Horror fans have had a packed year in 2005, with tiles such as Outbreak File #2, Ties That Bind, Haunting Ground, Obscure, and the revamped Resident Evil 4 all bringing their own brands of terror to an audience of hungry (and deranged) game players. This year's final fright fest, however, might indeed be the creepiest of the bunch as Fatal Frame III: The Tormented is one of the most surreal and twisted spook house adventures you can play.
Loosely related to the previous games in the series, Fatal Frame III tells the story of Rei Kurosawa, a 20-something freelance photographer who's still trying to get over the death of her fiancé two months earlier (tragically, he was killed in a car accident and she was the driver). Unfortunately, the grieving process isn't going so well considering that Rei ended up photographing her departed lover Yuu while on assignment in a haunted house. This shocking moment immediately sends Rei into a daydream state where she enters a familiar-looking burial ground populated by creepy ghost people. Eventually Rei wakes up from her waking sleep, but the seed of a plotline have already been planted. From that moment on, the creepy begins.
And it's a damn fine creepy at that. A lot more coherent than Crimson Butterfly's eerie (but disjointed) narrative, the tale of The Tormented has a lot of different layers to it that satisfy on a number of levels. Not only does the story have several ongoing mysteries (like Rei's manifestation of a bizarre and ever-growing tattoo and the identity of a frightening half-naked body-painted she-ghost), but it also has enough cheap scares to fuel you in-between. There are plenty of nods to players that conquered the first two Fatal Frames too, with fan favorite Miku Hinasaki making a triumphant (and very hot) return.
Speaking of Miku, she's one of three playable characters at your command (Though Rei is the main focus, she's only playable for a third of the entire game). But what makes these three personalities cool is that each one has their own unique abilities that will change things up from mission to mission. Yuu's friend Kei Amakura, for example, can push heavy objects that Rei and Miku can't, as well as jump across large gaps (he's also the uncle to Fatal Frame II's Mio and Mayu). MIku, on the other hand, is small in stature and can reach areas that the other characters can't. Miku's the most useful player in combat too (thanks to her spiritual powers), and is by far the character with the coolest outfits.
Regardless of which character you play as, though, Fatal Frame III offers a good number of missions with plenty of ghost hunting and puzzle solving. Unfortunately for those of us who have played through just about every survival horror game on the planet, the brain-teasers never really offer anything new and rarely move beyond your typical tile-sliders and key-based fetch quests. To mix things up a bit, Tecmo has incorporated an interesting "two-world" relationship element that makes it impossible to advance in one reality without first uncovering something in the other. If you're confused, don't be -- a good portion of the gameplay revolves around the idea of slipping back and forth between a nightmare dimension and reality. It reminds me a lot of how The Ring: Terror's Realm was handled several years back on the Dreamcast... only this game doesn't suck.
For the most part, Fatal Frame III's 13 chapters and 24 missions can be pretty captivating. Tecmo has done a good job moving the story along through what seems to be the perfect combination of subtle and blatant plot devices. If helps tie up several loose ends left over from the previous games too and even manages to create a few brand new questions while it's at it.
Where The Tormented begins to get smacked in the face, however, is with its mechanics. Pretty much a carbon copy of most other survival horror titles over the past ten years, character movement and controller response is pretty limited. Now since I've played through just about every known entry in the genre since Alone in the Dark, I'm more than used to these stiff reactions. But with games such as Resident Evil 4 and the more recent Obscure offering true forward-thinking control elements, it's hard to be as forgiving with Fatal Frame III's refusal to move on. These issues aren't just about camera angles either (which, by the way, are some of the best pre-set perspectives I've seen), but are also in relation to positioning yourself properly for context-sensitive actions. In areas with peep holes or readable dialogue, for instance, you'll have to constantly relocate yourself so that you're maneuvered just right to activate an action. This happens quite a bit and it can get pretty frustrating when you're forced to do mini-circles over and over again just to look at something.
On that same note, Fatal Frame III is a very slow-moving game -- making it difficult to avoid ghosts (especially when in first-person camera mode) and it won't be uncommon for you to get nailed by things just slightly off-screen because you couldn't tell they were there. This problem is improved early on when you get the "Escape" attachment for your camera, but the "counter move" given to you from it really only works on what you can see. Trust me, losing track of ghosts will be a frequent issue.
That said, Fatal Frame's main action mechanic is still one of the most creative around. Using a special camera to "exorcize" evil spirits is pretty badass and the fact that you can upgrade your camera to become more efficient adds a nice customization element to the game. Having an item to upgrade also gives you an incentive to snap as many apparition pictures as possible too, otherwise you'll never have enough points to truly power up. It's also worth mentioning that Fatal Frame III seems to require the quickest reflexes of all the games in the series -- as you'll need to be fast (really fast) should you want to grab shots of every ghost.
Speaking of ghosts, the phantoms and their environments are great. Supporting progressive scan television displays (but strangely, not widescreen), the graphics are easily the best in the franchise so far. Cloth physics and lighting effects are well above expectations and the character models and facial expressions are eerily realistic. Granted, there is the occasional pop-up here and there and the camera angle can cause perspective problems about once a mission, but for the most part the look and ambiance here is great. That's also true of the excellent sound effects and supporting music, which is both ominous and subtle enough to work your emotions. Expect to hear plenty of strong vocal work too (if not a bit echoed).
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