Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse review: a frightfully frustrating flashback
Oops, all ghosts
Fatal Frame: Mask Of The Lunar Eclipse plunges players into the dreadful past of Rougetsu Island as three
(Young women? Girls? I have no idea how old they are supposed to be and for some reason that’s not surprising.) survivors and a stalwart detective revisit the ruins of a hospital that was once home to a haunting ceremony. They all have amnesia, of course, because that’s a low-effort way to generate an air of mystery. Well, except the detective, who is just confused because he never really figured out what was going on in the first place.
Overall, it’s a thoroughly okay game from 2008 that’s been papered over with some hazy lofi graphics to justify selling it at full price in 2023. It’s up to you if you think that’s worth it – I bought the Mass Effect remaster, so I’m hardly one to judge – but while the graphics have been thoroughly airbrushed, that’s no cure for Fatal Frame’s dated gameplay and undead pacing.
Shortly after entering Haibara Hospital, your protagonists are armed with the Camera Obscura and Spirit Flashlight, occult technology used to fend off the attacks of angry ghosts. Both tools present a unique, less-violent approach to combat – or exorcism, I suppose – and are pretty intuitive to use from the get-go. The effectiveness of your attacks is influenced by timing and how close you get to the spirits, as well as upgrades and different film types you find scattered throughout the hospital. Manage to snap a shot of a ghost as it’s attacking you and you get a “Fatal Frame” which deals extra damage while allowing you to chain attacks.
You learn all of this within the first ten minutes of the game and there are no additional mechanics or approaches to combat. These encounters don't really get more challenging as you progress through the game either, it just gets longer because the ghosts have more health. This is where the frustration comes in. Fatal Frame might be wearing the mask of a modern game, but it is very much from 2008 in the way it wastes players' time.
Escaping the spectre of death is part of what makes survival horror games fun, and my reflexes are not the greatest, so of course I expect to fall in combat every once in a while. What is not a cool fun time is making me replay 20 to 30 minutes of banal item collection and minor battles that barely held my attention the first time around (see: every fight is exactly the same) because there are only a handful of save points scattered throughout each sprawling section of the island.
I’m not talking about punishing gameplay here –nervously trotting over the same ground after dying in Fatal Frame (because you can’t actually run) doesn’t make the game more challenging or satisfying the way it might in a game like Elden Ring or Hades, it just makes it longer.
The same goes for navigating Rougetsu Island itself. While you get to complete a handful of slide puzzles and other minigames to unlock certain story elements, most of the mystery comes down to mindlessly following ghosts around the island until you reach the next plot point. Some sections of the game keep you thoughtfully contained in relevant areas by locking doors (the ghosts did it) but other sections, and particularly those led by Detective Kirishima, give you full run of the place. That means if you happen to miss a ghost’s appearance, misunderstand exactly how the various maps fit together, or, horror of horrors, have a glitchy item fail to appear the first time you inspect an area, you could be circling the island with nothing but “Find Information About X” to guide you for a very long time.
According to the game’s Steam page, one of the big selling points for this rerelease is its new and retouched outfits, most of which are locked behind an optional modeling mini-game and a $20 DLC. They’re kind of cute, but they’re also pretty male-gazey in a way that kind of skeeves me out when I consider the leading ladies are all 17 years old (I looked it up). By default, they wear short frilly dresses and heels that no one in a million years would willingly put on to go into a derelict hospital unless they were there for some kind of fashion photoshoot which, apparently, is what this game is actually about.
Beyond that, the four protagonists are basically cardboard cutouts of human beings defined by a single trait – Ruka plays piano, Misaki had a special doll growing up, Madoka is also there, and Detective Kirishima is, you guessed it, a detective – so there’s not much to connect with while Fatal Frame drip feeds you it’s story. Which is a shame because when you do manage to unearth a vignette from a character’s past, they’re generally pretty engaging, it just takes forever and a half to get there.
"Contrary to horror cinema’s “Don’t Show the Monster” rule, this game won’t stop showing you ghosts so the effect wears off real quick."
The strength of Fatal Frame, comparatively speaking, is its atmosphere. As someone who swore off Amnesia: The Dark Descent because my (obviously haunted) laptop crashed during the first jump-scare, I feel qualified to say that Fatal Frame isn’t scary, but it is creepy.
Contrary to horror cinema’s “Don’t Show the Monster” rule, this game won’t stop showing you ghosts so the effect wears off real quick. Instead, it’s the grainy black-and-white flashbacks of Ruka, Misaki, and Madoka’s past that will haunt you. A woman dancing feverishly beneath the moon within a circle of masked children. A little girl pulled from a crowd to be led deeper into a cave. A father obsessed with crafting an otherworldly mask.
These moments are as beautiful as they are unsettling, but as I near the end of Fatal Frame, it’s hard to believe they’ll lead anywhere I want to be… but, depending on what you’re looking for, maybe that’s okay.
As critical as I’ve been, considering its age, Fatal Frame really is an alright game. It’s the kind of thing I could see a younger me playing in windowed-mode while listening to a podcast, chatting on Discord, and eating a bag of sour candy in my dorm room. These days, though, I really only have time for games that bring a little more to the table, and Fatal Frame, like its protagonists, is very much stuck in the past.