As I have mentioned before, I think Fatal Frame II is the scariest anything ever made by anyone. I’m unashamed to admit that the game terrified me, and literally gave me nightmares, as a full-grown adult. So, it was with some degree of trepidation that I picked up the disc for Fatal Frame III and placed it in my wheezing old PS2. True to form, I found a lot of the game to be genuinely frightening, but a funny thing happened on the way to the dark, decrepit mansion haunted by the tormented souls of the damned. I found that I was more annoyed by Fatal Frame III than scared by it.
This isn’t to say that Fatal Frame III doesn’t have plenty of very effective scares. The game does a particularly good job of subverting its apparent boundaries. The ghost-fighting portion of the game is set in a mansion the characters only visit in their dreams, and between these periods of exploration the main character Rei works in her house. The action in these segments is fairly light, as she develops photos, gets information from her assistant, and searches through her dead boyfriend’s records to find clues about the mansion she’s been visiting in her sleep.
Handled poorly, this structure might have made the game less frightening. It’s certainly a contrast with Fatal Frame II, which used almost unrelenting pressure and an absence of safe spaces to ramp up the tension. Early on, the game makes a clear division: the mansion is dangerous and the house is safe. As the game progresses, however, the ghosts start to appear during the daytime. The house is still safe — they never actually harm Rei — but feels unsafe, and almost every ghostly manifestation there creates a little thrill of fear.
Strangely, it’s the haunted mansion itself that doesn’t work so well, mostly because of the way so many of the ghost encounters play out. In the Fatal Frame games, the only defense against a ghost is to use an artifact called the “camera obscura” that has the power to exorcise spirits by taking snapshots of them. You can’t protect yourself with just any old candid photo, however. To take care of the ghosts with any proficiency you need to get the snap in right at their moment of greatest vulnerability, which is usually right when they’re about to attack you. Get the timing just right, and you execute the “Fatal Frame”, a photo that allows you to chain attacks and rapidly exorcise almost any ghost.
The real brilliance of this approach is that it absolutely requires you to do the thing that will scare you the most. That is, you must stare at a malevolent ghost as it slowly approaches you, waiting for the precise moment to take your shot, knowing that if you miss the timing the ghost will hit you and maybe kill you. The encounters naturally play out with enormous tension, which is only helped along by the generally excellent sound design and frightening visuals.
Some of the encounters in Fatal Frame III played out in exactly this way, and they were the ones I found most frightening, even though they usually did not feature the most dangerous ghosts. The Men in White, the Engraved Men, and the cleaver-wielding Hidden Face Man attacked linearly and until the later nights were almost trivial to catch in a fatal frame.
The female ghosts like the Woman Brushing and the flying Priestess are much more dangerous and difficult to fight. They fly around in circles and have a tendency to teleport, which would make them tough to find even with a free camera in a large, open space. But Fatal Frame III uses the fixed-camera approach that was long the standard for survival-horror games, meaning that the camera angle can only be shifted by running around. Moreover, these ghosts are often encountered in spaces that are much tighter than their movement radius. Being ghosts, they can travel through walls and such, but of course this makes them impossible to see for Rei and her allies. Thus, the fight becomes much more frustrating and difficult, a constant struggle to catch a glimpse of these ghosts with enough time left in their attack animation to execute a fatal frame. That’s an error in two ways.
The main problem is that making the fights more difficult in this way discards one of the key strengths of the game’s system. You spend relatively little time in these battles staring down your enormously threatening enemy and a lot of time running around like a headless chicken or swinging around the viewfinder like a loon, occasionally just staring at the wall and hoping for your ghost to emerge. There’s not much scary about a wall.
The other, more general, problem is that getting angry is a really effective way to become less scared. No matter how scared you are of someone or something, if you are angry enough you will always be able to face it. Tense, difficult combat is important to creating an aura of fear in survival horror games, but it isn’t necessary, and the great risk is that the player will become so frustrated with the combat that he isn’t scared anymore. That’s pretty much where I was with most of the flying ghosts. What made the male ghosts frightening was the same thing that made them easy: I could stare at them throughout their entire attack. Indeed, I had to.
The best illustration of this, for me, came in the game’s climactic boss battle against the vengeful ghost of a murdered priestess. She had two main kinds of attacks. One of these involved striding towards Rei with her arm outstretched, and this was terrifying because to really harm her you have to keep backing up while waiting for her hand to get just close enough to allow a good photo. Her other attack is to fly up to the roof of the chamber, where she can barely be seen unless you are in the viewfinder, and then diving down too quickly for all but the best players to snap an effective shot. In these parts of the fight I was just running around the giant cavern and swearing. Same ghost, same circumstance — half the time I had my heart in my throat, but only half the time.
Fatal Frame III is still a good game, and a frightening one, but it’s not as scary as it could be. Despite the clever things it does with setting and breaking boundaries, the combat ultimately lets it down. By having such a strong focus on teleporting and flying ghosts it squanders the strength of its combat system and trades fear for frustration. Difficult, ill-handling combat in survival-horror games is often defended with the idea that it makes them more frightening. Fatal Frame III shows that the opposite is just as likely to be the case.