Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Paragraph 78 (PC, 2007, Russia): Movie-Tie-In-Gamelike-Substance
December 24, 2011, 5:00 am
Filed under: Paragraph 78 (PC, 2007, Russia)

I never saw the unreleased-in-the-west Russian film “Paragraph 78” (2007), written and directed by music video auteur Mikhail Khleborodov—at least not in its entirety. Myth has it that filming the much-hyped flick ran long (it was initially planned as a single film), and so the director (instead of learning some editing techniques) decided to slice the movie up into 2 parts and release them several months apart (pissing off a high number of fans, actually). Is he a marketing genius, or an artist with creative diarrhea? (From what I understand, the first 30 minutes of the second part simply recaps the entire first movie…so you make the call.)

Wondering exactly what kind of movie it is? I’ve been told that it plays like an Alien rip-off—but with no aliens, no space exploration, not really in the future, and not really sci-fi or even horror, though it might have those trappings. Instead, as far as I can tell, the movie plays more like a mouthy soap opera…with some cool fight scenes, guns, and a hint of post-Cold War scientists fiddling with some zombie-making virus (read: biological warfare) which someone releases accidentally. Our small band of military heroes (who are charged with thwarting the infection) stop bickering amongst themselves long enough to shoot some infected scientists at a remote lab. But as soon as the bullets stop flying, they start arguing again over who slept with whose girl…or whatever.

And just like in the west when a junky movie-tie-in-game is released alongside its crappy movie counterpart, the Russians rush to do the same for the hardcore fans (read: the fools with money to burn). When I initially encountered this game on the 3D Shooter Legends website (check out 3DSL in all its encyclopedic glory if you haven’t done so yet), I read the description and passed right over it. Its vague sci-fi references, the cast of grouchy military personnel, and its “near-future” setting sounded too dull to bother with—and I was certain I’d not be able to make sense of the game anyway, not having seen the flick. Again, considering the film was not officially available with English voiceovers or subtitles even 3 years after its European release, and assuming the game was also never localized, the whole idea seemed like too much work. I’ve spent months translating games (Collapse: Devastated World, Inhabited Island: Prisoner of Power, Neuro, etc.), and I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of all that. (You can read my tales of woe right here on this blog.)

So how the hell did I get wrapped up in this bound-to-be-less-than-stellar-movie-related-game-like-product? Well, it’s all MasteromaN’s fault. He is a reader of this crappy videogame blog, and more importantly a moderator over at 3D Shooter Legends who hinted that he was working on a translation of a Russian FPS about a month ago. I was certain I had already explored every Russian FPS even remotely interesting to me, so I was skeptical. But I can’t leave well enough alone. When he said it was “Paragraph 78,” I sniffed around the net for screenshots, attempting to determine exactly what kind of game it was. Surprisingly, what I found were shots that looked distinctly like a Russian F.E.A.R. rip-off. I mean, A LOT like a second-rate F.E.A.R. clone. Need I say more? The bell went “DING!” and after MasteromaN posted the English localization files for the game, I hunted it down, installed it, and began playing with high hopes at having found another unknown-in-the-west gem.

Oh, but things are never that easy, right?  The next thing I know I am up to my neck once again in Google translator screens. Why? Well, while MasteromaN did the grunt work of translating all the menus and in-game dialogue into English (and English is not his first language, nor is Russian, but French!), one major story-related item remained untranslated. The game (quite lazily) uses about a dozen snippets from the movie itself to tie together the gameplay segments. These had no subtitles of any kind. My first thought was, ‘No problem! I’ll just quickly find a version of the film with English subs, rip the bits out and place them into the game files! No muss, no fuss!’ Then I find out that locating a version of the flick with English subs was next to impossible. To make an extremely uninteresting story less painful, I eventually found copies of both films (both parts), one with Polish subtitles and one with Russian subs. From there, I could use Google translator to translate and burn subtitles onto the in-game film clips. I was halfway through it before I realized what the hell I was doing…something I promised myself I’d never do again! Anyway, it took a week. Yes, another week where I didn’t play anything but fiddled around with the files of a game that would probably be better left under a bridge somewhere. When I’m on my deathbed, am I going to regret this? Don’t answer that.

