Ages ago (two months if I’m going to be honest) I received a copy of Project Zero 2: Wii Edition through my mailbox. Only I had no recollection of ever ordering the game or even what the hell Project Zero was, then it hit me, while reading through our Games to Play for Halloween series I figured it out; Project Zero 2 is actually Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly …just regionalized. In actual fact the European title for the series is closer to the original Japanese title (which was originally simply called Zero) with the American release being the odd man out. See in Japanese zero is very close in spelling to the word for ghost so it’s just a bad a pun as “fatal frame”…well that’s enough talking about the different titles in different regions. While I might be a bit late to the party I figured its Halloween and this re-make of a classic PS2 game might be the last time my Wii will ever get used, so why not review the game and give the small white box a send off?
So we follow two teenage girls, Mio and Mayu, as they frolic in a wood, a Japanese wood. Japanese woods are creepier than any other woods due to their Japaneseness. Only a fog rolls in (a creepy Japanese fog!) and the two girls stumble upon the legendary Hidden Village, a village that mysteriously disappeared decades ago. All that remained of the village were statues of twins, supposedly there to project the village, shrouded in a permanent dense miasma.
Of course while the hidden village looks abandoned at first glance it’s actually populated by the tormented souls of those trapped in the village when it vanished. Their goal is to complete the unspeakable ceremony to save their village and their souls, the only thing they need is a set of twins. I should point out at this point that Mio and Mayu are twins if it isn’t obvious. The plot is actually a mixture of what happened in the village all those years ago and the present day as our two young heroines attempt to escape.
Graphically the game looks great. There are no loading screens either, they’re all masked behind door openings and it’s rarely as obvious as say Resident Evil or the Metroid Prime series. The village itself looks rustic, worn, weathered and actually real. It looks like it’s been there forever yet for some reason everything has fell into disrepair. This style helps give you the sense that this is an ancient place, the village isn’t just bricks and mortar it’s more organic, like it’s just willed itself up from the earth. Damp and decayed yet somehow grandiose in its limited design the village becomes a character onto itself. Couple this style with the sublime musical score and you end up with a real palpable sense of dread that manages to permeate throughout the game.
Sadly what the design and music does to the atmosphere the voice acting manages to ruin. It’s just bizarre; we’re watching two fey Japanese girls prance about acting like they’ve broken a nail yet they’re speaking Received Pronunciation, the kind of accent you might have heard in a British 1960’s news-program. And I’m English, if I’m finding it odd then who knows what other countries are thinking? Maybe it’s a regional thing, maybe in America these girls are speaking with some kind of New England accent. It works on a meta-level as it’s reminiscent of cheesy horror films the UK use to produce in vast qualities before they went from “horror” to “porn with a horror backdrop” but generally the game makes me want to laugh whenever they’re talking.
Putting aside the dialect the acting from the two main girls is wooden and stoic to the point where I cared nothing for them. The two lead females are just so bland and dull. Mio spends most of the game in a trance, allowing her to wonder off so the player controlled character has to repeatedly save her; while Mayu herself barely says anything and is completely incompetent during cutscenes. Then there is the animation of the main characters, they’re just so girly, I kept expecting Mayu to break a heel. They’re teenage girls lost in the woods surrounded by ghosts, I don’t expect them to be diving through windows, spin-kicking or even lifting any heavy bags but the way Mayu nonchalantly minces around annoys me. When the sister she apparently cares for is slowly walking away with a limp and she can’t be bothered to do anything more than lightly jog I’m just not feeling the supposed commitment the twins share with each other. I’ll also never get over the ‘going down-stairs’ animation which sees Mayu perform a little skip as she bounds down like she’s just had a phone-call from that boy she likes. It just doesn’t gel with the rest of the game.
The supporting cast is another story, they do their job perfectly. Their job is of course to scare the pants off you and be generally creepy. And damnit Japan, will you stop with the creepy long black hair already, I’ve got enough phobias to deal with as it is. There is some good voice acting from the supporting cast too. Like a lot of games you can collect audio messages, unlike many games however they’re played out of the wiimote speaker. The speaker in the old Wii controller has never been the best quality and often was completely forgotten by developers; but here, suddenly that shoddy quality makes perfect sense. The natural distortion, on top of the added heavy static, creates a wonderful eerie aged sound. When coupled with an anguished spirit from beyond it can either send a smile to your face or a shiver down your spine. Throughout the game I never looked forward to the unskippable cutscenes but whenever I got a new gem I listened to it with gusto.
