I’ve often opined that horror video games are more effective than horror movies. With movies, you’re just a passive observer. You’re in no danger, you just get to judge the stupidity of the characters who are. Video games don’t put you in danger either, of course, but the stupidity of those who are is generally on you.
Except when it’s on the controller. And that’s why I spent hours shouting at my TV while playing Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse.
Like the Fatal Frame games before it (and after it, technically), Mask of the Lunar Eclipse—remastered from its 2008 Japan-only Wii release—centers around the exploration of exceptionally creepy environments. In this case, they include a sanatorium, an infirmary, a lighthouse, and others on Rogetsu Isle. All have been abandoned for quite some time, slowly decaying on an island to which no one goes (but which still has electricity).
So, why are you there? Ten years ago, five young girls disappeared after participating in a traditional festival. Although they were eventually found, they had no memory of what happened, save for a lingering melody. The island’s residents themselves would soon thereafter meet a more grisly fate. Now, two of the girls have been found dead. Two others then turn up missing after returning to the island, so the last heads off in pursuit. Why these people can’t work together—during the daytime—I’ll never know. Shout at the TV.
You’ll play as multiple characters throughout the game, including three of these young women and the investigator who initially found the missing girls. All of them will be equipped with a device with which they’ll protect themselves from the numerous ghosts that inhabit the island. If you played Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, you’ll recognize the Camera Obscura. It’s used to draw out ghostly clues from various objects, photograph specters in the distance, and—most importantly—defeat ghosts who would rather you stop meddling in their affairs.
The X button is used to pull up the camera when necessary, and ZR takes a photo. Regardless of why you’re using it, you need to be quick. Specters remain in place for only a moment, so you need to capture a fast photo to acquire the reward points. These points become very important, as they’re used to buy health items, camera enhancements, and the often misguided costume changes.
In combat, the camera is used to exorcise the souls of the ghosts, more or less. As they hover around you, waiting for a moment to attack, you use the camera to get a tight shot of their pasty faces. The better the picture, the more damage you do. Film and lens upgrades help, but as with the weapons in any game, the quality ammo is limited to what you’re able to find scattered about. As my dad never told me when I got my first disc camera, “Don’t waste the good film on shots that aren’t a matter of life and death.”
The close-quarters battles with the ghosts are extremely tense, especially when you’re taking on more than one at a time. They’re also exceptionally frustrating, mainly due to the clunky control system. Although an indicator attempts to tell you where the ghosts are, I never found it to be accurate. Ghosts can hide behind walls, of course, allowing them to remain undetectable until they’re immediately next to you and impossible to shoot. Turning is too slow, and the spin move is too fast. You can hit B to dodge attacks (master this move, trust me), but your character will lower the camera to do so, and it takes a moment before you can raise it again. Shout at the TV.
In some story threads you’re actually using a flashlight equipped to fight ghosts and take their picture. I’d question the technology, but I guess my iPhone does the same thing. And honestly, I found I was better at using the flashlight than the camera despite having to swap lenses when going into battle. Duly noted should I ever take up urban exploration.
Regardless, I found the ghost combat to be much more difficult in Mask of the Lunar Eclipse than in Maiden of Black Water. What’s the point of giving players the ability to lock onto a target if the ghost can dodge outside the lock at the crucial Fatal Frame moment (the split second before they attack when your photograph does the most damage). Why can’t the characters move like real people? I resorted to playing in easy mode so I could push through the game in time for this review, and I still often got my butt kicked. At the least, the developers could’ve let us save our game right before the bigger fights instead of trudging down hallways to the last available save point. Shout at the TV. Even things like aiming the flashlight and standing in the right spot to pick something up are harder than they should be.
It’s too bad that the core gameplay mechanic is so frustrating because almost every other aspect is fantastic. The remastered visuals are effectively creepy. The jump scares do their job. The story keeps you guessing while building sympathy for its protagonists. It’s completely devoid of humor, sure, but I like that approach. These people are haunted. Their psyches are a mess. I wouldn’t be cracking one-liners either while exploring abandoned hospitals alone in the dead of night. I’d say I wouldn’t even be there to begin with, but that’s hard to determine when I’ve lived a life free of festivals that robbed me of my memories and killed off my fellow attendees.
Or have I? I attended many Grape Jamborees in my youth, but why can I not remember them?
If it’s all too heavy for you, there are ways to lighten up the game. Dressing the characters in attire wholly unconducive to ghost hunting works, and you have various options there depending upon when and at what level you purchase the game. There’s also the Snap mode where you can stage shots with the various ghosts and locations you’ve found along the way. Again, the interface is clunkier than it needs to be, but it also allows for some pretty impressive results if you take the time with it.
Now, I’ve been critical of Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse so far, but I did enjoy playing it, and I’m thrilled I finally got to do so. Exploring the haunted halls and rooms, seeking ghosts and hidden Hozuki dolls to photograph, and occasionally defeating a wraith in a manner that made me look like I knew what I was doing are all tremendously fun. And although there’s plenty of backtracking through the various locations, the individual levels are never so long that you grow bored with any of them. Unlocking new story elements and camera features is engaging enough to compel players forward, and some may even want to play through again in an attempt to reach 100% completion. I won’t, but I’m generally not that guy anyway.
Survival horror fans should give Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse a go. This remaster isn’t as good as Maiden of Black Water’s upgrade from the Wii U version, but it does the job. Hopefully it does it well enough to get us a new Fatal Frame game…one that doesn’t suffer from outdated controls. Video games may not put me in danger, but I’d prefer they also not put my children in danger from flying Pro Controllers.
Shout at dad.