Release Date: November 8, 2005
Buy 'FINAL FRAME III: The Tormented': PlayStation 2
Tecmo has made a respectable name for itself in the crowded survival horror genre with its Fatal Frame franchise. The third in the series, Fatal Frame III: The Tormented, sticks safely with themes and gameplay laid down by its predecessors, but still manages to creep you out with its atmospheric sound effects, immersive settings and generally spooky tone.
If you've ever played the original Fatal Frame or its sequel, subtitled Crimson Butterfly, you know that they embrace haunting Japanese settings. In that regard, FFIII is no different. The story follows freelance photographer Rei Kurosawa, a woman whose fiance, Yuu Asou died in a car wreck when Rei was at the wheel. She can't seem to escape the guilt of the incident, which just happened recently. Meanwhile, she is having visions and nightmares of an ancient manor, often involving her dead fiance. The line between the spirit world and Rei's "reality" becomes increasing blurred, and clues to unraveling the mystery of the dreams lie in urban legends and other non-conventional sources.
Newcomers to the series should know that your characters will not be outfitted with the latest in projectile weaponry, or even a survival knife, for that matter. You'll have a camera to protect you; more specifically, the "Camera Obscura". With this old device, you'll take pictures of hostile ghosts in order to damage and defeat them. The fact that all you have to protect yourself is an antique camera automatically ups your sense of urgency during an encounter as opposed to sporting a rocket launcher against a mutant. It's not that survival horror games that use traditional weaponry are bad or less scary, but Fatal Frame III relies on a completely different kind of tension because of your character's vulnerability.
You'll find that Rei passes back and forth between the dream and reality, which is actually a bit jarring. Whenever you put Rei to bed for the night, a sequence occurs where you explore a haunted mansion fraught with ghosts. After you reach a certain point in the dreams, you wake up in your apartment, where you accomplish more tasks such as researching events that happened in your dream with the help of your assistant and roomie, Miku Hinasaki (who also happens to be from the original Fatal Frame). Eventually, you go back to bed, play through the nightmare manor for a bit, then wake up, and repeat. It's not detrimentally repetitive, but after a few times, you start to think, "Okay, I get it. She's having nightmares." Tecmo could have probably gotten away with making an extended dream sequence within the haunted manor, with Rei eventually waking up to take the story down a different path in the real world as the worlds merge together. Eventually, you do get to play as Miku and a researcher named Kei Amakura to change things up.
The aforementioned Camera Obscura is upgradable in a variety of ways. You'll find new camera equipment that tracks ghosts or helps you evade them, for example. Other more powerful types of film can also be found that have more damaging effects on ghosts. Your camera continually levels up as you take more accurate shots, making it more effective against increasingly difficult haunts.
Speaking of ghosts, there are a wide variety of them boasting an array of different personalities. Some will be outright aggressive, proclaiming that you must die, others may appear just brief enough to spook you, and others just act like your typical lost spirit that resents the fact that they're dead (which is understandable). You'll encounter ghosts periodically, with some acting as simple camera fodder, and others as key enemies. The boss-style spirits range in difficulty and method of attack. In general, they make a run at you, then disappear, materializing somewhere else in the room to attack from a different angle. It's here where we run into some control issues.
The control, like in previous Fatal Frame games, isn't really action oriented, leaving you at a slight disadvantage when fighting against ghosts. Aiming and running movements aren't exactly robust, so when ghosts disappear from view only to show up directly behind you, it's a bit cheap. On the other hand, while the movements may seem relatively sluggish, it may very well be a trait that Tecmo left in purposefully in order to add tension to battles, because most of the time you do just fine against hostile ghosts. Another complaint is when the camera changes, you have to reorient the controls, which can leave you disoriented when moving from area to area.
Exploring the mansion relies on basic key and item-finding gameplay, or performing other acts that trigger something that facilitates your progress. It's not exactly revolutionary, but the scheme gets the job done, and you won't really encounter anything that's overly frustrating, such as a tremendously obscure puzzle or an especially difficult to locate key.
Outside of gameplay, perhaps the most important question genre fans may have for FFIII is just how scary it is. Well, "scary" is a relative term, but if you're creeped out by survival horror games in general or Japanese horror flicks this will certainly spook you. This is thanks in part to graphical and, to a larger extent sound details that make the atmosphere come alive. Because the game does touch on urban legends, it allows you to suspend belief and draws you into a world where strange things are possible, as legends are constructed from real-life events. The setting of a mansion has been around since the first Resident Evil, but the ghoulish, ancient Japanese surroundings help set FFIII apart from other games.
Graphics are important in this genre, and FFIII is presented very nicely. Rooms appear to have been lived in, with various trinkets, furniture and such lie about, among stranger things. Not only are the graphics well-done from a technical standpoint, but you'll find creepy things happening such as things rolling down the stairs out of nowhere and old dolls falling over for seemingly no reason. Some ghosts have wretched faces with twisted expressions, and others look more normal outside of the fact that they're trying to kill you. Still others are just black figures with limited facial features. Overall, the visuals do well in immersing you in the world.
The sound effects play a major role in the game's atmosphere as well, perhaps even moreso than the visuals. Howling wind, creaking boards, crying children, evil-sounding whispers and the like all await you as you progress. Hostile ghosts say things like, "You will not escape!" or "You must die" or "You killed daddy" in the most evil way possible. The sound effects have a lot to do with the creep factor.
In the end, FFIII is a quality title that doesn't necessarily stray from the proven groundwork laid down by its predecessors, but still manages to accomplishes to give you a good scare. It makes you feel like your surrounded by unpleasant spirits, although you can't always see them. The control is decent despite being a bit sluggish and causing some disorientation at times, but it's hardly detrimental. Visually and aurally, Tecmo got it right with FFIII, as the Project Zero team has a knack for drawing gamers into their world. Again, it's not a reinvention of the franchise, but it is certainly a quality title worthy of a play-through, especially to those who love a good scare.
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