So anyway, I’m obviously lying when I said I never saw the film. I did experience fragmented pieces of it as I translated these dozen snippets of the flick. And now having played the game (and having had to watch the entire film in not-English in order to finish my translations), I can confidently provide a slightly more coherent summary of what this 6-hour affair entails: You play as Scythian, who is one member of a group of highly trained elite forces, not all of whom get along. (The actual actors from the movie do the voice work in the game, which is a nice touch, and the graphic representations of the actors really isn’t half bad, considering the game is 4 years old at the time of this writing.) The game begins with a solo mission taking down some terrorists in a country setting (tree-lined paths, lakes, mountains in the background). You have to blow up some transformers to release a magnetic lock to get inside a cave, where you do some more shooting. Who these terrorists are or what they are doing? Who knows. Then, in later portions of the game, you are joined by some of your movie counterparts as AI, and together you enter into a lab where scientists have been secretly working on a biological-warfare-virus that turn enemies into animal-like beings, crawling around on all fours and killing and eating each other. Of course, some dumb, clumsy scientist dropped a vial of something, and the whole lab has become infected. You and your pals-in-arms need to clear the place up. Lots of frenetically-paced tangles with dudes in lab coats crawling around on the floor (these suckers are fast!) ensues. The game ends with a face-off between you and your comrades (which is how the movie ends as well).

It is not clear how the first half and the second half of the game join together. Just suddenly, the focus changes. Sad to say, the movie clips I spent a week translating make no difference either. The film snippets don’t really seem to create any kind of cohesion or frame to hold the various gameplay segments together—seriously, they just seem dropped in randomly. To be honest, this is some of the laziest (and probably fastest) game-making I’ve encountered. This is the epitome of why movie-tie-in games have a historically bad reputation…because the criticism is fair. Worse, the game is seriously unstable…and this has nothing to do with the English translation files. I mean it ran without stuttering or frame-rate issues, but it would suddenly crash or refuse to load a new level. At one point, every time I died, the game would crash. So, playing it takes some perseverance. From what I gather, a repacked version of the game, with the translation files and also with a few bugs ironed out, exists over at 3DSL, if you are a masochist at heart. Hunt it down?

Of course, I rarely only have negative comments to make. There are some highlights here too. Two positives I’ve already mentioned: The voice acting is at least genuine, and the character models have been carefully crafted (though the AI behind those models is atrocious, mindless, bottom-of-the-barrel). The later sections of the game in the infected lab are appropriately dark and include the necessary duct-crawling, turret-dodging, infected-killing. Speaking of that, the attacks by the “animalized” infected scientists is funny at first—these enemies crawl around on all fours but at lightening speeds, to the point where they are basically just floating about at a ridiculous pace. Of course, in response to the attacks, your AI pals kick in, and you end up watching this silly, high-speed waltz of monster and soldier twirling about the dark corridors in front of you, with gun muzzles flashing in the dark. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like it, really. Simply targeting these “crawlers” is really just random—most of your shots will go wild. But eventually they go down. Throwing a grenade is generally useless too, since the targets are moving so swiftly. Being attacked by three or four of these infected simultaneously (even with AI help) usually means dying a few times. Jumping up on a table can help a lot. So, another plus here is at least the developers did not go with the standard zombie-walker, though essentially that’s what they are.

Graphically, the game is not bad to look at, given its year of release (2007). The outdoor areas earlier in the game are actually large, with a horizon that stretches out beyond the trees. The terrorist soldiers lurking behind those trees and mountains have unfairly keen eyesight, and can peg you long before you ever know they exist. But you adapt, and headshots, with the sniper rifle, count. The lab sections in the final chapters are claustrophobic, with tons of moody lighting. Oh, and regarding my first impressions of those F.E.A.R.-inducing  screenshots…yeah, they fooled me. I guess the game tries to generate some foreboding quality like F.E.A.R. or whatever, but really it doesn’t—and that’s also not really the focus of the movie either. I guess, what I’m saying is that it’s hard to classify this title as a sci-fi or horror game—you might as well equally call it a warfare shooter. Eh? Gameplay-wise, it’s completely linear, but the everpresent on-screen objective marker makes it friendly for the brain-dead. The shooting mechanic is solid enough (twitchy mouse targeting is a must…no gamepad here). I guess the best comment I can make is that, ultimately, the game is not broken (though there were a few moments where I thought it was.)

I’m keeping this short because I imagine few gamers, if anyone, are ever going to play this. And if they do, they are unlikely to seek out a review of it. (I couldn’t find a single English review of the game anywhere—and as usual, there’s a reason for that.) This is just one of those situations that the game perfectly fits the bill, so it gets 15 minutes of fame on the blog.

