Pre-order 'FATAL FRAME 2: Crimson Butterfly': Xbox
if we were planning
to harm you, do you think
we'd be lurking here
beside the path
in the very dark-
est part of
the forest? – Kenneth Patchen, "But Even So"
In the occasionally seriously misnamed subgenre of survival horror, there are only two series that actually live up to the name.
One's Silent Hill, which is undeniably scary, but at the same time, deliberately maintains a faint air of unreality. Early on in every Silent Hill game, there is a moment that says, clearly: this is not your reality. This is not Earth. Something Else holds sway here.
The other is Fatal Frame, which is a ghost story. As such, it works on an entirely different set of emotions, on a more personal plane of reaction. You are not likely, within your lifetime, to be trapped in an alternate dimension with a freak legion of mutants; hell, it's only happened to me once. Everyone, on the other hand, has been in an old house at midnight, where the shadows on the wall are hands out to get you. Everyone's had to tell themselves, at one point or another, that there's no such thing as ghosts.
That's part of what made Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly one of the scariest games on the PS2, and now, one of the scariest games on the Xbox. (Then again, its only real competition on the Xbox is its own predecessor.) Mio Amakura isn't a square-jawed adult waving a chainsaw; she's a frail-looking Japanese teenager, chasing her sister Mayu through a village scarred by untold atrocities, where it's been half past midnight for fifty years or more.
The ghosts in the village come in all shapes and sizes, from the groaning victim of a hanging to the shades of the village's past victims, and they all want you dead. Mio's only weapon is the Camera Obscura, which can photograph things which are invisible to the naked eye, and in so doing, deplete some of a ghost's spiritual energy. Take enough photographs of a ghost, and you'll "kill" it, but there's only so much film to go around.
If somebody tells you about that part – "You're a teenage girl fighting ghosts with a camera" – it sounds kind of lame. It isn't. There's seeing a ghost, and then there's staring down the viewfinder at a ghost and waiting for the perfect moment to take your shot, until it looks like the damn thing's about to leap down the camera and straight into your eyes.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of the Lost Village, where strange rituals were once performed, and are still being performed somewhere in the dark. Every house holds secrets and mysteries, from recent disappearances to old murders, and to escape the village, Mio has to solve them all.
Into the bargain, Mayu is acting strangely. Fatal Frame II's designers have constructed a surreal and frightening environment, but Mayu herself might be the scariest thing in the game. When she's with you, Mayu always gives the impression that she sees something you don't, staring into empty corners and murmuring enigmatically. She'll disappear from time to time, leaving Mio alone and venturing off into points unknown, and in so doing, showing you the village through her eyes.
Fatal Frame II, on Xbox, is the "Director's Cut" version, and it shows. This isn’t a port; it's a complete redesign, made to take advantage of the Xbox's power. Shadows are deeper, lights are warmer, the motion is more realistic, and Mio and Mayu look better. It's not quite night and day, but the animation and textures have distinctly improved.
The first obvious change to the gameplay is the addition of a first-person mode, letting you play the entire game through the viewfinder of the camera. This creeps the living hell out of me. It's clearly doing something right.
There are also a number of additional modes for you to unlock by clearing the game. You'll find the Mission Mode and Nightmare difficulty from the PS2 version, but there are more outfits and accessories, a Survival Mode that tests how long you can stay alive against hordes of ghosts, and a fourth ending.
Fatal Frame II was the scariest game of 2003, and with this new version, it's taking a shot at being the scariest game of 2004. If you're one of the people who thought Silent Hill 4 came up short, check out Fatal Frame II's director's cut. If it doesn't scare the hell out of you, you may already be dead.
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