Hands On With The Japanese Horror Game Fans Waited 15 Years For

Hands On With The Japanese Horror Game Fans Waited 15 Years For

An updated version of 2008 survival horror Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse hits PCs and consoles tomorrow and places it in the non-Japanese world’s palm for the first time, bringing with it the game’s first-ever official English translation and a supposedly refined player experience. This should be a huge event for fans of Japanese horror, all those vengeful spirits with hair hanging long and heavy like seaweed, and Fatal Frame devotees who have been waiting 15 years for their white whale to swim by. It should be, but I’m not sure that it will. The game is too fucking clunky.

For most of its existence, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse was an art piece relegated to a strange medium: the Wii. And despite being the fourth follow-up to the internationally popular Fatal Frame (the series where kawaii girls destroy ghosts by photographing them, or “spooky camera game,” as I’ve been calling it) and co-directed by horror auteur Goichi Suda, it was available in Japan only.

This impenetrability gave opening the game up on my Switch a mysterious thrill. I was ready to discover some of 2008’s secrets, tossed in grainy Wii graphics like salt and pepper in their shakers.

Like the immensely popular style of Japanese horror films that hung around at least a decade after 1998’s Ringu, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse’s story is brooding and complex. In it, amnesiac 17-year-olds Misaki, Madoka, and Ruka arrive at the deserted Rougetsu Island. They were kidnapped from a sanatorium there ten years ago, and though detective Chōshirō Kirishima rescued them and two other stolen girls, those other girls are now dead. They were “spirited away,” Misaki tells Madoka. The mystery of what happened to them and why torments the survivors, so they head back into the sanatorium.

Welcome to Rougetsu Island

The first thing I notice as I enter Rougetsu is the fuzz. Everything in this game is sleeping under dusty grain, which helps hide some of the irregularities of 15-year-old textures against slicker character models.

While the game is certainly more vibrant (relatively — everything in it is black, grey, or twilight blue) than its original form, the update to its graphics isn’t as immediately impressive as one of the many other recent video game redos, including Metroid Prime Remastered, Dead Space, or even Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe.

That doesn’t bother me, though. Grain enhances the game’s dour atmosphere. When ghosts’ waxen faces are swirled and pulled like someone stuck their hand into pond water, when protagonist Ruka hears a chalky voice crackling through a phone that shouldn’t work, when disjointed memories of a failed ritual return in her mind — all this is enhanced by flea-sized grain, making everything look like it’s ready to crumble. It’s like watching unsettling found footage, or looking at one of American artist Francesca Woodman’s spectral, black-and-white self-portraits for way too long.

What does bother me is how evil this game is to actually play. Despite being in a haunted house filled with dead girls, the protagonists walk unbearably slowly, like they just discovered how to do it, and their ability to “run” is a marginally faster, bowlegged shuffle.

Fine, I’ll take my time to light dark corners with my flashlight, which reveals shining items, including journal fragments, rather poetic note fragments from the other girls (“stop shaking me / like / i’m a / toy” one worrying scribble from Madoka says), and red and blue crystal upgrade currency you can add to your inventory. You can cash the latter in to improve the damage capacity of your camera and its quality-of-life features, like its reload time.

While my flashlight is adept at revealing these objects, the game’s camera is less understanding. I position Ruka into what I believe to be a perfectly reasonable grabbing angle, right in front of the object, only for the game to immediately drop the prompt to pick it up. As this continues to happen, the blue bar on my HUD, which glows whenever I’m near something that requires investigation, looks like it’s taunting me.

After wiggling the camera around to finally find its exact preferred pick-up spot, I press and hold A to begin the beleaguered effort of acquiring an item. Letting go of A snaps Ruka out of her slow grabbing animation in a jagged camera pull. The same goes for the moments after you push open a door, or pull a door handle, or exit any cut scene — you’re snapped back into regular gameplay like a rubberband. It makes interacting with the environment feel jarring and unnatural, especially because all of the animations are deathly slow. As I progress through the first chapter, I start to believe that Ruka has overdosed on cough syrup.

Entering one of the game’s battles proves to me that she hasn’t, the game’s controls simply suck evil ghost dick.

The potential starts to slip

Like the Fatal Frame titles before it, Mask’s protagonists are defenseless against the ghosts that surround them, their eyes black and wide like domino spots, without the occult Camera Obscura that wounds with every flash. While the majority of the game unfolds in third-person with rotating protagonists (I only get to Madoka and Ruka in my playtime), using the Camera Obscura shifts you to first-person.

Through the Camera’s viewfinder, a red flash at the top of the screen indicates where a wraith is positioned. A circle-shaped blue metre winds up as your film reloads and indicates how much damage you’ll do, right now, if you capture the spirit in a photo. While more damaging film and camera attachments are available, to pick up as items around the sanatorium (if you have the patience for it), what you really want to do is catch an attacking ghost in a “fatal frame,” a more lethal shot indicated by veiny-looking, blue spikes around that circle-shaped metre.

A not-quite fatal frame. (Image: Koei Tecmo)
A not-quite fatal frame. (Image: Koei Tecmo)

The concept is easy enough, but the game’s choppy camera and awkwardly shuffling ghosts, who can clip through walls and appear suddenly behind you, draining your health the longer they can touch you, make it feel impossible. I scream while facing Ruka’s enemies, not because I’m so terrified, but because I am — I report with some shame — a rage quitter, and I want to stab my Switch with a knife.

I’m also not very amused by the game’s cosmetic extras, which include a totally incongruous, belly dancer-themed bikini you can put its teenage protagonists in. Like…what? Do you even need me to comment on how weird that is?

It’s weird. I put the game down, feeling disappointed. Themed bikini aside, a lot about Mask of the Lunar Eclipse reminds me of horror movies that end up with mostly female cult followings, like Jennifer’s Body, Raw, and the 1960 French movie about beauty and disfigurement, Eyes Without a Face, which I also think shares a lot of visual and thematic elements with Mask.

Like those movies, Mask isn’t terribly preoccupied by the idea of having a boyish, virginal final girl. It lets its female protagonists wear frilly dresses while seriously dealing with the emotional scars of their past, and, based on my playtime, doesn’t feel like it’s ever ridiculing them for being soft, or having pain. It could be a powerful, subtly feminist horror, where femininity isn’t a reason for trauma, or product of trauma, it’s only another, neutral facet of humanity, and of spirituality. This is the potential I’m drawn to, which made me excited about starting it up in the first place, and I see flickers of it in the game’s artful design and atmosphere. But nearly unplayable controls and unnecessary bikinis make me feel like it’ll never actually reach it.

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