Fatal Frame, despite a wacky premise--young Japanese girl ghosthunting with an ancient camera--came out of nowhere, and turned out to be one of the single best horror games of all time.
It was a survival horror game, both like and unlike any other, which took place through the viewfinder of a camera. As Miku Hinasaki, that camera was the only way to defend yourself as you unlocked the mysteries of an ancient and abandoned Shinto temple, where your brother had gone missing.
The temple was the site of generation after generation of murder and terror, and had acquired a population of angry, violent ghosts. Somehow, the camera could photograph them, and, in so doing, robbed them of some of their power. The more photographs Miku took, the weaker a ghost got, until it vanished forever.
The camera could also take pictures of things that weren't there, or provide hints to a new puzzle. The combination of the visual and gameplay styles in the game, both the high weirdness of photography as a weapon and the low weirdness of poking around in the foreign locale of a Shinto temple, turned Fatal Frame into far more than the sum of its parts. You could make a few points, as asides, about its derivative and repetitive puzzle solutions, but that was insignificant in the face of some truly brilliant storytelling.
These points are worth restating, because most of what applied to Fatal Frame, also applies to its prequel, Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly.
Set thirty years before the original game, Fatal Frame 2 is the story of the last people to hold the Camera Obscura. In 1950s Japan, Mio and Mayu Amakura are visiting the woods where they used to play, before they're torn down. Suddenly, Mayu, who's recuperating from a recently injured leg, takes off deeper into the woods.
When Mio follows her, she steps straight into nighttime in the same woods, but it doesn't seem like the same time, or even the same place. An old foot path leads her to Mayu, who's surrounded by a glittering cloud of crimson butterflies. Below them, out of nowhere, an abandoned village sprawls out across the countryside like an old wound.
All God's Village, which disappeared decades ago, was the site of a ritual so dark that it couldn't be mentioned by name, and whose practitioners ritually sewed their eyes shut. The dusty books and scrolls Mio finds lying around hint at the fact that the last time this Forbidden Ritual was performed, something went seriously, dangerously wrong. More importantly, and ominously, the ritual also depended upon the involvement of twin priestesses, who bore a startling resemblance to Mio and Mayu in more ways than one.
As Mio and Mayu explore the village, now a slowly collapsing wreck, Mayu begins to act strangely, as though she's seeing things that Mio isn't. She slowly begins to get worse, knowing things she shouldn't and muttering softly to herself, until they find an old camera, dropped in a dusty bedroom by the last unfortunate people to find the village. Shortly thereafter, as the angry and vengeful ghosts of All God's begin to wake up, Mayu disappears. Mio sees her sometimes, in the distance or as though in a dream, reenacting the events that led to All God's Village's disappearance all those years ago.
To rescue her sister and save both their lives, Mio must track Mayu down and solve the mysteries of the village, before it's too late. Armed with the Camera Obscura, and occasionally assisted by the only other living person in the village, a young albino boy who calls Mio "Yae," Mio heads deeper into All God's Village.
Fatal Frame 2's greatest strengths are in this storyline, and in its presentation. This is a game that depends largely upon making you dread the next moment, to the point where when something does jump out at you, it's almost a relief. Ghosts appearing out of thin air, a collection of hideously ominous files, a cast of voice actors who're very good at sounding distant and ethereal, and an ambient, scratchy soundtrack all combine into a decidedly scary package.
All God's Village is a great setting for a ghost story, realized through murky but still excellent pre-rendered backgrounds. It often feels like it's slightly off-kilter, as though it's a place where ordinary rules simply do not apply. You do not belong in it.
Further, it's interesting to explore entirely because it's not American in the slightest; the architecture and furniture are straight out of old Japan. The setting is doubly mysterious for ignorant white boys like me, both foreign and haunted at the same time.
Mayu Amakura is worth talking about further, as she's really an interesting creation; she serves Fatal Frame 2 as plot motivation, plot gimmick, atmosphere, and exposition all at the same time. When she's around, Mayu is often following you, whispering soft phrases that intimate more than they reveal. Her head whips around suddenly, and when you look where she's looking, there's nothing there.
When she's not around, your job is usually to find her, even though the game hints that wherever she is, she's found her way into a situation far worse than the one you're in now. Some of the most effective scares in the game are found in the grainy, black-and-white flashback sequences where you play as Mayu, just a bit further along the same path as Mio, running right towards something very, very bad.
Further, I really like the way the game's story is told. There are almost no other characters in the game, and of those that exist, none of them are really inclined to give you straight answers. Nothing's spoon-fed to you; everything you learn, you'll learn through documentation and the occasional flashback. Mio carries a big bag with her, stuffed with files, photos, maps, and film reels, so you can go back and dig through the information at any given time. There's a real pulp-detective vibe to Fatal Frame 2 sometimes, as you follow dead people's paper trail through the village that wound up killing them.
