Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse Hands-On Preview

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Fifteen years is a long time to wait. Yes, that’s how long it has taken Koei Tecmo to mercifully unshackle the fourth entry in the Fatal Frame franchise, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, from the now antiquated Nintendo Wii hardware that it initially launched back in 2008, and so it can finally see release on modern PlayStation, Windows PC and Xbox consoles for the first time.

Stalwarts of the latter gaming platform like myself that fancy themselves some Fatal Frame have arguably had it the hardest; of the six mainline games in the Fatal Frame saga (not including the upcoming remaster above), the Xbox platform has only seen three others: A port of the original Fatal Frame in 2002, a 2004 port of Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly and 2021’s remaster of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water. That’s a 17-year gap between the second and third games!

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In any case, as someone who never owned a Wii U and got rid of my Wii long before Maiden of Black Water appeared on it, I’m happy that fans like myself will finally have the opportunity to play the newer Fatal Frame games we’ve missed out on for so long on our modern platforms of choice, and with Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse being the chronologically earlier title than Maiden, it seems I’m jumping in at just the right time.

Full disclosure: Koei Tecmo kindly provided me with a Steam demo key containing the first three chapters of the game for this preview, but as they advised, I played it exclusively with a controller (Xbox Series) and found the experience indistinguishable from playing on an Xbox Series X, which is probably where I’ll be buying and playing the game when it launches next month.

Returning to the world of Fatal Frame after so many years brought back all the same feelings: I was actually living and working as an English teacher in the Japanese countryside when I discovered the original Fatal Frame on PlayStation 2 in 2001, and for some reason, there’s just something about virtually running around haunted versions of the houses, shrines and temples that were just outside my window, with nothing to defend myself with but an antique camera, that fills me with a warm (but also creepy) nostalgia. Look, there’s no way I can write this without it sounding weird, OK?

If you’ve ever played a Fatal Frame game before, then you’ll immediately get it when I say that enjoying such games requires players to embrace conventional Japanese “whimsy” and leave their Western expectations of modern game controls at the door.

What I’m trying to say here is that regardless of which Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse protagonist players end up controlling (there are a total of four that players will assume the role of, three female and one male), their walk speed is irritatingly slow, while running, activated by holding down the Right Trigger (RT) when in third-person view, approaches the pace of a brisk but leisurely jog. This has been a feature of the franchise from the beginning, and there ain’t no changing it.

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This is clearly Koei Tecmo’s version of a well-worn survival horror convention, designed to add challenge to a gameplay pace that is relatively slow compared to most action titles. Obviously, controlling a slower player character makes it harder to escape the cursed spirits that can harm and eventually kill you by touching you. In addition, the game’s poltergeists frequently mix things up by disappearing and reappearing behind or near the player, often just out of sight. And, as ghosts are known to do, the vengeful spirits can also hover through walls and other objects to get closer to players, giving them less time to defend themselves.

Enter the Camera Obscura and the Spirit Flashlight, the two main weapons that will serve as players’ only offence and defence against the spirit world. Toggling the Left Trigger (LT) will bring up the first-person viewfinder of the Camera Obscura, or alternatively, when controlling the male protagonist Detective Kirishima, a similar perspective of the Spirit Flashlight that he wields in his left hand. It’s in this mode that players can “focus” the lens of the camera or flashlight and inflict varying amounts of damage on attacking ghosts, with shots taken closer to the spirit and in the middle of its attack being the most damaging of all.

This brings me to the two main drawbacks of Fatal Frame, which I was painfully reminded of in the demo: The first-person control scheme is very different from the third-person one, and neither is particularly good when compared to most modern controls. Like the walking speed, this has always been the case throughout the Fatal Frame franchise, but the fact that neither of these schemes can be customised in any significant way at the interface level makes them feel all the more outdated in 2023.

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In third-person for instance, the Right Analog Stick (RS) governs movement of both the player character’s head (i.e. what he or she is looking at) as well as their flashlight (whether it’s the plain-Jane flashlight that the girls are using or Det. Kirishima’s ceremonial one), but the Left Analog Stick (LS) strictly controls character rotation only.

Holding down Right Trigger (RT) moves the character in the direction that he or she is pointed, and there’s no way to back up. Instead, players have to click the LS Button to rotate 180 degrees quickly, put some space in-between themselves and the attackers, and then quick-rotate again to face them. So, essentially, we’re talking Resident Evil-era tank controls, just from a third-person perspective.

Further confounding matters is the restrictive first-person viewfinder mode, where LS can only strafe left or right, or move the character forward or backward, and RT, already associated with moving forward in third-person, takes spirit pictures. It goes without saying that this shift requires some brain rewiring on the player’s part.

Viewfinder mode can only be toggled on or off with LT, rather than held, which means that even in the heat of spirit battle players must remember to manually lower their camera before they can run, use restorative items or equip upgrades on their weapon. It’s also very easy in viewfinder mode to get stuck on objects that are below or just outside of the player’s field of view, which can truly make battles with one or more spirits in the demo’s many tight corridors and rooms rather frustrating.

“As one would expect, the audio in Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is hauntingly atmospheric…”

It isn’t anywhere as bad as it sounds, though. Players that remain patient and persevere with the control scheme until they’ve got it down are eventually in for a good time, because Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse continues the franchise tradition of telling a good ol’ fashioned, Japanese ghost story without needing to rely on copious amounts of violence or gore.

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Visually the game boasts excellent production values despite being an HD remaster of a 2008 Wii game, and only betrays its age when real-time cutscenes and transitional shots force the camera to get up close to the retouched textures of some objects. While Detective Kirishima is a bit meh-looking, the game’s three female muses, Ruka, Misaki and Madoka are beautifully designed and their bizarrely distinct Japanese tastes in fashion as they battle the spirit world in high heels help to take some of the seriousness out the proceedings, which is something that this scaredy-cat gamer welcomes.

As one would expect, the audio in Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is hauntingly atmospheric and is constantly incorporating vocals, sound effects and even familiar audio cues from other games in the same wheelhouse (e.g. FROM Software’s Souls games) that are designed to make players feel uneasy and vulnerable, even when nothing is happening.

Meanwhile, the excellent surround sound, while not necessarily crucial to combat, is extremely helpful for determining where spirits are approaching and/or attacking from during combat, often saving players the need to rely on the Camera Obscura’s attack sensor upgrade.

Finally, as a survival-horror game, it should surprise no one that the Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse demo had me trekking back and forth individually as Ruka, Misaki, and Madoka across the interior premises of a former Meiji-period sanatorium turned hotel-solving mystical puzzles.

This meant finding hidden keys to unlock doors, recovering ceremonial masks from lifting curses or finding diaries and documents that gradually uncover new information about the girls’ lost memories and the mysterious incident that brought them there in the first place. These activities are similar to the kinds of brain-teasers found in the early RE games, and the fun of solving them was a big motivator in helping me push past the scarier, more challenging bits.

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As with past Fatal Frame games, there’s quite a bit of Pokémon Snap-style fun to be had here too, as passing, non-aggressive encounters with spirits occur frequently, and players quick enough to whip out their camera and snag a shot of said spirits before they disappear can earn bonus spirit points that can be used to unlock items. These encounters also do a great ancillary job of fleshing out the story, supplementing found documents by giving the player glimpses of incidents that occurred there long before.

All things considered, if my experience with this PC demo is anything to go by, both existing Fatal Frame fans like myself who missed out when Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse was imprisoned on the Wii as well as complete newcomers to the franchise, can look forward to a solid, bug-free remaster, regardless of which platform they play on (fingers crossed, knock on wood). I’m ready to embrace the whimsy!

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