Fatal Frame III: the 3 is for playing as 3 different characters

As I continue revisiting the ghosts of the Playstation 2, I delve into one of my favorite survival horror franchises. Indicative of the time at which they were released in the early 2000s, the Fatal Frame games make you feel like you’re in an Asian ghost movie—the scariest ghost movies there are in my opinion.

Much like Silent Hill: The Room, Fatal Frame III gives you breaks from the horror mansion madness by bringing you back to your apartment to do some research periodically—developing photos you take, listening to audio tapes you find, reading journals on the occult in your roommate’s bedroom, and speaking with your assistant. Funny thing is, despite this being a safe place, the game manages to make even your own home feel creepy.

It isn’t well lit, different sections of the house are cut off from others by doors, you have a cat you can barely see because it lurks in shadowy corners (I could barely see it even with the brightness on my TV turned all the way up), and as the game progresses, non-violent ghosts start appearing in nooks and crannies. EEK! The good news is you can try to snap photos of them to gain points to upgrade your camera and make it more powerful against ghosts.

If you haven’t played the series and are unaware, your spiritual camera is your only weapon. You “kill” ghosts by photographing them until they cry out in agony and shrink into nothingness. You collect film, which is your ammo, and you have to conserve it as much as you can and not waste it, because it’s limited—like, every time you miss hitting the ghost, you want to cry because you just wasted film. The only bright side is that each time you return to your own home and then go back to the scary mansion, any items you picked up (health, film) respawn in the same exact spots, so you always want to grab them. You simply must.

Upgrading the camera with more power and lenses with special abilities helps you fight harder ghosts (you get points for both taking pictures of non-violent ghosts and for defeating vicious ghosts), and your upgraded camera carries into a new game so you can continue powering it up to the max (yay!). However, there’s a catch. You play mostly as the main character, but several times you play as two other characters, and each character has their own camera with its own upgrade tree. So you have to build up every camera separately, but you don’t play the other two side characters enough to really upgrade their cameras all the much. Sigh.

Not gonna lie. Fatal Frame games are challenging. It’s very possible to end up locked in a room you can’t leave with an attacking ghost you must defeat to get out, only to discover you are too low on film to defeat it. So be prepared to be more than just frustrated. And as I always say with these older survival horror games, a walkthrough is crucial, otherwise you could end up running in circles trying to figure out what to do next—or be totally blindsided by the ghost girl in a crawlspace. Oh yeah There’s a fucking crawlspace ghost battle.

And after a while, lingering for too long spawns more ghosts to battle. You really can’t stand still in this game, because you don’t have enough supplies to fight endless ghosts. I’ll also say that if you get really stuck, Codebreaker is your friend for unlimited health and ammo. Unfortunately, there’s a glitch when you use it with this particular game. If you are playing a chapter in which you need to collect items to unlock a crucial door to another area, using the Codebreaker causes those items to disappear from your inventory as soon as you pick them up. Learned that the hard way.

So, let’s get into the game. For the prologue you begin with just a regular camera in a black and white scenario. Since you can try to photograph fleeting ghosts to gain points, you wouldn’t know without a walkthrough that you can’t fight the first vicious ghost that attacks you—you simply have to run upstairs to get away from him.

The first chapter is in full color (dreary color), and within a few minutes you find the spirit camera next to your first save lantern. Save lanterns offer unlimited saves and are marked clearly on the map, but if you are near a save lamp during a battle, it goes dark and you can’t save until the ghost is defeated.

As you gain points from taking pics of surprise ghost appearances and from fighting ghosts you can begin upgrading the camera and swapping out lenses, but honestly, these level-up designs that give you choices have always been confusing to me. Personally, I attached the lens that seemed most practical and never changed it. I spent all my points on upgrading the basic powers the first time I played through, and worked my way up from there on later plays. You’d think after at least three plays of this game over the decades from the same save my camera would have been maxed out by now, but it wasn’t and the game was still hard.

Enemies vary in difficulty, and some require stronger film, which you should save for bigger battles, because you don’t find much of it at all. This is where you have to think. For simple photos of non-violent ghosts you want to use the weakest film, and for battles you want to go into your inventory menu and switch to stronger film…and then remember to switch back to weak film after the battle so as not to waste the good stuff.

You also get into battles with multiple ghosts at once, which is always fun (not). It’s chilling having these spirits float around you and even right through you, or worse—grab you and throttle you. Fatal Frame makes possibly the best use of the vibration function of any game. It’s like a racing heartbeat during ghosts battles and used as a jump scare tactic at other times.

General game play exploration has you in third person view. Unlike Resident Evil, the controls are not tank style, so you can turn quickly, and there is a convenient run button. However, using the camera switches you into first person camera mode. You move incredibly slow while in camera mode, and it’s smart to get out of camera mode when you don’t see the ghost you’re fighting in your lens, otherwise they will most likely sneak up and attack you, and shaking them off isn’t easy. So there’s a lot of frantic jumping back and forth between third and first person modes while trying to stay alive during these battles.

In between trying to escape ghosts unscathed, you have to start collecting items and solving puzzles to open doors to progress through the game. You also photograph certain spots that glow blue to break spells that block doors you need to get through.

