected and in your inventory, there’s now an ‘item pick-up mode’ of sorts – players hold the ‘A’ button near notable hot-spots as the character slowly reaches their arm out to collect mystery objects from darkened corners (more panicky players can release ‘A’ anytime to retract their arm, since shoving your hand under dark and dingy beds is always a creepy prospect). It’s an addition that leans more towards cheap jump scare territory, while Fatal Frame has always been at its best with more subtle creep-outs, but it’s undeniably effective, with every item pick-up being a tense, often jolting experience. Where it outstays its welcome, however, is when it happens during the opening of doors. The pace of the game and characters never feels like a problem generally (Kirishima excluded, but we’ll get to that later) – the Fatal Frame series has never been about running around at a pace that would make Wally West vomit, and it’s all the tenser for it. But when faced with low health and a powerful enemy, having a character enter into slow-and-cautious door-opening mode and having to wait a lifetime to pass through for no real reason isn’t tense, it’s infuriating, especially since since said ghost will always be faster than your door-opening. Thankfully it’s something that only happens once or twice, but it’s certainly frustrating.
It’s the inclusion of detective Kirishima that feels like the most unwelcome addition. While the third entry in the series offered up a chapter structure, each chapter alternating between a selection of playable characters, it felt natural from a gameplay perspective as much as a narrative one; in The Tormented, each different character embodied their own unique skills and weaknesses – small girl Miku can crawl through small passages, while guy character Kei can move heavy obstructions – yet in Mask of the Lunar eclipse, all characters are essentially identical. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but Kirishima annoyingly inherits the female characters’ plodding pace. Only being able to move at a slow jogger’s pace is forgiveable and understandable when playing as a small frightened girl in heels, but when playing as a fearless detective whose spindly spider legs put Waluigi to shame, it becomes a tad more irritating.
Also particularly confusing is Kirishima’s arsenal – he’s equipped with a spirit stone flashlight which kills attacking spooks via enchanted blasts of light. It’s no dafter than the Camera Obscura, until you realise that Kirishima’s flashlight takes photos, too, for some nonsensical reason. He simply feels like a re-skinned version of the other characters, and while his inclusion adds a slightly different narrative perspective, it doesn’t feel like an especially necessary one, and nothing that couldn’t have been handled in short cut scenes or found notes, keeping our focus with main character Ruka.
The chapter structure also brings with it the slight sense of repetition; you’ll play through a section, exploring a certain path as one character, only to retread the same path in the next chapter to reach a now unlocked door, making the multi-character structure seem even more burdensome and unnecessary. It’s a minor quibble though, and perhaps the major improvement from its predecessor is the eradication of needless back-tracking; much of The Tormented’s playtime was spent traversing a gigantic map with no real idea of where you needed to get to, but the Wii incarnation thankfully does away with such annoyances – entering a new area will trigger a ghost appearance, who’ll wander through a door or corridor, handily pointing the way for you. It’s a welcome addition, and while it skews towards hand-holding, it’s entirely appreciated since it avoids aimless wandering and keeps the focus on the plot, puzzles and scares.
And it’s in the core gameplay that Mask of the Lunar Eclipse shines. If this review has seemed nit-picky so far, it’s because minor flaws are all that blemish an otherwise engrossing and wonderfully creepy game. It’s not just the exploration that’s been improved on since The Tormented – the plot itself is much more engaging than its predecessor, leaving you wanting to track down every single memo and cassette tape simply to discover every eerie facet of the enthralling story, which manages to be riveting, unsettling and oddly poignant in equal measure, while the game saddles you with infinitely less backtracking and wandering to sidetrack your enjoyment of it. And with an atmosphere oozing with unsettling tension, creepy ghost encounters around every corner and a combat system that’s satisfying, fun, and still the most unique in the genre, Fatal Frame IV is a superb addition to the series, flaws and all.
One of the major complaints levelled against Fatal Frame 4 will undoubtedly be the lack of change and innovation between the last-gen entry in the series and now, and while that’s essentially true – Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, for the most part, looks, plays and feels like Fatal Frame III – isn’t that a good thing? In a day and age where the survival horror genre is being woefully dumbed down, streamlined and repurposed into QTE-filled, gun-happy action games, it’s a delight to have a genuine old-school genre game to enjoy. Personally, I’ll take more of the same if that “same” is in painfully rare supply lately and just as effective as always. The old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is an overused one, but fitting here; the Fatal Frame series has never felt like it needed any new bells and whistles, just a new home and a willing audience. It’s a sentiment reinforced entirely when considering that it’s the awkwardly integrated next-gen Wii controls that pose the biggest problem with Fatal Frame IV, while the core story and gameplay of the series is just as engrossing, tense and fright-filled as it ever was.
The translation patch itself is an entirely commendable achievement, not just as an ‘Average Joes (and Josephines) triumph over capitalist corporation!’ gamer empowerment story, but as a superbly implemented localisation patch. The translation is incredibly well-done, and though there’s a typo or two to be found along the way, the sheer quality of the localisation is astounding, especially when considering the complicated nature of the Japanese language itself; you’d be forgiven for expecting a cheap, rush-job ‘Engrish’ translation. But you’d be wrong. It’s a labour of love that never feels anything less than professional or staggeringly impressive, and makes the enjoyment of the game that much sweeter. Here’s hoping the stellar work of the guys and gals at Beyond The Cameras Lens inspires similar fan translations of other mistreated games.
Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is available to buy now for Nintendo Wii in Japan.
The patch itself, and instructions how to use it, can be found here, and will require a blank SD card (and the game itself, of course).