A month ago, during my Steam/PC preview of Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, I declared that I was ready to “embrace the whimsy” of playing a Fatal Frame game after not having done so in over twenty years. Now that I’ve had a chance to play the finished port, I can finally answer the question of whether this remaster is a proper, modern touch-up of what we got on the Nintendo Wii back in 2008, or to paraphrase Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, is it just “2000 and later”? The answer seems to be…both?
First, a quick recap: Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse takes place in the 1980s on a remote and seemingly abandoned fictional Japanese island known as Rogetsu Isle, whose inhabitants were known for celebrating a traditional Japanese dance ritual called the Kagura, or “Moon Dance,” until a mysterious disaster struck the island eight years earlier, taking the lives of the entire island’s population.
Three 18-year-old girls, Misaki Asō, Madoka Tsukimori, and Ruka Minazuki, were former residents of the island who, along with two other girls, were found and rescued by Detective Chōshirō Kirishima after being kidnapped during the Kagura two years before the tragedy, but all five girls have since lost their memories of everything up to and including their rescue, as well as their childhood memories of living on the island.
Coincidentally, the abduction caused the parents of all five girls to immediately move their families to the Japanese mainland, but eight years later, after the recent mysterious deaths of the other two girls in the same death pose as the islanders eight years ago, Misaki, Madoka, Ruka and Chōshirō are inevitably drawn back to Rogetsu Island to seek answers at the infirmary and sanatorium where the girls were once hospitalized.
Aiding our protagonists in their battle against the supernatural (i.e. ghosts, duh) are two mystical artifacts, the Camera Obscura (shared by the ladies) and the Spirit Stone Flashlight (wielded exclusively by Chōshirō). The Camera Obscura is an ornate, antique camera that can damage ghosts, lift curses, break magical seals, and, more simply, photograph them. The Spirit Stone Flashlight works in much the same way, except it uses the power of moonbeams to blast enemies instead of film. Both weapons can be upgraded with different lenses and Spirit Stones to increase their effectiveness and unlock new abilities.
Readers that checked out last month’s preview of Mask of the Lunar Eclipse will recall that despite my fandom for Fatal Frame on the whole, I found that the gameplay offered in the demo leaned heavily on just about all of the franchise’s-long established tropes, conventions and mechanics and shared several of its flaws. Well, the exact same holds for this Xbox version. Offering no more than two control schemes, Classic and Action, console players will need to acclimatize themselves quickly with Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse’s somewhat odd take on Resident Evil tank controls.
In addition to that earlier game’s well-known clunk, holding Right Trigger (RT) governs forward sprinting in third-person view, while pulling RT (or in Chōshirō’s case, holding and then releasing RT) in viewfinder mode deals damage to enemies via spirit photos or moonbeam energy. Meanwhile, the Left Trigger (LT) has only one job: To toggle the player’s POV between the viewfinder and third-person modes.
I won’t belabour the point, as I covered my issues with these control schemes in detail in last month’s preview. Still, the result is a setup where even experienced Fatal Frame players will find themselves fumbling around and accidentally issuing the wrong command when caught off guard, like lowering their camera obscura or spirit stone flashlight while fighting ghosts when they mean to raise it and vice versa.
“Fortunately, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse isn’t just about fighting and/or running from ghosts…”
The problem is compounded by the sluggish walking and running speed of the game’s four protagonists, which makes it difficult for players to navigate their way out of sticky situations, especially when there are multiple ghosts or other obstacles like furniture blocking their intended path. This isn’t to say that either control scheme is broken, far from it, but they are certainly in need of some unification and streamlining…whimsy can only take you so far.
Fortunately, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse isn’t just about fighting and/or running from ghosts. There are also Pokémon Snap-inspired collectibles like the Ghost List (Spectres) and Hozuki Dolls to keep collectors and min-maxers busy. As players progress through the game and uncover the secrets of Rogetsu Isle, they will naturally encounter countless “spectres,” which are generally non-aggressive versions of the game’s many ghosts, going through the routines and activities they performed while alive, as well as the final actions they took just before their unfortunate deaths.
Not only do the ghosts’ sudden appearances often serve as clues as to where to go next or where to find key items to progress, but if players are able to quickly snap a photo of the ghost before it disappears, they will earn bonus Spirit Points on top of the Spirit Points they would normally earn from defeating ghosts in battle, which can be exchanged at Yellow Lanterns (i.e., Save Points) for items such as healing potions, stronger camera film types to deal more damage to ghosts, and other goodies.