Just when you get into a groove playing as the main character, a return to your home ends with you going back to the scary mansion as a different character. The main character’s assistant is the main girl from the first Fatal Frame game (awesome), but for someone who went through this before, she sure is weak. You discover the mansion is the same house as in the original game, and her first chapter starts off in the very familiar entrance. You even enter that damn rope hall where she jumps every time she runs into a hanging rope. The worst part of this chapter is that despite her having a really weak camera, the first fight is super hard. WTF?

Next you play as a guy, and even though you have a camera, you can’t fight ghosts! You have to “hide” from them like some Clock Tower 3 bullshit, and the hiding spots don’t always work, which means you have to run off course to hide and then find your way back to where you left off in your exploration. You eventually get the camera obscura and can fight some of the ghosts, but there is one invincible ghost you must run away from…which you’ll only know if you take a hit first and then waste all your film trying to fight her. Or, you know, you can do the smart thing and follow a walkthrough. The guy character also has a special, sexist duty—he can push aside larger objects that block doors that the girls were unable to enter.

The game gets progressively harder, and you’ll be aching for more health and film as repetition sets in—run back and forth collecting key items to open new doors while more and more ghost encounters trip you up. And unless you follow a walkthrough, you won’t know when you encounter the first enemy that is invincible…instead you’ll be running in terror, wasting precious film and health as he kicks your ass. And when you do get to fight him at the end of the chapter, he’s hard as fuck. Basically the only time you can get him in your sights is when he swoops down right before he hits you repeatedly. Good luck trying to snap and run before that happens, while actually succeeding in hitting him.

There’s a horrible new addition to gameplay in this third installment. Late in the game when you’re playing the guy character whose camera is less powered up than the main character’s camera, you’re thrown a new challenge. You are informed through a file you pick up that if you don’t regularly pick up “purifying lights” (candles that burn out over time), the display will be monochromatic (it looks like a blurry black and white film negative) until you find another one. First off, the purifying lights aren’t obviously placed like other items you can pick up. You have to really search everything carefully (aka: use a walkthrough that tells you exactly where they are). Secondly, everything is harder to see when you’re stuck in monochromatic mode. And third, there are more ghosts and they’re much harder if you stay in monochromatic mode. Argh! Also during this night you’ll really have no idea where you’re supposed to go or what you’re supposed to do without a walkthrough. Not to mention, if you’re playing the game through a second time from the original save, there’s a branching pathway to get a different ending. And if you roam around with no aim, those tough ghosts are more likely to appear, and you’re wasting time while your purifying candle is burning down.

As you near the end of the game, without a walkthrough you wouldn’t know there’s a moment where you finish a battle and are positioned right in front of a door with a message that seems to direct you to go through that door…yet you actually have an option to follow a ghost that disappeared through a door on the other side of the room for a different outcome presented in cutscenes. You also would never know that when you’re collecting stakes from a doll room and you suddenly get locked in one but nothing happens, you need to go into camera view to trigger a ghost fight so you can defeat it to unlock the door.

The last night can be tedious. The goal is to gather five mirror pieces to put together to open a door to the final boss. However, this part gets into Clock Tower 3 territory again, for you are constantly pursued by an invincible ghost you simply have to run away from. The only time she goes away is when you enter one of the rooms where the mirror pieces are. Another challenge is that those damn purity candles are scarce. Honestly, I just played a majority of the final night in the monochromatic mode. As you work your way through the house this last time, it’s important to gather all the health and film you can, because you’re going to need it. This is one of those games that throws enemies at you on your way to the final boss. Argh!

Something crucial that you need to know which is mentioned early on in the walkthrough is insistence that there is a “stone mirror” in a particular location that you should absolutely not pick up, and I found out why at the end of the game. It is a one-time use auto-healer you’ll need for the last boss…actually you could really use like ten of them. After fighting your way through various ghosts, you meet the final boss. It’s a big arena, but she is not easy to target, so you’re constantly going to need to be on the run. But wait! There’s more! Quite frequently the screen will go monochromatic, at which point you start running in slow motion! The goal is to just dodge and run away from the boss as she pursues you (also in slow motion). If she grabs you it’s game over…except for the first time, when that one stone mirror saves you. After that, you have to make sure she doesn’t touch you every time you’re in black and white mode. It’s disorienting when the screen switches back to full color, but you need to stay on your toes and kill this bitch as fast as possible to avoid having too many monochromatic sessions. Fortunately, there’s one final save right before you cross a bridge to get to her, with no enemies along the way, so it won’t be that bad if you have to try over and over…although, it would’ve been nicer if the last save was after you crossed the damn bridge.

About Daniel

I am the author of the horror anthologies CLOSET MONSTERS: ZOMBIED OUT AND TALES OF GOTHROTICA and HORNY DEVILS, and the horror novels COMBUSTION and NO PLACE FOR LITTLE ONES. I am also the founder of BOYS, BEARS & SCARES, a facebook page for gay male horror fans! Check it out and like it at www.facebook.com/BoysBearsandScares.
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