Pokemon Snap once taught us that a game about taking pictures could be marginally fun, but Fatal Frame teaches us that it can be downright scary. The third in the series, as you would expect, is called Fatal Frame III. Back when it first showed up, it was a rookie franchise looking to make its mark on the Survival Horror genre. While Resident Evil and Silent Hill had already dug their claws into the ground, several other companies attempted to copy the mold. You get a couple guns, scant health items, brain-dead puzzles, and controls that make your character run more like a motorized vehicle than a real person. Besides Silent Hill, most of these games had succeeded more in providing thrills based around action and "pop-out" moments where enemies would attempt to scare you when you least expected it.
In this sense, Fatal Frame tried to differentiate. Most of the conventions were still there, but it did aim to change one aspect of the genre – combat. By pressing a button, you could look through the viewfinder of your ocular weapon, the Camera Obscura, and zap ghosts as they attacked you from every angle. The constriction your ability to see when in camera mode and the fact that ghosts were transparent and could move through walls added to the heightened tension. In most Survival Horror games, if an enemy pops out at you, you can still see it and its movement is likely confined to the hallway or room you're in. But in Fatal Frame, you have little to no peripheral vision. You can only depend on the light at the top of your Camera Obscura to tell you when you have a ghost in sight. In some cases, you can follow the ghost visually, but tougher ones may attack you in small groups, or disappear and reappear elsewhere, or move in complex circles. Quite often, you feel like a chicken running around with its head cut off, but when you blast a ghost less than a foot from your face, there's a deep sense of satisfaction.
The formula in Fatal Frame III hasn't changed much, though. It's still fun and frustrating at the same time. When faced with an especially tough ghost, it sometimes feels as though the controls are working against you, but the combat system itself is rewarding. Tracking a ghost will charge up your power meter and when it attack you, there's an opportunity for a "Shutter Chance" or the even more precise "Fatal Frame," both highlighted by your camera's lens turning red. As opposed to just damaging the enemy, catching them in a Shutter Chance or Fatal Frame will knock them back and the latter of the two will even allow you to continue to combo attack the ghost. The certain, solid impact of a Fatal Frame is exciting and frantically lining up for the second or third combo shot can be a lot of fun. Using these higher-level techniques will net you points which can be used to upgrade your camera. In addition, there are also hidden ghosts found throughout the game that can give you bonus points if you manage to capture them. Some will only appear for a few seconds, so you have to be quick. Not only can you upgrade your camera via the point system, but you will occasionally find new add-ons or lenses that allow you special abilities such as slowing down the ghosts. The only flaw in this system is that the game's 14-or-so chapters requires you to play as four different characters. Each technically has a different Camera Obscura, so you have to upgrade them individually. This can make some chapters frustrating since you suddenly find yourself with weaker abilities.
Considering that the combat has remained largely the same, it isn't a total surprise to see that other aspects of the game have, as well. It works to the advantage of the Fatal Frame series, though, as it wraps up and includes elements of all three games. The main character, Rei, is a photographer and freelance journalist who has recently lost her boyfriend, Yuu. Yuu was researching Urban Legends with fellow anthropologist Kei Amakura, the uncle of Mio and Mayu from Fatal Frame II. Both of them have relations with Mafuyu Hinasaki, the brother of Miku Hinasaki, the heroine of the first game in the series. Brought together by their tragedy, Miku is now Rei's assistant, helping her research things and work around the house since Yuu's death has consumed her with grief. As is found out rather early in the game, each of these characters, as well as others are part of The Tormented (also the game's subtitle). They are all intrinsically drawn to the Manor of Sleep, every one of them either the only survivor of some sort of accident or they feel that they somehow attributed to the death of a loved one. The Manor of Sleep is a labyrinthine mansion connected to the "other side" and those who are tormented, or barely escaped death, are pulled into its world through their dreams. The plot, as a whole, is too complex to describe here, but the main idea is that a malevolent force is playing on the main characters' survival guilt in order to claim the lives which it was denied. Along the way, plot points from all three games will come together as you uncover the mysteries behind the mysterious rituals used to keep a rift from opening to the "other side." You'll also visit sections of the Himuro Mansion from Fatal Frame and the All-Gods Village from Fatal Frame II. In the world of dreams, they are connected directly to the Manor of Sleep.
As the Manor is the centerpiece for the game (in-between chapters you can develop film or talk with Miku and otherwise advance the plot before you fall back asleep and move on to the next section), you'll be spending a lot of time traversing its various corridors and rooms. Access to different parts of the house are restricted depending on who you are playing with and the goals of the chapter. Some require you to solve puzzles. There aren't all that many puzzles in the game and a few are repeated, though none are extremely difficult. Others can only be accessed once another character opens up the path (Miku can wriggle into narrow crevices and Kei can move heavy objects). Each character has their own properties, but they are mostly just variations on the same thing. Miku has the charm from the original game that allows her to slow down enemies, for instance, but it isn't much different from just using the camera to do it.
The Manor of Sleep is fairly expansive, but, at times, not big enough. Every chapter seems to have you going through the same rooms over and over again, each time only opening up a couple new areas. There is just far too much backtracking in the game, which can get tedious and frustrating. What's more is that some goals can be accomplished out of order, making it easy to lose your way or realize what you need to do to progress. I'm all for games not guiding you by the hand the entire time, but there should be more ambient signals as to where you should be progressing. Sometimes it is just too vague and you end up wandering around for far too long. One good example is at the end of one of Rei's chapters where you get a key. You then go through a chapter as Kei, with the following one switching back to Rei. At this point, you've likely forgotten that you have the key and don't realize that you can open up a new path. Another problem is the lack of save points. Certain chapters may have you go into areas far away from the main save points only to face a ghost that is extremely difficult or (at the time) impossible to beat. If you die, you have a lot to catch up on. It doesn't help that a lot of times you really have to go out of your way to get to the save points, too. This mixture of vagueness and confusion over goals puts a dent in an otherwise well-designed game.
Indeed, the visuals and audio are well done. Fatal Frame III supports progressive scan, but even without it, it remains as appealing and creepy as ever (though, admittedly, it would be nice to have a free camera rather than a fixed one, considering the environments are in full 3D). There isn't much music in the game, but there is plenty of ambient noise that fits well with the theme. Even leaving Fatal Frame III paused on the menu screen, there's a creepy little girl counting to ten in the background. The presentation is well-rounded, preserving ease of navigation in addition to wonderful aesthetics. Random, creepy sounds, moving objects in the background, and the sudden appearances of ghosts add a bit of life (not a pun, I swear) to the environs. The only drawbacks here are the odd voices of the characters. They are sometimes too soft and/or echoed. There might be some intention behind this, as it seems to be the same throughout the entire series, but there's no practical reason for it. Likewise, the controls for using the Camera Obscura can be a bit difficult at first, especially with movement switched to the other analog stick. Playing in this mode will take getting used to for anybody that hasn't played a Fatal Frame game before, but, once again, when everything clicks, the experience of using the camera is exhilarating.
If you're a long-time fan of the series, Fatal Frame probably won't disappoint, though. Even if you haven't played it before, the combat system can be refreshing and if you're just a newbie to the Survival Horror genre altogether, it is a fun and frightening experience. Once you finish the game, you can always try tackling a harder difficulty, finding hidden ghosts that you missed, or attempt to unlock some of the optional costumes for the playable characters. Fatal Frame III really ties the entire series together and provides a good and complex plot with plenty of scares and frantic moments.