It wasn't long ago when we were saving the world as a photojournalist in Beyond Good & Evil. I wasn't a massive fan of the camera mechanics, thinking it slowed down and interrupted the gameplay a little, though I suppose a lot of that was optional, to some extent.
Here, though, our camera really is our weapon of choice. An otherworldly contraption capable of snapping pictures of things people can't even see. A device that can trap the souls and spirits of all the inhabitants of the afterlife. This is Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly.
Cameras at the ready...
Mio and Mayu - two names I'll definitely not get mixed up at any point... - are twins determined to stay together forever. Mio is having flashbacks of their previous trips through the forest, where Mayu slipped off a cliff and broke her leg, which gives her a limp to this day.
While Mio is eager to talk, Mayu isn't keen to listen, getting distracted by a strange crimson butterfly and heading off into the forest, oblivious to her sister.
Something weird is going on, as we catch glimpses of a ghostly woman in a kimono, and watch ourselves getting strangled. What is this place? Our first piece of gameplay is to walk along a forest path, in the dead of night, looking for Mayu.
The controls have options for movement relative to the fixed camera perspective, or to your character in 3D space, so you can choose whichever one suits your play style. A run button helps turn the almost painfully slow walk into a slow jog, and invisible walls clearly funnel you into the next cutscene - of which there are many.
I'm going to go with 'Yes', Mio or Mayu, whichever one of you said that. In all cases of spooky horror video games, when has the mysterious village not been the spooky village of legend?
You might have to squint to see what's going on in most of these shots. The darkness is ridiculously dark, but a blue point of light guides us to something of note on the ground.
Rifling through this abandoned handbag, we learn of some people who went missing a year ago. If this place wasn't mysterious enough already, a lost bag of old newspaper clippings sure adds to the spooky feeling. Has nobody wandered into this forest in that long?
Heading down to the village, we cutscene our way into the nearest door wondering where everyone is. Grabbing each other for comfort in our new surroundings leads to a premonition or a flashback of some sort.
We should never have wandered into this forest. Neither of the twins knows what's going on, but we're compelled to investigate.
Little by little, we uncover more information about this village, primarily through this woman's notebook, torn and scattered throughout the house. It sets the scene of eternal night and a massacre and may be linked to the ghost we see walking the corridors.
With no other leads to follow, I decided to try and catch up with a ghost.
|There's a door here?|
In one room we find a flashlight and an old camera, the fabled Camera Obscura. Ignore the fact that that's a type of camera that requires an entire room to create a picture, the principal is more or less the same in this little box. It's a spooky name, that's all that matters. With this camera, we can take photos of ghosts, which is the only method we have of dealing with them.
A meter at the top shows us whether we're pointing in the right direction in a kind of hot/cold glow, and circles show us where faces are, and whether we're close enough for a good shot. We've got first-person controls here, again customisable if you want to swap the movement and look sticks, but like walking, moving your camera is really slow.
Snapping a photo with R1 may feel authentic, as does taking you out of the world and focusing your view through the viewfinder, but if this game is going to chuck fast-moving ghosts my way, I don't know how long I'll be surviving.
The first area does a great job of locking you in and pointing you in the right direction, but there are times when the screen is just too dark, and the textures so unfamiliar to me that things get missed unless they have a 'hey, look at me' glow, or I run around pressing X to interact with everything that responds.
This, I'm told, is a cupboard. I don't see it. The textures may be detailed and aged, with wood and paper decaying into all the shades of brown you can think of, but if you don't know what they are, you might end up walking right past something of significance.
At the same time, though, Fatal Frame II looks like old, aged photos. The sepia tones of old film work well with the limited light of the ever-dark village, and the black and white flashbacks are full of grain and light scratches. This isn't a setting for a digital camera, with all their resolution and colour depth.
Further Fun Times
Having the camera now allowed me to see more spooky goings-on, where clues on where to go next would be presented only if you found and took a photo of some weird ghost faces. Someone in here is getting strangled. That's not what we want to see.
After capturing the briefest of glimpses of another ghost, I start to wonder who is who and what they're doing. This ghost chap, I'm guessing, is our missing person from the newspaper clippings, and it seems like the female ghost we're following is his partner, after having come to find him. But they're both dead, obviously, and it looks like one of them might have killed the other.
What lead missing people to go insane?
We've no time to think about that right now though, as our ghost friend introduces herself to us rather directly, as part of a mini-boss, I suppose. Armed with our slow-moving camera, we need to hunt her down and hit her with some stunningly composed photography.
If you manage to time your snaps with the action, you'll be able to stun the ghost for longer, or with more power or something, whittling down its health and/or scoring points in the process - I'm not actually too sure what kills a ghost, but well-timed photos are better, as is the use of better film stock.
You can switch out film type and maybe lenses, if I remember correctly, allowing you to manage the underworld in a variety of situations - providing you don't stumble into their clutches, I suppose.
After our photoshoot, we catch another flashback of someone getting strangled, before Mayu runs off after another crimson butterfly, and completely disappears. How did we even end up collapsed on the floor? What's going on with all these ghosts? Who or what is getting the attention of Mayu so easily?
That is a question for another time, as I felt the end of the chapter was an excellent time to call it for Fatal Frame II.
I've never really been a fan of horror, both inside and outside of video gaming, but I've come across and know about a few game series' over time. The only thing I knew about Fatal Frame II before going into this run was that it was a horror title set around a camera. I've known that and only that for a decade or so now, but have never had the interest to see what it was about in detail.
After playing it, however, it may just get some further playtime. It might be full of fixed camera angles and awkward fumbling in the dark, but it's not too shabby a game. It's heavy on the cutscenes, so far, but it does portray extra plot info through ghosts wandering around the place and discarded notes on the floor, to give you more detail as to what's going on.
If you can make heads or tails of it, at least. I'm not too sure what's going on, but I know my next step is to find Mayu and find out, snapping photos of ghosts along the way. I've picked up several health items, but haven't needed to use them. I've actually got no idea what the inventory system is like, or how much you can change on your camera, but I do now have a radio to detect ghosts...
Fatal Frame II looks like one of those titles that really wants to tell you a story, and the gameplay is going to be pushed this way and that so that you're told that story. Hopefully, that story will be interesting enough to keep me engaged for a little while. Like I say, I'm usually not interested in these kinds of games, so it must be doing something right to get this reaction from me.
I'd have to say to try it out. From what I've read, you should avoid the Wii release, leaving you with the PlayStation 2 original, which I emulated, or the Xbox Director's Cut. Whatever you pick, happy snapping.
The first Fatal Frame was supposedly too scary for players to finish, so they made Fatal Frame II with that in mind... by focusing on the horror instead of the action.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, developed by Tecmo, first released in 2003.
Version played: PlayStation 2, 2003, via emulation.