Fatal Frame III: The Tormented Preview

F-Stop…in the name of love.

The very best thing about Tecmo’s Fatal Frame series is neither A.) that it instantly managed to score some elbow room beside the powerhouse Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises (although that is impressive), nor even B.) that its second iteration, Fatal Frame II, featured adolescent Japanese girls bound together at the wrists (although that, too, has a certain inarguable appeal).

No, the best and most gleefully right (read: wrong) aspect of the series is that it has managed to take the contemporary Japanese notion of touristy photography and turn it creepily back upon lingering Japanese superstitions, legends, and fears. There is something inherently eerie in the photographic image; even on the convenience store streets of modern day Tokyo, the Japanese know something of unsettling visuals.

Continuing the series’ emphasis on photography-as-ghostbusting, Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented introduces a photographer named Rei Kurosawa (no relation, we think), a woman hagridden by guilt over the death of her beloved fiancé in a recent car crash.

The guilt and horror are bad enough, but when Rei sees her late fiancé’s image surface in a photo taken at a supposedly haunted house, all bets are off. Her recurring nightmares begin to spill over into the real world; leading her into a supernatural shadowland known as the House of Sleep – a realm filled with other tormented spirits. As the game proceeds, the line between the normal and nightmare worlds becomes increasingly blurred, and veterans of previous Fatal Frame games will have the chance to revisit some old haunts. Pardon the pun.

As expected, the primary weapon against the grim and decidedly ‘un’grinning ghosts is once again the Camera Obscura. It’s never been clear precisely how or why it works, but taking pictures of restless spirits with this baby makes the dead lie still, or at least temporarily robs them of their malevolent power. The closer and better-framed a picture you take, the more metaphysical damage you inflict on the ghost in question, but letting them get too close is a dangerous proposition. With a collection of lens, film and various feature upgrades, it’s possible over time to keep the otherworldly intruders at least a little further at bay.

It can also be used to photograph less upsetting people, places and things, with the resulting pictures often yielding clues and strange images. After all, we’ve all had the experience of taking pictures in the most mundane, unthreatening locations, only to see strange images surface on film, like this. Or even this.

In a new twist, you’ll control multiple characters over the course of the game. The lineup features Rei, the return of Miku Hinasaka (because her life wasn’t screwed up quite enough by starring in the first game) and Kei Amakura, Rei’s journalist friend (and, it turns out, a relative of the luckless Amakura twins from Fatal Frame II). Each has unique strengths and weaknesses, including varying levels of proficiency with the Camera Obscura and/or dealing with hauntings in general.

Different character play styles also make for more gameplay variety. Miku, for example, has been through this spiritual wringer before and can do a lot more damage with the Camera. Kei’s primary ‘combat’ skill seems to be stealth-oriented, hiding and cowering like a little girl whenever the creepy ghosts start showing up. And we can respect that – as a rule, blustery, macho types do not fare well in these kinds of stories.

The environments go well beyond the old Japan Lost Village of the previous game to include some ‘dual world’ translations of more modern-era settings. As Rei’s nightmares bleed through into reality, even the safe boundaries of the workaday world begin to take on a sinister aspect. And you know how troubling that sort of thing can be, no matter how positive a spin you try to put on things.

Rei’s troubles actually get worse in at least one other dimension: dermatological. While the designers are still pretty close-lipped on specific details, Rei finds a strange new serpentine tattoo literally snaking across her body, growing with the passage of time, consuming more of her flesh with each passing day. It would hardly be a Japanese horror outing without at least one bizarre, oblique, open-ended threat to the body. I think this counts.

The Fatal Frame series has always had good, freaky visuals, but Fatal Frame 3 promises to raise the bar and then club you with it. The ghosts have developed more intense, hideous eye movements and facial expressions as well as nasty new behaviors, like gazing expressionlessly at the player before their faces suddenly melt and distort into ghastlier, shrieking, still more frightening visages. Have your security blanket handy. Again.

Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented is already haunting the streets of Japan, and its cold shadow creeps across the American market this Fall. What we’ve seen is promising, hackle-raising stuff; we can’t wait to get, um, alone in the dark with a final review build. Until then, you’ll find us here, waiting patiently. We’ll let you know how things…hehehehe…develop.

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