The Fatal Frame games are one of the few horror series that have a legitimate claim to the name. A lot of games would like to be horror, but really, they're action or adventure games dressed up in horror's clothes.
Real horror games, like Silent Hill, Eternal Darkness, the recent Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, or Fatal Frame III: The Tormented, know how to really provoke and enforce a sense of helplessness and creeping dread, of the idea that whatever comes at you next, you won't be able to handle it.
For the third outing in the Fatal Frame series, Tecmo's thrown together a sort of "greatest hits" of the series, taking the action into the dreamworld. Rei Kurosawa, a young photographer, has turned into a virtual shut-in following the death of her fiance Yuu.
Rei, still coping with survivor's guilt, goes to a haunted mansion to photograph the interior. While she's there, she thinks she sees Yuu inside, slowly walking away. After following him, Rei hallucinates that she's wound up in a hostile dreamworld populated by tattooed ghosts. Every night afterward, when Rei sleeps, she finds herself back in that same dreamworld with only the Camera Obscura--broken and powerless in the real world, but still whole and effective here--to defend herself. When she wakes up, she's cursed with a strange tattoo that spreads, bit by bit, across her back.
Rei'll eventually be joined in the dreamworld by Miku Hinasaki, the protagonist of the original Fatal Frame, and Kei Amakura, the uncle of Mio and Mayu from Fatal Frame II.
Fatal Frame III splits its time between the waking world of Rei's apartment, a safe zone where you can investigate the leads you turn up within Rei's dreams, and the Manor of Sleep, the ghost-infested manor house where all the action takes place.
In either environment, you'll find the characteristic mood of Fatal Frame games is firmly in place. The game has its share of monster-in-the-closet scares, but it's most effective at projecting an effective air of menace, like whatever's just around the corner is something you can't handle. Sometimes, it's actually right.
This is mostly because the ghosts are actually formidable. Unlike, say, Silent Hill's monster population, which are generally easy to beat as long as the player doesn't panic, even Fatal Frame's cannon-fodder ghosts can carve a chunk off of you if you're not careful.
Part of that's because your characters are weak; instead of badass military operatives, you're playing as a photographer, her assistant, and an unarmed anthropologist. They run slowly, they can't take much damage, they're usually crammed into close quarters with their enemies, the ghosts can walk through walls, and if they want to fight back, they have to use the Camera Obscura. In turn, to do the most damage and thus get the most mileage out of your precious film, you have to bide your time, dodge the ghosts, and get into position to snap a nearly perfect, point-blank shot: a Fatal Frame.
This gives the game's combat the same distinct and harrowing feel it's had in the past. If you just take pictures as fast as you can slam on the shutter, you'll waste all your film for little result. You've got to be a little artistic about it.
Fatal Frame III combines elements of the past two games into a cohesive and surprisingly coherent whole, taking parts of its dreamworld and its central mystery from the most evocative and memorable parts of its predecessors. Not only is the game's enviroment amazingly creepy, perfectly put together to maximize the scares at every turn), but it's got more than its share of shout-outs to fans of the series. If you haven't played the other Fatal Frame games, you'll miss more than one seriously cool and/or spine-tingling moment of recognition.
At the same time, though, if you have played the previous Fatal Frame games, you already know whether you're going to like this one. Fatal Frame III is easier than the first game, but markedly harder than the second, particularly when you're playing as Miku (who has less stamina and a smaller capture circle than Rei) and Kei (who doesn't have the Camera Obscura at all, which forces him to outrun or hide from ghosts). It's also a bit longer than the games that came before it.
However, it's also got a bad case of misplaced design. The Fatal Frame games have all had the same fundamental problem: rather than providing the player with an appropriate challenge given the restrictions of their engine, they put you into situations where those restrictions are what's providing the difficulty. The challenge of the game comes from how the characters' abilities work, rather than the enemies or the environment.
That environment's also very limited, compared to what's come before. Fatal Frame III has a certain cash-run air to it, like it was quickly slapped together for the sake of getting another game out within this console generation. The localization is rich in typos, and the Manor of Sleep has a ton of recycled content in it. If it wasn't for Fatal Frame III's atmosphere and dread, it'd have a bad case of same-old-same-old. As it is, you'll be too busy screaming and running to notice... but it's there.
I'd also point out that the past two Fatal Frames have come out initially on the Xbox, and both were ported to the Xbox with bonus content anywhere from six months to a year later. If you own both systems, hold off on Fatal Frame III for a while. Otherwise, you'll have to buy the game twice, and no one likes that.
Fatal Frame III is a great horror game for PS2 owners and anyone who likes a good ghost story, but fans may find it to be a little too mired in its series's formula. Like the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series, Fatal Frame's fourth installment will need a shot in the arm. In the meantime, though, Fatal Frame III is one of the best console horror games this year. It will frighten you.