Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Review: Project Zero (Fatal Frame)

pz_ps2_boxff_boxConsole: Playstation 2, Xbox
Released: 2002
Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Digital Release? Yes, PSN version compatible with PS3 for $9.99
Price: $15.65 (disc only), $23.99 (complete), $24.25 (sealed) per Price Charting

Project Zero (or Fatal Frame in America) is one of those horror series that has a small but dedicated fan base.  It’s a horror game where you take pictures of ghosts to exorcise them. On paper, the game ticks all the boxes for a fresh and new design, but does it live up to its expectations?

The story entails a pretty typical horror cliché. You play a young girl (of course) named Miku Hinasaki heading into a dark scary mansion alone (as you do) looking for your brother Mafuyu who has gone missing. Of course the mansion is filled with a plentiful amount of disturbed souls and the only way to force them to rest in peace is to take pictures of them with an old antique camera called the “Camera Obscura.” As you venture through the mansion you discover more of the background story as to what is going on in this creepy place and there are various cutscenes regarding this. But the in-depth details to the tale are found in notes and diaries scattered around the game, which you can read at your leisure. Overall the story seemed hard to follow until the very end of the game where they tie up all of the loose ends – which is no pun intended should you be familiar with how this game concludes.  Project Zero shares a similar tone to popular horror films like The Ring (Ringu) and The Grudge (Ju-On) especially with its use of girls with creepy long hair that covers their eyes.  The game does seem to go for the obligatory jump scare a little too often to the extent it starts to become predictable (ex: “Oh I wonder if there is a ghost hiding behind this door, of course there is, but it’s okay it just wants me to take a picture”).

pz_2The game plays like most survival horror games in 3rd person perspective. You have the turret-like controls for your movement with the left analogue stick or d-pad and the right stick controls your flash light, which you can aim pretty much anywhere you want. Although this seems like a cool feature I rarely used it, unless it was just to mess about.  The lighting effects from the torch (flashlight) though are great and deserve a mention.  The main feature which makes this game stand out from the crowd is the antique camera. When a spook comes along you aim with the camera in a first person view by pressing O. In this view the idea is to keep the ghost in the frame while the camera charges up, pressing the X or R1 button takes an image and if taken properly causes damage to the ghost. The health of the ghoul is displayed in the top left corner of the first person screen. The game does a good job of introducing you to the mechanics of how the camera works – the jist of it seems to be wait for just the right moment, which is usually when the spirit pounces for you, to take the picture to deal the most damage. A meter on the camera will glow red for a split second when this opportunity arises, pulling off this “zero shot” will not only cause maximum damage but will push the ghoulie back. What you can do instead is shoot away gradually wearing the ghosts health down, the problem is this uses up your camera film which is in limited supply so timing the right moment is the key.  You can swap out types of film into the camera which have better exorcism powers; think of it like a stronger weapon. These films are scattered around the mansion and are very limited. You can also upgrade the camera and use special abilities. To do this you need to use spirit orbs which you find in the mansion and at exorcism points that you accumulate by taking down the spooks.

pz_1Taking pictures and the ghost encounters are by far the most enjoyable part of the game.  When you encounter a ghost, the majority of the time it will only be the one but the photo shoot will take some time. In the grand scheme of the game there really aren’t a lot of ghosts, either. However, game does a really good job of making every ghost encounter feel significant so it’s not as noticeable.  You are encouraged to deal with every ghost you encounter and running away is not generally advised.  Even though taking photos of the ghosts is the main highlight of the game, some encounters are incredibly challenging. If you don’t snap a picture of the ghosts correctly they will grab you (despite being a poltergeist), draining a large portion of your health. If the ghosts gets too close this usually throws you off and you have to run away, refocus the camera and try again. This process may repeat several times becoming very tedious. You are able to make very small movements with your character while in the first person perspective should you need to make fine adjustments, but these are not enough to flee.  It is not uncommon for the game to present you with split second ghost attacks, which you have very little time to react to if you don’t see them coming. This type of design comes across as somewhat unfair, especially when you are already terrified enough by the setting of this game. Even on the standard difficulty the spirits do a ridiculous amount of damage and although health items are present in the game, like with the camera film they are in limited supply.  Another interesting feature is the save rooms. Unlike in most survival horror games where the save area is considered a safe zone from enemies, in Project Zero ghosts can invade these areas and prevent you from saving unless you defeat them. It gives the impression that absolutely no where is safe in this game.

As well as snapping the spirits you will do quite a few puzzles in the game and this brings mixed results. Generally the puzzles in the game are not hard but its the frustration of knowing where to go to complete them. The most common type of puzzle in the game will require you to photograph a scene in the mansion to unlock a door. Sometimes you have to do a ridiculous amount of searching just to locate the image, which can become a pain. During this time you will probably be harassed by random ghost encounters on a consistent basis. It’s not always clear where you are supposed to go next in the game despite a map being available in your inventory, and sometimes backtracking through areas you just visited will fire off a cutscene to move the plot forward. All this wandering around makes the game feel slow and pretty boring.


Your trip through the mansion will be around eight hours the first time through, but this will sharply drop with multiple playthroughs once you have figured out where to go. You unlock a few additional features like extra costumes and harder difficulty modes, as well as those you gathered in your initial playthough if you want to go back in. What is interesting is there are not a lot of areas to explore in the game, but it seems to do a clever job of getting you to walk through the same areas again and again with different goals and puzzles.  The graphics are top notch and the designers nail the setting of a creepy abandoned mansion.  Ghost enemies are also particularly unnerving and certainly represent tortured souls (for example people that have been hung or a floating severed head) and although the game isn’t particularly gory there are quite a few scenes that will put some people on edge.  The use of sound is a great horror experience. You will hear noises down the hall and your own footsteps on the floor board. Playing this game at night with headphones can be quite an uncomfortable experience, but it really adds to the immersion. Despite not a lot of music in the game, I have to give credit to the opening theme at the title screen, which stands out as a memorable piece.

Overall, I really had to let the game digest for a few days before I came up with a final review score.  The picture taking is great fun, however the game can be hard and unforgiving at times. Certain ghosts prove particularly troublesome which may lead to some angry moments for the player and puzzles can also be incredible irritating as it has that “look at everything” approach.  This game will certainly appeal to a very small niche audience and those who don’t like scary games will discard this game straight away. It will also not suit all survival horror fans, some including myself may even class this more as a horror game as opposed to survival horror. To the game’s credit it is very unique in design and ticks all the right boxes for a horror atmosphere and setting, which may explain why this series has a bigger fan following in Japan than over in the West. I personally found there was enough draw here to explore the games sequels but this is definitely not for everyone.

One thing is for sure, though, Project Zero, upon completion, is now plain Zero.

Final Score: 3 out of 5   (Review Policy)

Written by jamalais

October 20, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Posted in PS2, Reviews

Tagged with , ,

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