To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the series, Koei Tecmo released a high-definition remastered version of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water last year, which sold well and received many positive reviews. Fans had hoped for a new installment in the series for the current generation of consoles, but instead, a HD remastered version of the previous instalment, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, was recently released. Although fans have been eagerly awaiting a new game, I believe they would still be happy to revisit previous entries within the series with high-quality graphics on the latest consoles, while preparing for the "possible" release of a new installment in the future.
I have been aware of the Fatal Frame series for some time, but due to me being easily scared, horror games have been actively avoided. However, the recent buzz surrounding the series has sparked my curiosity even more. Thus, what follows is my experience as a newcomer to the Fatal Frame series, playing the HD remastered version of Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse for the first time.
Ten years before the game's start (1970), the suspected serial killer, You Haibara, kidnapped five girls on Rougetsu Island during the "Rougetsu Kagura" ritual festival, which is held once every ten years. Detective Choushiro Kirishima, who was trying to track down You Haibara, found and rescued the girls in a cave beneath a hospital on the island, but they had all lost their memories of the incident. Two years later, a mysterious disaster occurred on the island, resulting in the deaths of all of its residents, who appeared to have witnessed something horrific, with their hands covering their faces and their expressions twisted in extreme agony. Eight years later in the present day, two of the five rescued girls died in similar circumstances to the island's residents. Two of the remaining girls, Misaki Asou and Madoka Tsukimori, returned to Rougetsu Island in search of the truth. However, shortly after their arrival, Madoka was killed by vengeful spirits on the island. In order to look for her two friends, the main protagonist of the game, Ruka Minazuki, disregarded her mother's warning and returned to the island. Detective Kirishima also returned to Rougetsu Island in pursue of You Haibara, while searching for Ruka. Mysterious events unfold as they approach the truth, and the trio must protect themselves at all cost.
Since this is a high-definition remaster, I should talk about the game's visual quality. Compared to the original game, it's not hard to see that Koei Tecmo has put a lot of effort into improving the game's visual presentation. Modern anti-aliasing technology has been taken advantage of, making the animations appear smoother. Moreover, not only have the character models been reworked and refined to evoke players' “protective instincts” towards the female protagonists, but even the models of the wraiths have been renovated. It’s understandable as the game requires players to raise their cameras and take close-up shots of the wraiths. If their visual quality stood out significantly as opposed to other objects, I guess players wouldn’t possibly buy it.
In addition to character models, the game also made some improvements to the environment texture. Try searching online for comparison videos of this remastered version versus the original Wii version, you'll notice that the environment quality this time is on a completely different level. One of the most obvious improvements is in the lighting, which is now more realistically rendered, and the overall environment modeling, such as wallpapers, wall cracks, and fog, is now presented in higher definition. Additionally, the increase in brightness makes it easier for players to see and distinguish various objects and environmental props, making the overall gameplay more fluid.
However, it is also the increased brightness of the environment that makes me feel like the remastered version's ability to generate horrific atmospheres is nowhere better than the original. It is generally believed that humans will feel a certain level of fear and unease towards dimly-lit environments. Therefore, besides sound effects, music, and the context of the current location (such as morgue vs regular hallway), I believe that brightness also greatly affects the atmospheric presentation of a horror game. In comparison, I think the darker environment of the original game can better reflect a sense of mystery, making players subconsciously feel uneasy about narrow alleys ahead that have low visibility, which is why the remastered version makes me feel like “something is missing”, when compared to the original.
Of course, just because the environment is more visible doesn't mean that it's not scary anymore. After all, there are reasons why Fatal Frame remains one of Japan's top horror game franchise. In terms of other horror elements, I believe it still lives up to the series' reputation. The sound effects, from the sudden and muffled radio broadcasts to the wooden doors that would always automatically slam shut behind me, never fail to spike my adrenaline no matter how many times I experience them. When combined with the spine-tingling background music and the various wraiths that could appear at any moment, playing the game often leaves me breaking out in cold sweats without even realizing it. Yet, it’s a pity that due to the story's setting, the first half of the game takes place in the same few locations, thus players might easily get used to the surroundings, decreasing the level of horror that they evoke.
