I am a long-time fan of the Fatal Frame survival horror series — despite my aversion to scary things. And while I'll be the first to agree the franchise has had its ups and downs, the series' Wii U debut, Fatal Frame V, is a solid outing for the series.
Good — A Decent Fatal Frame Story
Fatal Frame V is the story of three different characters exploring a haunted mountainside. The main lead is Yuuri, a girl who not only sees dead people, but is able to return those who have been "spirited away" to the normal world. She goes to the mountain hunting for her recently vanished boss.
The second lead character is Ren, a folklorist professor who goes to the mountain to do research for his new book.
The final main character is Miu, the daughter of Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame III protagonist Miku. Since her mother disappeared while exploring the mountain when Miu was only three, she hopes that she'll be able to find out exactly what happened by travelling up the mountain herself.
These three characters build a story that is very much what you've come to expect from a Fatal Frame tale. It has mysterious rituals, past revelations, and a whole lot of ghost killing with the Camera Obscura.
Good — Partner Characters
While some might say that things are scariest when you are alone, I would argue things can be even scarier when you have a companion — and Fatal Frame V seems to agree. Ren, as a professor, is constantly followed around by Ryu, his androgynous assistant. Clearly suffering from a mad crush on her professor, Ryu shows no hesitation when it comes to going into these haunted areas. Of course, she lacks her own Camera Obscura and is thus completely defenseless. And because she is an endearing, enjoyable character in her own right, you very much start to fear for her as more and more ghosts begin to appear. Indeed, several of the game's creepiest moments arise around Ryu.
The other mains also gain partner characters from time to time, though none of them are as fleshed out as Ryu. These are often people who have been previously spirited away and who the player characters are able to rescue.
While none of the support characters carry a Camera Obscura, they are all useful in combat. On one level, they make good bait, allowing you to easily catch a fatal frame shot as they are being attacked. They also act as an additional weak point for any ghosts that appear in the same frame as them — making it easier to pull off the powerful "shutter chance" shots with the camera.
Good — Show Me Your Pain
Easily my favourite new mechanic in Fatal Frame V comes not during battle with a ghost, but in the seconds after it. When you disperse a ghost by photographing it, there is a short animation as it fades from existence. If you approach the ghost and touch it, you will perform a "Fatal Grance" (and no, the typo is theirs, not mine). A "Fatal Grance" is a short cinematic that details how the ghost died. Sometimes the deaths are decidedly mundane — like being stabbed by a crazy man. Other times another ghost is largely responsible for the killing.
This is a very clever storytelling tool that serves to make the ghosts interesting characters in their own right. Each time I encountered a ghost for the first time, I was excited to learn more about it — and more than a little upset if I was unable to get to it in time to do a Fatal Grance.
Good — The Atmosphere and Scares
Fatal Frame V has a great atmosphere. As the game is set across an entire mountainside, there are a variety of environments, from the ancient — temples and shrines — to the modern — tram stations and houses. Many of the locations are as beautiful as they are creepy — even the caves and forests.
When it comes down to it, it isn't the jump scares that cause the most fear for the player. Rather, it is the more subtle ones. Exploring a hallway full of life-size dolls, only for them to suddenly disappear when you turn around is far more terrifying than a ghost suddenly popping out of the wall.
One thing that really got me in the game were the small boxes which I called "Dead girl Boxes." As a part of a ritual, girls would be locked in said boxes which were then filled up with water, drowning the girls. The boxes have a nasty habit of appearing suddenly and remaining completely inert — though ominous — as you pass through the area several times. But you know, just know, that at some point, they're going to open. Thus each time you see the boxes you are filled with two things: tension and dread.
But the scariest part of the game is one of Rin's chapters when you are not even on the mountain, but rather at the characters' home base (the antique shop Yuuri works at). While all the other characters sleep, Rin decides to check the security cameras that watch over everyone — only to find out that just because they're off the mountain doesn't mean they are safe. And each time he sits down to watch the monitor again is a moment filled with such dread that it was tough to continue.
Mixed — Wet and Dry
As you can probably guess by my description of the dead girl boxes above, water is easily the most prominent theme in Fatal Frame V. Most, if not all, of the rituals involve water in some way and the landscape is constantly covered in either rain or fog.
Gameplay as well is affected by water. When any of the characters are wet, they are more closely connected with the ghosts. This means not only do you do more damage to the ghosts, but they do far more damage to you as well. Thus, in my experience, I found it smarter to stay dry than become wet. But unfortunately, the only item that dries you off is both rare and costly — and running out of it means you are only a single step away from death. In the end, while interesting, I often found the mechanic to be more frustrating than fun.
Mixed — The Gamepad as a Camera
Unlike past Fatal Frame games, the camera does not charge up in power as you focus on a ghost's weak point. Rather, by taking normal pictures of a ghost you cause more weak points to appear. Once you have five of these points in a frame, you'll do a special "shutter chance" shot for a lot of damage.
Thanks to the gyros in the GamePad, you are able to use it like a camera and thus by tilting it at various angles, you are better able to line up a shutter chance shot. And while at first I moved my whole body around, taking full advantage of the GamePad's features, I found that before long my arms were tired and I went back to aiming with the right thumbstick like I have done in countless games before. While it is an interesting idea, in practice, it didn't add nearly as much as I would have hoped.
Fatal Frame V is a solid addition to the Fatal Frame series. It has a good little survival horror story and more than a few good scares spread throughout. It also tries a lot of new things with the wetness system and using the GamePad as a camera; and while these additions don't always succeed, they are noble efforts nonetheless. If you like the Fatal Frame series, survival horror games, or Japanese horror films, you won't be disappointed with Fatal Frame V. Fatal Frame V (Zero: Nuregarasu no Miko) was released for the Nintendo Wii U on September 27, 2014, in Japan. There is currently no word on an international release.