Unfortunately, the presentation's good, but the game it's wrapped around is a little tame.
To fight, you take photographs of an enemy ghost with the Camera Obscura. In the first game, you could attack a ghost with as many shots as you could take, as fast as you could click the shutter; now, you can only do damage with well-timed and well-framed photographs. When you get a ghost in your sights, the camera begins to power up, and a ring of symbols slowly lights up around the ghost. When it's full, or when you get an opportunity, take a picture, and the ghost will take damage. A particularly well-aimed shot, or a photo taken at the right time, will get you a Zero Shot or a Fatal Frame, which do double or quadruple damage; you can further add to this with special lenses, such as Blast or Stun, which can inflict additional damage or status ailments--a stun effect, knockback, being easier to see--on an enemy ghost.
Generally, combat consists of you jockeying madly for position, trying to stay away from a ghost while simultaneously staying close enough to get a decent photograph of it. This is further complicated by both Mio's slow foot speed, the ghosts' ability to pass right through obstacles, and the fact that they usually only show up in really small areas. (One of the toughest fights in the game takes place when Mio's trapped in something about the size of a walk-in closet with two powerful spirits.) It's okay, though, as quite a few ghosts are now territorial, and will lay off you if you leave the room or duck into a house.
Taking photographs of ghosts, whether they're attacking you or just standing there, will earn points, which can be spent in conjunction with Spirit Orbs to improve the camera's basic or special attacks. You earn a lot more points in Fatal Frame 2 than in the original; a fight with a tougher ghost can net you as many as five thousand points. The ghost population does get meaner earlier in Fatal Frame 2, since the environments are more restrictive and the spirits are far more mobile, but by the time you're running into the really powerful ghosts, you'll have a camera that can handle them. (This, compared to the original, where you had to play through it two or three times to afford most of the camera upgrades.)
You can also pick up more parts for the Camera Obscura, which add features to it. One of them plays a tone when you have the opportunity for a Fatal Frame; another lets you hit the shutter button right before you're attacked, so you can evade damage at the cost of a film exposure. For new players, these'll be more than welcome, but for me, it feels a lot like Tecmo's holding my hand.
Film economy also isn't as much of an issue. The original Fatal Frame, especially on PS2, is justifably notorious for being among the most difficult survival horror games out there. Miku had very little film to play with, and that supply had to last her through both combat and most of the puzzles. Photos were the key to finding secret doors, unlocking new passages, and tracking down quest items, so you pretty much had to take a picture of everything. There was a fair amount of film lying around the mansion in the first few chapters, but as you progressed, that supply dried up, and Fatal Frame didn't have any sort of weak, fallback infinite weapon (a la Resident Evil's combat knife). Combined with Miku's anemic footspeed and ghosts' willingness to chase you straight through walls and across half the mansion, Fatal Frame wound up being scary both for its atmosphere, and because you were always frantically looking for more ammo.
Fatal Frame 2, by comparison, feels like a Very Easy mode for the original. Mio, unlike Miku, is equipped with an infinite roll of weak film, suitable for little more than just taking photos. More importantly, a smart player will always use that film to take plot-dependent or bonus photographs, instead of having to burn "ammunition" for the sake of puzzles or the storyline. You also find a lot of health items, particularly early on.
The puzzles, likewise, aren't as interesting. Fatal Frame's often degenerated into "find this weird thing and take a picture of it," which was occasionally tricky. Fatal Frame 2 takes a step down from that; often, the solution to a new dilemma involves nothing more difficult than backtracking a couple of rooms, where a ghost will suddenly attack you. Defeat that ghost, and, lo and behold, the key or quest item you need is right there, ready for the taking. There are a couple of interesting puzzles scattered here and there, but they're sadly infrequent.
This isn't something that is unique to Fatal Frame 2, by any measure of the imagination, but it's still disappointing. Survival horror games are all beginning to feel the same, with their key hunts and misplaced puzzles. If the genre intends to stay at all fresh, or competitive, it'd do well to take a hint or two from PC adventure games like The Longest Journey, and really get creative with their obstacles and solutions.
My complaints are probably unique to me, however, as a survival-horror expert and adventure-game fanatic. I still have to give Fatal Frame 2 a lot of credit; it may be a lot easier than the original, but in almost every other way--graphics, sound, atmosphere, storytelling, sheer style--it's a drastic improvement. With better puzzles and more challenging combat, Fatal Frame 2 could've been one of the few games I'd be willing to call an "instant classic," but as it stands now, it is simply very good.