There are so many differences between American and Japanese culture it’s hard to believe they developed on the same planet. One of the things that continue to separate the two is the horror genre. Compare the US remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the original Ringu and tell me there’s not a difference in what “scares” us. Hollywood has always been determined to throw as much blood and guts at the screen as possible then say, “Look, that’s scary! Stop arguing, yes it is!” Japan as a culture, however, knows that the greatest tool for scaring people is their own imagination. Hence, the fear of what one does not see permeates Japanese horror, and as such will fiercely freak people out.
Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly is hands-down one of the freakiest gaming experiences I’ve ever had. If you crossed Spirited Away with The Ring then you’d get an idea of what’s in store for you. This is the game you break out to really scare your friends and significant others, and that absolutely has to be played late at night with the lights off. Of course, if a neighbor should come home and slam the door during a really intense moment (as happened to me when I played Undying), then those lights will go back on in a hurry.
Mio and Mayu are the twin sisters in this tale, and when Mayo runs after a crimson butterfly deep into a forest, they find themselves in a dark village. The village apparently disappeared during a festival, and all who enter the forest are trapped there. Fatal Frame 2 wants to scare the bejeezus out of you every second you’re playing, so you need to know this going in. Right from the outset there are flashes of what happened, and ghosts and worse will appear in the background. Once you get the camera, then you can take pictures of the ghosts thereby capturing their souls (or setting them free depending on your beliefs), but this type of combat can be tricky when the ghost in question is both very strong and very ticked off.Fatal Frame 2 wouldn’t be near as scary as it is if it didn’t look as good as it does. Simply put, the game is gorgeous. The cinematics are all beautifully rendered, with the characters extremely lifelike. The backgrounds in the village are painstakingly realized, and the amount of detail in each house is incredible. The ghosts are all spooky, but some are genuinely scary (some caused me to lose sleep, thanks guys!) enough that switching to an episode of Seinfeld or even pro-wrestling for half an hour to unwind might be just the thing. The quibbles I have are with the camera angles, which are just like those in any standard survival-horror game: Cinematic-themed. When you’re walking down the hall, the camera may cut to a wide, slightly askew angle, which can make it tough to see where you need to go. Considering how dark some areas are, it can be rather difficult to see if you’ve got all the lights on. Creepy, creepy, creepy. The music for Fatal Frame 2 is very elegant at times, very rapid at others, and sometimes has an air of melancholy to it. Overall, this is a fine score that perfectly enhances the mood of every scene. And unlike lame horror flicks like Darkness Falls and hundreds of others, there’s no sudden jump to 11 in the score. The music plays fair and consistent, which makes eye-popping shocks just that much scarier. Ditto the sound effects, which are terrific. Simple noises like the girls running upstairs or doors sliding open are spot-on, but it’s what the ghosts sound like where the effects crew really earned their paychecks. Ghosts can crawl out of anything, or be anywhere, and the whispering they make combined with the other ambient noises will creep you out. The controls are pretty intuitive, but they remain somewhat sluggish like they are in survival horror games. Controlling Mio while she’s running about is sluggish, but at least when the camera combat comes into play the control is a lot more fluid. It helps to be prepared before fighting a ghost, but during combat you can at least move quickly enough to stand a chance. There aren’t any wonky jumping puzzles as Mio can’t jump, so at least that’s not part of the equation. You move with the left thumbstick and run by holding down the square button. The X button will search for items and confirm choices. When you get the camera and have selected it, the L1 button changes the power-up for your lens and the R1 button (or X button) will take the photo. You can use the triangle button to use the lens power-up, and holding down the square button while turning will quickly turn the camera. This is a very fun game, but if you do not like scares then don’t play Fatal Frame 2. The ghosts are not happy you’re in their town, and there is some lingering hostility from when the town first vanished. Overall, this is best played in the dark with no one else around. And the manual even points out that the game is best played with headphones. I don’t know if I could do that as Fatal Frame 2 has weirded me out too much already. The way the game plays with your mind, and shows you things on the edge of your view can really get to you. I’m loving it, and fully intend to show this off to friends when they come over. The combat is pretty good once you get the feel of it, but I actually think this is the weakest part of the game. Overall, it feels so much like an adventure and puzzle game that throwing in combat (however minimal) was an after thought, despite being the focus of the title. Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed like piecing together the puzzle of what happened in the village and figuring out how to escape would be the two central tenets of the game. Once you’ve seen the scares Fatal Frame 2 has in store you, they really aren’t that scary afterwards. There’s a scene right at the beginning when the girls first get to the village that royally freaked me out the first time I saw it, but watching it again I just marveled that it was a cool creep-out moment, and moved on. This is definitely worth playing, especially at night with a bunch of friends, but the chills are muted after completion. I’ve heard rumors of another ending on the more difficult levels, but due to deadlines I was unable to confirm that.