As it’s just a visual remaster, the gameplay between this version and the original are almost identical. Koei Tecmo did not make any adjustments to the game's pacing to cater to the faster pace of modern games. The slow-paced gameplay of the original has been retained, including the slow-motioned door-opening, item-grabbing, and “running”. In terms of exploration, players need to shine their flashlight on areas with items, and then slowly reach out to pick them up after a blue light appears. Occasionally, a hand of the wraiths will try to grab the protagonist, causing the player to take damage and lose the item if they are unable to let go in time, so players need to be fully focused when picking up items. Some may find the process of picking up items to be tedious, but I think it is one of the unique features of the game that makes it easier for players to immerse themselves in the gameplay, and therefore it is a feature worth keeping.
Still, instead of "running", I think it’s more like "fast walking" in-game. It is understandable that due to the small size of the map, if the protagonists run too fast, it will make the map seem really small. However, if we look at the game from a more realistic perspective, it may make non-fans of the series feel puzzled and reduce the immersive experience of the game: “how could the protagonists move so slowly in such a terrifying environment where they’re being chased by angry wraiths?” That being said, I consider the slow running speed as one of the imperfections of the series, instead of the remaster itself. Although Koei Tecmo could have slightly increased the game's pace to meet the preferences of players nowadays, I wouldn’t blame them if they have chosen to preserve the original’s gameplay experience.
Besides, Koei Tecmo also did not make many changes to the combat system. The three main characters each still possess their own respective weapons, with Ruka and Misaki using the Camera Obscura, while Choushiro holds the Spirit Stone Flashlight. The Camera Obscuras of the two female characters each boasts different upgrade effects and powerful lenses, and their effects and appearances during combat are also different, resulting in a contrasting gameplay experiences. However, I personally prefer the Spirit Stone Flashlight used by Choushiro, which has a wider attack range and does not obstruct our view during combat, making it particularly easy and comfortable to use. Furthermore, in order to accommodate new players in terms of combat controls, Koei Tecmo has added an "Action Mode" option to mimic the control configuration of a modern action game.
Despite that, as an amateur to the series, I can’t help but feel left out that the game does not provide more detailed tutorials and explanations for the various power-ups obtained in the game. Even though I have completed the game, there are still many combat mechanisms that I have yet to experience. For example, the "Evade" upgrade that could be obtained early on allows "players to press the A button (Xbox controller) at the right moment to dodge the attack of the wraiths". The game's explanation for this mechanism boasts only one single sentence, hence I thought it was simple. However, in every battle, when I pressed the A button as the wraiths rushed towards me, the protagonist did not seem to display any dodging action. Although it occasionally seemed that I managed to avoid attacks, most of the time I am still hurt by the wraiths. This problem is more pronounced in one-to-many battles: can someone teach me how to dodge attacks that are launched by multiple spirits from my blind spots? Maybe I just suck, but I still hope that Koei Tecmo can put more effort into the game's tutorial and make it easier for new players to get a hang of the game quickly.
In the end, it’s still only a HD remaster, and I wouldn’t expect Koei Tecmo to make significant changes to the core gameplay of the original. Fortunately, the enhancing of the game’s visual quality is plain to see, despite some seem more like a setback. Although there’s still room for improvement to make the game’s tutorials and instructions more user-friendly, the preservation of gameplay and combat mechanisms is ultimately respected as a tribute to the original. In any case, after playing this game, I could finally understand the hype behind the Fatal Frame series: in addition to having glamorous bishoujos, there are also various scenes and jump-scares that are sure to give you a good scare, just like a love-hate relationship that puts you in the loop of feeling happy, uneasy, and satisfied, making it all the more addictive.
That is all for the review of Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse HD Remastered by Lluvia.