Before I get started I just want to say that Fatal Frame is absolutely NOT based on a true story. The producer of the series has gone on record to say that the story is based on two Japanese urban legends and ghost stories, so it is certainly not true at all. This was a marketing slogan that was slapped on the cover for Western Markets. In Japan it was released as Zero, with Project Zero being the European title. The game was developed and published by Tecmo in Japan and the USA, with Europe being quite a mess with system exclusive publishers.
You start the game controlling Mafuyu Hinasaki, who is investigating the disappearance of his mentor, author Junsei Takamine. Junsei went to the Himuro Mansion to do research for his latest project with a couple of assistants. Not all is as it seems in the Himuro Mansion, and it soon becomes clear that the dark rituals performed here are more than mere rumors. Its not long before Mafuyu ends up getting entangled in the strange happenings around this ancient mansion that seems to pay heed to much darker Shinto rituals than most would want the outside world to know.
Mafuyu’s sister Miku then enters the game as the main character. She’s out to find her brother, but soon discovers the story and fate of the author’s team, and even a family that moved in after the Himuro clan suddenly died out. Mafuyu discovers that an antique camera, called the Camera Obscura, given to him by his mother has the power to exorcise ghosts, and Miku soon takes it up to use as her only weapon against the ghosts inhabiting Himuro Mansion.
This opens up a unique style of combat that is thrilling and pretty much shoves the chilling and in some cases nightmarish ghost design. Some of these images will stick with you for quite some time, don’t be surprised if they pop up in your dreams after a long night at work. Miku looks through the camera, and the game shifts from the normal fixed and panning camera angles straight into first person mode. Miku must then focus the camera on the ghost and take pictures to damage it. There is a bar that charges up with energy the longer you look at the ghost, attacking when this is fully charged deals more damage. Attacking while the ghost is charging you and with full energy deals even more damage and gives a huge bonus!
The Camera Obscura can be upgraded from the Spirit Points you gain by fighting ghosts. The ghosts get harder and harder to fight as you move through the game, so these upgrades and extra skills you can unlock can become wonderfully helpful. You can upgrade the damage radius, speed of energy charging, and damage output. The Camera also runs on film that is its ammunition. There are four levels of film, with each stronger one having a more limited supply, and there’s no shop in this game. Determining when to use what type of film is a good idea, blowing through all your powerful film early can kill you when you need it the most.
The ghosts never seem to be too overwhelming. Many of them are fought at specific points in the game, and are impossible or extremely difficult to escape normally. Random ghosts pop up in some locations if you spend too long wandering aimlessly trying to find your next goal. Unlike some other horror games like Clock Tower and Haunting Ground, these random ghosts are useful to hoard some points for upgrading, and most of them are rather harmless once you figure out their patterns.
The game is separated into four different chapters. Each chapter is one night. These nights all have their own self contained stories, but these work to build up the overarching story about the rituals and people involved in the old ways. Each night also introduces new enemies and unlocks more of the mansion to explore. Some old areas will have new items and events in them as well, so there is some backtracking, but you are rewarded for it so it never feels like wasted time.
In my experience its rare for a horror game to really grab you by its story. Most seem to run on atmosphere, tension, quick scares, puzzles, or just good mechanics, but the story is usually lackluster. Fatal Frame has everything that a great horror title needs. There is a reason for the main characters Mafuyu and Miku to be in Himuro Mansion, they have a purpose! They’re not just dropped into this environment against their will and forced to deal with it. The story unfolds slowly but keeps you eager to move forward, and each night has a defined ending, with the next night starting Miku in a new or old room with more to discover and explore, and new ghosts to exorcise!