“Dark,” “scary” and “disturbing” probably aren’t the first three words that come to mind when you think of Nintendo published games. Yet 2008’s Fatal Frame 4 is all three. It seemed perfectly positioned to provide the type of mature core game the platform was short on.
Then, though a series of misfortunes and f*ckups, localisation was cancelled, and it never saw release outside Japan. Not to be deterred, a group of series fans put together a translation patch, allowing those of us not fluent in Japanese to import and play the game to experience it. But is it worth the bother? If you’re an old school horror gamer, yes.
Fatal Frame 4 is a horror game in quite a traditional vein. You explore a claustrophobic building, collecting keys to progress, piecing together the story primarily through diaries, notes, and letters, and spending more time exploring in tense silence than battling enemies. The pace is slow, as are movement and turning, and there’s quite a bit of backtracking. While this may put off some gamers, I found it a welcome change today’s more action-oriented “horror” games. The fact that you can’t sprint and twitch aim only raises the tension, making you feel more helpless.
The one old school element I did find problematic was the lack of checkpoints. When you die, you have to reload your last save, which can be frustrating if that was half an hour ago. You quickly learn to take every opportunity to save your progress, but as gamers today, myself included, are used to having their progress auto-saved every five minutes, it can be easy to forget and have to redo large segments.
Fatal Frame 4 is very, very scary, and not in a “zombies and monsters popping out of closets” kind of way. Its scares are about watching a ghost go into a room and knowing you have to follow and that a gruelling struggle will likely follow. About running for your life from an unstoppable enemy that can teleport and move through walls. About hearing groans from behind a curtained bed, and holding down “A” to slowly pull the curtain back. The game uses a “touch” system where to pick up an item or interact with things, you hold A, and can let go at any time to pull back. And you’ll need to, because ghosts can use items as traps to ambush you. This makes even the simple act of picking up medicine a nerve-wracking process.
The combat, in which you take photos of enemies with a paranormal camera to exorcise them, itself is a methodical affair, where you try to line up and charge shots while your enemy fades through walls to flank you or advances slowly only to lunge unexpectedly. When looking through the camera’s lens, your peripheral vision is stunted, which adds to the fear factor, especially when fighting multiple enemies.
This being a Wii game, one would assume that your character’s torch would be pointer-controlled, but instead it’s controlled by tilting. This sounds awkward, and at first, it is, but again, the resulting slowness plays into the game’s overall pace and design philosophy. You also shake to throw off ghosts that grab you, which makes sense, and to dodge, which makes less sense but doesn't detract from the experience. Other motion controls are few and far between, like using the pointer to play keys on a piano. The remote speaker is used for ghostly phone calls, which is genuinely creepy, as it really sounds like its coming from another world and invading ours via electronics, a la The Ring.
Due to the system’s shortage of power relative to its competitors, few Wii games even bothered with realistic graphics. Fatal Frame 4 does bother, and the results are actually quite effective. It won’t dazzle you with flashy visual effects, but this restraint serves its grimy, desolate aesthetic. Dilapidated hospital equipment, pale moonlight, and small spaces make for a brilliantly atmospheric setting, and the character models are even better, with high polygon counts, and clothing that sways realistically as they move.
It’s not perfect, however. Rather than being rendered in full per-pixel lighting, the torchlight is a simple effect that brightens a circle in front of your character, in the middle of the screen. For the most part, it does its job, but occasionally the camera angle will change, and the circle will remain when the torch is pointing somewhere else. The game also has some streaming issues, with the framerate sometimes dropping when you enter a room.
It’s not Silent Hill Shattered Memories in terms of visuals, but it still looks good.
One of the best things about the game is its phenomenal sound design. Without cheesy dubbing to get in the way, it’s an absolutely chilling audio experience; from the moans of ghosts to the sound of picking up an item, every sound is calibrated to scare. The music is mostly very subtle, consisting mostly of rhythmic ambient noise, which adds greatly to the immersion. A heartbeat is also incorporated during many encounters, further ratcheting up the tension.
While its delivery is minimalist, and you’re required to fill in the gaps for yourself, Fatal Frame 4 weaves quite a strong story, and a mature one, touching on themes such as the pain of feeling one’s memories fading, incest, and suicide. Like the slow pace, the old school “gather the clues” approach will divide gamers, but if you’re okay with it, the result is a compelling tale.
It’s truly a shame that Fatal Frame 4 wasn’t localised, because it deserves to be more widely played, and it’s exactly the kind of game that the Wii needed more of. In many ways, it feels like a time capsule, but for many, it’s a time capsule from a better time, when horror games were about creeping dread instead of mowing down hordes of zombies with a minigun.