Postscript: Right before playing this, I finally finished up “Killzone 3.” Of course, it’s a billion-dollar game, and I’m making no comparison here—there is none. The “Killzone 3” campaign was a pretty good game, especially towards the last act (the beginning was a bit bland and had me worried, but it reclaimed itself to finish on an up-note). Immediately prior to that, I was rifling through the “best of the best” 5 or so FPSC (First Person Shooter Creator) fan-made games, just to see how far that game-making engine had evolved over the last few years, and how the kiddies were using it these days. Most of the games were okay, nothing to really write about. But talk about highs, lows, and the middle ground! (If you were wondering, the middle ground is “Paragraph 78.”)

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Afterfall Insanity (PC, 2011, Poland): Strolling Through The Apocalypse
December 18, 2011, 8:21 pm
Filed under: Afterfall Insanity (PC, Poland)

AFTERFALL1

[NOTE: Although this article is several years old now, I just wanted to drop a quick mention here (which will probably be outdated soon as I update this post). As of early 2015, this is one of those games no longer available on Steam or GOG. (At present it is still listed for sale at Gamersgate though.) The reason for its semi-disappearance has something to do with the fact that the license for the Unreal Engine the devs used had lapsed during production…or whatever. This means that the game being sold wasn’t actually theirs to sell? So, it was all promptly yanked. Unfortunately, also pulled was a semi-sequel (a planned three-part episodic thing) which was in Steam Early Access titled “Afterfall: Reconquest.” Ah, so it goes in the world of gaming.] 

Right as I was playing “Afterfall: Insanity,” two readers of this blog (Mark and Mark, respectively) replied to another post regarding the “F.E.A.R.” franchise, and we got into a mini-discussion of “atmosphere” (writ large) in games. I want to extend that conversation right now as I ponder my experience with this Polish-made “Dead Space” wannabe (a facile comparison I will complicate further in a moment).

I think most of us know when a game nails its atmosphere, which can come in a variety of flavors—it might be a dark, scary atmosphere; or it may be a tense, gritty atmosphere; or it may be a clinical, ordered sci-fi atmosphere; or it may be a humorous and lighthearted atmosphere. Just because of my penchant for darker games, usually when I talk about atmosphere, I’m thinking of the thick-as-pea-soup scary variety.

AFTERFALL2I could Google the phrase “atmosphere in videogames” and probably find many discussions on the issue from people in the know, but I sometimes enjoy approaching these ideas from a naïve stance. So in willfully ignoring the existing conversation, it’s safe to say the issue of atmosphere in games is a tricky, ephemeral notion surrounded by a multitude of questions: What exactly is happening when a game successfully delivers an atmospheric experience? What constitutes atmosphere? What are its parts? Is there some magical coalescence of elements—sound, visuals, story, gameplay mechanics—that creates an atmosphere? If so, in what parts? Are some elements more important than others, or do these disparate elements equally contribute to our vague definition of atmosphere?

And we can’t forget the player’s role in all of this either. In the academic discipline of literature, “Reader-Response Theory” conjectures that a text doesn’t really exist in isolation of a person who experiences that text, who recreates that text by reading it and having an intellectual and/or emotional response to it. In other words, speaking of literature in isolation of an audience doesn’t provide us with the entire picture. Of course, the same goes for videogames. It is unlikely that atmosphere in a game can exist separate from a player’s experience of that game. But then, how can we know when one game has successfully developed (and successfully transmits) its atmosphere, while another may not? At the same time, I imagine most gamers would blanch at the suggestion that “good atmosphere” in a game is a completely relative matter. There’s got to be some general benchmark, right? Certainly, we’ve all played games whose atmosphere is so compelling that we have quickly suspended our disbelief (in some cases even forgetting we are holding a controller or using a mouse and keyboard) while helplessly falling into the world created for us, not to be seen again for weeks. And we’ve unfortunately had the opposite experience with games that are devoid of any kind of atmosphere whatsoever. And, of course, not every game requires an atmosphere to engross us, and not every gamer cares about this issue either. To complicate matters further, we’ve probably played games that have tried very hard to create an atmosphere and the developers ALMOST succeed, but not quite—though we might have difficulty articulating exactly why. Or, they succeed for a short while, only to screw up some tiny element and the whole atmosphere magically vanishes into thin air—and we become very unhappy gamers, indeed. Atmosphere is slippery, even fragile…it may even be impossible to pin down in any precise way.

AFTERFALL3I raise these issues because they directly relate to my experience of “Afterfall: Insanity,” but let me get to that in a second after I discuss the game in more general terms first.

