Zero: Shisei no Koe
Regular readers will know that I'm more than a little biased when it comes to the Zero series having mentioned it continually since the beginning of the year. Known in the US as Fatal Frame and in the UK as Project Zero, Shisei no Koe (Voice of the Tattoo) is the third title in the series and due to be released in America as Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented in time for Halloween.
Survival horror is a booming genre and yet the Zero series stands out because of its unique method of play, which involves the heroine of each game using a camera with the power to see spirits, and the distinctly Japanese setting.
Shisei no Koe expands on these concepts by not only having three protagonists but also takes a leaf from Silent Hill: The Room by having the game play out in two different worlds; reality (in the form of a house belonging to Rei Kurosawa) and a nightmare world known as the Mansion of Nightmares (a dilapidated Japanese mansion that encompasses various unpleasant ghosts and includes locations from the previous two games).
The story centres around a freelance photographer named Rei Kurosawa, Miku Hinasaki (heroine of the original game) and Kei Amakura (the first male protagonist). Rei recently lost her boyfriend Yuu Aso in a car crash and has been grieving for him ever since but, after taking a picture of him while visiting a haunted house on a photo shoot, she begins having nightmares of an abandoned mansion and a blue snake tattoo is slowly creeping across her skin.
Following Yuu's ghost, Rei is led deeper into the Mansion, through snow-filled gardens, musty libraries and a candle-lit graveyard, and comes across the Shaeiki, an antique camera which can exorcise the spirits that roam this forsaken dimension. Soon Miku, Rei's assistant, is also drawn into the dreams and forced to relive the night she lost her brother in Himuro Mansion. Finally Kei, Yuu's best friend, enters the nightmare in his search for a lost relative who will familiar to anyone who played Crimson Butterfly.
An added feature is that each character has certain abilities that are unique to them, so Miku can move around in small crawl spaces (leading to a terrifying first-person battle with a lightening fast scuttling ghost) and can also use her sixth sense to slow ghosts down, making it easier to get that elusive fatal frame. The bar increases every time she is hit, but will decrease quickly if used. On the other hand, Kei's abilities are a little more mundane; he can move heavy objects and hid from ghosts in nooks and crannies.
The two distinct environments give the game a different feel to previous instalments. Characters can leave the Mansion at any time by simply walking to the main entrance and each time they return, the basic stock of film and health drinks is automatically replenished. Also Rei will awake either in her day clothes - which means you have a task to fulfil - or in her nightdress, meaning you should really return to her nightmare but not before saving your game on the handily placed camera on her desk.
Yet Rei's talents as a photographer also come in handy in the real world. Certain pictures snapped in the mansion can be taken to the darkroom (yes, you heard me, Rei is still using a 35mm camera) in Rei's house and developed, then passed on to Miku who investigates the images in order to piece the story together.
Rei's home is typically Japanese, which adds to the feel of the game; from the slippers by the front door to the Buddhist altar in the den. Added to this, there is some contact with the outside world via a telephone, regular letters and Ruri, Rei's pet cat, also plays an important part in the experience either by being something to pet or giving you subtle hints on where to go next. Cupboards, boxes and bookshelves hide movie reels, files and ancient books and your spiral bound, page-turning notebook (a universal feature) is regularly updated with juicy information. Oh, and Rei even has an attic straight out of The Grudge - don't go up there alone! Yet, as the game progresses, this typical suburban dwelling becomes slowly looses it's 'safe haven' status; a ghost having a shower, the TV spitting out static as you pass, reflections walking past you as you look in a mirror.
Like the previous game, colour is an important factor and Shisei no Koe's theme is blue. So, while inside the Mansion, the soothing blue light of lamps herald a place to save your game. Rei's house is bright, spacious and lulls you into a false sense of security while the Mansion is dark, dirty and generally unpleasant.
Providing doors aren't locked, characters can go anywhere in the Mansion of Nightmares, so Rei can wandering around in the fishtank room of Himuro Mansion and Miku can visit a prison in Minakami Village. The problem is though, it's very easy to get lost.
Like previous games, you must break the protective barriers, or kekkai, that seal off certain rooms by defeating a particular spirit or photographing an object. Finding said room or object is often elusive but doable, eventually. Sometimes it's merely a case of finding the correct route as the Mansion has a huge floor plan and the only way to read some rooms that are geographically next door, can involve traipsing up and down several flights of stairs on the other side of the building. Aside from these puzzles, the pentagram locks from Himuro Mansion make a welcome return, other doors must be unlocked using stones with a set number of moves and of course, there is also the classic 'find xxx item, then figure out where it goes in xxx puzzle' to enjoy.
The camera interface has been modified a little since Crimson Butterfly and now there's no need to search for orbs to power up the special features, just collect points and off you go. The extra lenses have made a welcome reappearance and it is much easier to pull of combo shots providing the player spends long enough honing their skills. Yet. While the camera itself is the same and all lenses and special features are universal, the abilities change depending on which character you are playing.
And believe me, you will need to think about this. Not only do many of the spirits seems to respawn in different locations in the mansion, they are also faster and smarter. Some ghosts float and swoop down on you, others try to pin you in a corner and go at you with spears or there are tiny shrine maidens or - as I've nick-named them -- 'mini-Miko' who like to hammer nails into your feet. And don't even get me started with the priest and his large, bloodied cleaver!
Also worth mentioning is the amazing cut scenes. Previously fans were disappointed when hardly anything featured in the original trailers for Crimson Butterfly made it into the final game. However, this has been remedied and every image featured in the promotional material has been retained. Graphics are vital to a horror game and Shisei no Koe is no exception, particularly when the screen becomes grainy, signalling the approach of a vengeful spirit, or during the opening section of the game, which is played entirely in black and white.
Yet, if you can make it past the sheer beauty and genius of the game in order to spent a good couple of days playing it solidly, there is a ghost list to complete and several different endings to find. Completing the game also unlocks various different extra options, including a gallery, the customary collection of new outfits, various missions and hard mode. Finally the game features an up-beat image song entitled Koe from J-pop artist Tsukiko Amano (who also sang Chou, the theme song from Crimson Butterfly).
Despite the fact that gamers in the US have to wait until November for a domestic release, Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented is sure to be a popular addition to the collection of all die-hard fans of the series.