Most of the time, tapping LT as soon as a ghost appears will bring up the viewfinder and immediately point the player in the direction of the ghost to line up the perfect shot. Still, there will be times when ghosts will appear or move behind an object. In those cases, players will have to quickly move the character into position to take the shot before the ghost disappears (which is much easier said than done thanks to the aforementioned controls…you probably won’t “catch ’em all” on your first playthrough).
Photographing Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse‘s Hozuki Dolls, on the other hand, is a simple, stress-free collect-a-thon that allows players to unlock additional abilities and costumes for each main character. In the game’s lore, photographing these red kimono-wearing dolls with either the Camera Obscura or the Spirit Stone Flashlight is said to bring good luck, break the curse placed upon them, and allow the spirits of the children they symbolize to properly move on to the afterlife.
This activity encourages players to be ever vigilant as they explore new areas, and completionists in particular, will be driven to poke their noses into every nook and cranny to find and photograph each and every one of these dolls, many of which are cleverly hidden in plain sight.
For those who cannot get enough of the monster closets and jump scares and are more interested in a challenge, rest assured that there are many major, inescapable scares and impromptu ghost battles that players will definitely not see coming on their first playthrough. Some of them will actually harm the player and put them at a dangerous disadvantage without warning.
For this reason, it’s highly recommended that players use the nearest yellow lantern whenever possible to perform a manual save or quick save, as well as trade Spirit Points to stock up on valuable consumables such as film and medicine. This is especially important if you feel you’re about to face a challenging poltergeist.
“I enjoyed playing through Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, despite its dated controls.”
Not having played a Fatal Frame game since the 2004 Xbox port of Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly from nearly 20 years ago, I worried that Mask of the Lunar Eclipse‘s story might not hold up, or that the game might have abandoned some or all of the tightly woven, character-driven storytelling that the franchise is known for in favor of more modern sensibilities.
As it turns out, I need not have worried. I’ll admit that the story may seem a bit dated and old-fashioned in its presentation, but in this writer’s opinion, these are the types of Japanese ghost stories that resonate the most, managing to tell a grotesque tale of horror without the excessive, gratuitous violence of their Western contemporaries.
What’s also compelling about Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is how its antagonists are written. A famous quote from The Writer’s Journey states that “Every villain is the hero of his own story,” and while hopefully no one in their right mind will ever see the villains of this story as heroes, as the player learns more about them through the objects, logs, recordings, and other puzzle pieces that these characters leave behind, you at least come to understand the motivations behind their actions, and perhaps even feel a little sorry for them as they descend further and further into madness.
Although Rogetsu Isle and its horrific rituals are pure fiction, many elements of it draw chilling inspiration from real Japanese folklore, and the “moonlight syndrome” that afflicts the islanders clearly has its analogues in real-life diseases and disorders such as dementia and facial dysmorphophobia (fear of facial deformity).
As someone who can count at least one blood relative currently living with dementia, and one of my greatest fears is that I may one day lose my mother, father, and even myself to this insidious disease, I found reading the many memos and suicide notes of islanders describing the experience of succumbing to “Moonlight Syndrome” particularly disturbing. Still, in the same breath, it made these tragic stories feel all the more poignant and grounded, supernatural elements notwithstanding.
I have to give a shout-out to the audio design of Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, which is impeccable. The atmosphere of the haunted sanitarium is truly terrifying, with random sounds such as unseen objects falling off shelves, the warping and cracking of old wood exposed to the elements, and the deep, crackling throat sounds of singers bouncing around the soundscape (and if you’re wearing a good pair of surround headphones, inside your ears) with crisp, clear reproduction.
When fighting in viewfinder mode, it’s even possible to pinpoint the location of most ghosts several seconds before you actually see them by positional audio alone, making the visual filament sensor in the camera obscura almost completely redundant. Separately, the game also features a robust photo mode and a variety of costumes and accessories that can be unlocked with Spirit Points.
I enjoyed playing through Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, despite its dated controls. Players who enjoy slower-paced action adventure, collect-a-thons, unlockables and, of course, Japanese ghost stories are bound to get the most out of this game. Still, its reasonable price of $49.99 USD ($59.99 CAD) also makes it an attractive impulse buy when compared to the high price of several recent game releases…if you happen to be feeling whimsical.