The history and material reality of this game is neat. Previous to 2008, this was a fan-made project being developed by gamers addicted to RPGs like “Fallout” and “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” The apocalyptic theme of the game makes this clear. The project was picked up and professionalized by Nicolas Entertainment Group in 2008 and developed by Intoxicate using the Unreal 3 engine. Originally titled “Bourgeoisie: Pearl of the Wastelands” (what an interesting mouthful) or “Rascal,” the game was intended to be primarily an RPG, like those influencing it. However, that focus changed about a year and half later when it was transformed into a third-person shooter (probably to the serious dismay of its original fans). The game is considered to be an independent title, and the developers have been keen on using the term “The Afterfall Universe,” implying that more games using the same assets and storyline will be forthcoming. Pretty much as soon as this title was released, representatives from Intoxicate said they were hard at work on the next installment. (The narrative in this game leaves numerous plot threads completely loose, which also points to the promise of another “Afterfall” title.)

AFTERFALL4The story creating this universe is far from unique. But to apocalypse lovers (like me) hackneyed is perfectly fine. The game begins 20 years after World War III in 2032. A rather big row happened between Nazi Germany, The United States, and the Soviet Union, and somewhere someone developed a Fusion Bomb which accidentally exploded (on Day Zero, as they call it), wrecking the planet. In Poland the “Afterfall” project was set into motion, allowing chosen survivors to exist by entombing themselves in massive vaults. One such vault is called “Glory,” and it is the focus of our story. But it’s been years since the doors were sealed, and the vault has generally declined in cleanliness, and the good-nature of folks has long subsided. The story begins when vault psychiatrist Mr. Tokaj, a pencil-pushing therapist whose specialty is diagnosing and treating “confinement syndrome” (super cool), is asked to “go down below” by his overbearing commanding officer because some of the inhabitants have been “acting strangely” and to make an assessment. What he finds is that something much worse has occurred in the massive, serpentine vault. There are spikey-spined, slathering, demonlike monsters (which are mutated humans) lurking about in the darkness. Tokaj uncovers what he thinks is a conspiracy: Has the commander released toxins through the ventilation system in the lower levels to get rid of everyone for some megalomaniacal reason and is framing him for it? Later on (after everyone in the vault has died), Mr. Tokaj, who barely remembers the city outside the vault, makes his way up a massive elevator shaft and into the remains of the world outside to chase after the commander, which is where the Fallout-3-Style-Apocalypse images come into full play and are surprisingly effective. There are several narrative twists and turns (many of them interesting but generally ineffective), and ultimately Albert’s goal is to find out whether or not rumors are true about the existence of another vault whose name is “The Fist.” Perhaps he can seek help there? In addition, his gal pal Karolina has escaped the vault, and she may or may not have been kidnapped by the commander. While beyond clichéd, at least the story GOES somewhere—it is clear the developers are trying to convey a journey by shifting to multiple locations that grow in epic proportions (we leave the confined shelter behind and slowly enter newer, bigger, unknown territory in the outside world).  This journey is complemented by transformation of the protagonist as well—halfway through the game, he ditches his shelter uniform for the tattered garb of the wasteland, grows facial hair, acquires various wounds on his arms through scuffles, gets dirty. It’s all kind of obvious, and none of it is especially unique, but it works and is thoughtful.

AFTERFALL5Speaking of Albert, allow me to gush about some of this game’s clear assets. (Promptly following that, I’m going to kick this game in the groin rather liberally, just so you know.) I like the main character, though he may not be completely fleshed out—it is nice to play a regular guy who has to rise to the occasion, even an intellectual who has never in his life had to pick up a fireman’s axe and defend himself or his beliefs. Another interesting facet to Albert: Because he is the vault’s counselor, you’d expect a kind and caring individual who has to transform himself into an unlikely killing machine. But Albert is actually sort of a jerk—not to the point where you don’t like him, but he falls into name-calling very quickly in the game, using nicknames like “idiots” and “assholes” to describe some of his vault-mates. Albert’s crankiness continues throughout the game as his situation worsens. Personally, I liked that about him. In fact, in the opening minutes of the game, we see Albert falling asleep in the middle of a counseling session, as his patient rambles on unknowingly for a while and Albert dozes, wishing he were somewhere else. He feels bad about it later and admits this to his girlfriend Karolina…but he doesn’t seem to be particularly distraught. All of this is a genuine attempt at creating a nuanced character—something you don’t too often see in these eastern European sci-fi/horror games that are usually much too busy just trying to make the tech work convincingly. Physically too, Albert and his ilk are miles away from Gears of War here…these are not characters with biceps the size of steroidal weather balloons. I mean I like Marcus Fenix and his gang a whole lot, but seeing regularly proportioned folks duke it out can be equally satisfying.

