Our review of Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, developed by Koei Tecmo and Grasshopper Manufacture. Available now for PS5 (reviewed), PS4, Xbox X/S, Xbox One, and Windows.
WHAT IS IT?
A remaster of the previously Japan-only fourth entry in the beloved cult horror series.
IS IT GOOD?
It’s a wonderful exorcise in ghost-busting fun.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
Naomi Watts, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kristen Bell.
ZERO TIMES FOUR
Fatal Frame is everything that modern horror is not. In other words, it’s slow, methodical, and unpredictable. It’s also, because of this, excellent and legitimately frightening.
Since its humble beginnings on the PS2, where the original Fatal Frame debuted in 2002 amidst a sea of higher profile games (GTA: Vice City and Kingdom Hearts among them), this oft-overlooked series has quietly earned a reputation for some of the scariest interactive thrills this side of Resident Evil.
But where later Resident Evil titles have doubled-down on explosive action, Fatal Frame (also known as Project Zero) has stuck resolutely to its roots, delivering five mainline games (and one offbeat Nintendo DS spinoff) of sheer, unadulterated, J-Horror. There are no guns in Fatal Frame. There are no motorcycles. It’s just you, your magical camera, and a haunted village’s worth of Ringu-style ghosts lurking in the trees and under the floorboards.
For my money, the original Fatal Frame trilogy – Fatal Frame, Crimson Butterfly, The Tormented – is the best horror trilogy ever made. When Fatal Frame IV: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse was announced for the Nintendo Wii in 2008, I was ecstatic. (I bought a Wii in order to play it.) When Lunar‘s Japan release came and went with no North American version in sight, I was devastated. (I even looked into buying a Japanese Wii.) Now, all these years later, and no doubt thanks to the success of the recent North American localization of the fifth Frame title, Koei Tecmo has finally brought the fourth entry to our shores. And really, that alone is worth celebrating, even for non-horror fans: how many times has a fifteen-year-old Japanese exclusive received an English-language remaster?
That said, non-horror fans have something even more significant to celebrate: the presence of co-director suda51, the video game auteur best known for the brilliant(ly insane) No More Heroes and killer7. This “lost” suda51 title, an outlier even in the eclectic career of the mad genius, admittedly lacks suda’s trademark punk rock aesthetic, but you can still see hints of it, like the bizarre distortion effect on the faces of ghosts.
Still, this is a Fatal Frame game through and through, right down to the presence of series creator Makoto Shibata as co-director alongside suda51. The things you loved about the original FF trilogy are all here, from the deliberately clunky first-person camera combat, to the deviously obscuring camerawork, to the random ghosts – of both the threatening and more passive variety – that can pop up any time, anywhere. So too is Fatal Frame‘s wonderfully desaturated aesthetic, which gives the game a grainy, near-black-and-white look.
Newcomers, or those who’ve been away from Fatal Frame for a while, will be relieved to hear that Lunar Eclipse is effectively a standalone story – so much so that this English-language re-release even drops the “4” from the original title.
Set on the fictional Rogetsu Isle, Eclipse centres on a quintet of girls who briefly disappeared on the island years earlier – an event of which they have no memory – and now find themselves summoned back by some powerful, unknown force. Players spend the bulk of their time with Ruka Minazuki, the latest in a long line of FF heroines with a mystical sixth sense and ownership of a singularly powerful exorcising camera obscura. Gameplay remains unchanged from the PS2 days, with Ruka (and other, spoilerish playable characters) slowly making her way around the island and its creaky, abandoned buildings in third-person view, switching to first-person when wielding the camera.
Those unused to Fatal Frame‘s particular brand of haunted house thrills may initially struggle with Eclipse‘s slow, occasionally awkward controls. But given some time, there’s a lot to love about the way Eclipse‘s gameplay reinforces the overall helplessness of its central characters: you’re supposed to feel overwhelmed and disoriented; you’re supposed to move frustratingly slowly, you’re supposed to panic at your lack of combat options.
As I said, Fatal Frame is everything that’s disappeared from modern horror: there are no rocket launchers or Hollywood-style set pieces here, just narrow, dimly lit corridors and endless rows of creepy dolls. That, and a genuinely compelling J-Horror narrative that touches on mysterious epidemics, human sacrifice, and more ghosts than you can shake an Ecto Cooler at.
We need more games like Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse. Weird, offbeat numbers with deliberately clunky controls and deliberately disorienting level design. Games made scarier by their refusal to hold the player’s hand, by their refusal to offer anything resembling traditional combat options. Heck, we need more games without guns, period.
Lunar Eclipse is not the scariest Fatal Frame – that honour still goes to the original – but it is a most welcome return of a cult-beloved series that deserves its reputation as the Ringu of video games.
Best played at night with the lights off and the volume cranked up, it’s the type of game destined to be talked about in hushed whispers among the nerdiest of horror nerds for years to come. suda51’s Project Zero, or whatever you call it, is here to make your skin crawl and your eyes water. We won’t blame you if you leave the nightlight on afterwards.
Final score: 8/10 polaroids.
Visit the official website for Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse here.