As for the gameplay you only have one weapon to protect yourself from the many harmful ghosts, that weapon is the Camera Obscura. The camera is an ancient distinctly Japanese camera that can capture the otherworld on film. Ghosts are notoriously shy so taking their photo hurts them. The game is in third person but when you switch to the camera it switches to a first-person view. You can still move while in the view but obviously you won’t be able to see the anything outside of your field of view, so ghosts can creep up behind you without you knowing until its too late. To help you out in that regard you have a limited four-directional radar that’ll point you in the general direction of the ghost. Once you’ve found the ghost the longer you have to focus the shot the better the picture and the more damage you can cause. The camera has quite a long charge time so you’ll want to make those shots count as those ghosts edge ever closer to you. The whole “combat” element of the game is deliberately clunky and unintuitive, it’s not unfair (okay, rarely is it unfair), but combat is a slow dirge.
The least scary thing in this game is the combat because of the very nature of the game. I understand the developers didn’t want to weaken the enemies that haunt you throughout your game because without that sense of helplessness you’ve lost the horror. If you could quickly take out a ghost in a minute then it would affect then general feeling of the game but at the same time taking part in slow 10 minute fights isn’t exactly thrilling either. The problem is that ghosts have too much health and the camera does pitiful damage unless you use up your limited high-damage film (which you’ll want to save for a rainy day)and the ghosts themselves are not proactive enough. The majority of “fights” consists of ghosts walking slowly towards you or randomly teleporting around the room. You’ve got find them/ dodge their attack take their picture and then the pattern will repeat. Once you’ve got the pattern down there is no fear, no pang of dread, just a wearily sigh. Towards the end of the game this gets even worse as half of the ghosts you defeat will regain half their health and become more dangerous. Granted these become more proactive but it’s less fear more “I hope it won’t kill me so I won’t have to do this fight all over again”.
You can avoid the vast majority of ghosts fights (although there are many cases where you can’t) so you might be tempted to do that, only the game has an upgrade system. Each successful photo of a ghost will give you points you can spend to upgrade your camera. So if you skip the fights you’re losing all that experience that could help shorten the length in non-skippable fights. You can also pick up special lenses that have various effects on ghosts which in turn can be upgraded too.
Throughout the game you’ll explore creepy settings. You look in draws, you peak around corners, lift up curtains, gingerly wade through drapes, carefully open chests and generally poke around anywhere and everywhere looking for: items, those wonderful gem-stones to use in your radio and lots of lore about the village from before. Every time you do this Mayu will take forever reaching towards the object as the music swells building the tension until she picks up the item. Sometimes this added tension works, opening a door or looking behind a curtain where something might be lurking can be scary. Looking into a flower pot, not so much. However to justify this constant tension the game will occasionally have a disembodied hand fly out of the corner of the screen and grab Mayu, seriously damaging Mayu’s health, unless you stop reaching for the item in time. This by the way is completely unfair; the speed at which the hand flies at you makes it nearly impossible to consistently dodge. In the end I did learn how to dodge it every time…by listening to the Wii, if it loads while you’re reaching for something the hand will appear. That’s not how it’s meant to work; I’m not to be exploiting hardware constraints because you’ve thrown in unfair gameplay mechanics. In short this ghostly hand gimmick is annoying and wastes time.
As a story the game is predictable, you will have figured almost everything out before it gets revealed. The characters are unrelatable and that’s a problem as the twin’s relationship is the driving force of the plot. As a game it’s flawed, the gameplay mechanics are the way they are by design. The game isn’t meant to be easy, it’s not always meant to be fair, it is a success in the sense that it isn’t. Was the Resident Evil series scary because of the monsters or was it due to the fact you couldn’t aim and your movement was a chore. Give the series fluid controls, strengthen the weapons, weaken the enemies and turn the main characters into action heroes and you’ve rather lost the essence of the series. You’ve lost the horror, Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly: Wii Edition (Fatal Frame 2) hasn’t, as a horror the game succeeds despite itself. Occasionally you’ll find yourself holding your breath as you creep over an extremely long bridge or while you’re running (scampering?) towards a save point. That distinctly Japanese creepiness is omnipresent throughout the game and it creates an interesting 10-hour experience but as a whole I find the game hard to recommend.