AFTERFALL6Another feather in this little game’s cap is its attempts at injecting some variety into the standard third-person-shooter gameplay (and, frankly, variety other than on-rails shooting, which seems to be the default “Hey, let’s break up the monotony” tactic for lots of developers).  There is a clever little sequence where you must stand in an unsecured maintenance room (the door to your back is closed, but any lunatic or monster could enter at any time), and use a control panel to pilot a small repair bot through air-ducts and various concrete channels to restore electricity to a door you need to pass through. None of this is revolutionary, but it struck me as an exceedingly well done sequence. When remotely driving the small bot (about the size and shape of a shoebox), the game puts you in third-person perspective hovering above the bot—which means you are completely out of touch with your actual surroundings in the room. Driving the little bot is a breeze, and you must traverse a few environmental hazards (a whirring fan blade, an electrified section of air-duct which will promptly put your bot out of commission). Although engrossed in your task, you are of course suddenly ripped back into the room where you are standing as you get attacked from behind by a lunatic who has entered the maintenance room. Time to finish him off and get back to the bot…though you’ll be paranoid about getting attacked again for the rest of the short sequence. Nice.

Yet another sequence much later in the game (after leaving the vault) has you running towards the camera (so you can’t see where you are going) with post-apocalyptic cannibalistic banshees on your tail, and although you still need to steer yourself (down the avenue you can’t see),  you are able to reach over your shoulder and wildly shoot at your pursuers with a machine gun while in motion—in fact, you have to, or else you get hit too many times and go down…game over. I can’t say I’ve been put into this precarious position before in a game, and so I give it a thumbs-up for the newness factor, if nothing else. (Frankly the short sequence is very sloppily done, but it earns a grade of A+ for variety’s sake.)

AFTERFALL7Now onto the biggest asset of the game: The environments on display here are…astonishing, really. If there’s one element the developers nailed—and I mean on the bullseye—it’s the many, varied, complex, sci-fi playspaces. Big, claustrophobic, industrial, apocalyptic…you name it. In the vault itself, there are once-white-now-dingy living areas where little cleaning bots go about their futile tasks. There are countless hallways crammed with ductwork, terminals, frayed wires, leaking pipes, missing panels, electronic circuitry, escalators out of commission. There are large, filthy pumping rooms; aging laboratories full of well-rendered scientific equipment; massive, dark container warehouses; a decidedly unsterile medical suite; a noisy bar; bedrooms, offices, workrooms. There is the marble-like grand hallway leading to the colonel’s office, which is clad in red velvet and gold. There’s the massive underground railway system that is in general disrepair. Some of my favorite environments in the vault are ones that appear much bigger than they actually are: At one point you happen across the gigantic, 2-story-tall outer door to the installation itself that has been carved out of the rock, and Albert pauses at a distance to wonder what horror lies beyond it in the post-nuclear world outside. At another point, you enter an area that has a massive, suspended, multi-level walkway/roadway covered with glass canopies and peppered with natural foliage, perhaps connected to the hydroponics section of the vault. Outside of the vault, you encounter a world that has been left for dead—burnt out, decrepit apartment buildings; destroyed roadways, sidewalks turned to dust, decimated high-rises, piles of rusting automobiles; a roofless shopping mall; a destroyed grocery store and gas station; a damaged cathedral surrounded by the hastily pitched tents of (now long-dead) worshippers; a “fabricated” sheet-metal shantytown (which I won’t expand on since it would spoil a major plot point); a gargantuan manufacturing plant; the fuselage of an airplane resting on the third story of an apartment building…all the right stuff for an apocalypse lover like me. And some of it is surprisingly and appropriately large in scale. I’ve gotten used to many of these eastern-European games having a grand-scale idea behind them (such as the apocalypse or traipsing about the universe), but then that grand scale is betrayed when the game crams you into tiny room after tiny room. Even though it is ultimately as linear as they come (and has its share of claustrophobic spaces), “Afterfall: Insanity” is one of the first eastern Euro games that makes the leap into real big-ness, as far as I am concerned, at least visually. It is clear the environmental artists here went for the gusto in their design, and put the Unreal 3 engine to damn good use.

Just to put into perspective how well all of this worked for me, I need to do some crappy comparisons, most of which probably aren’t fair, but it’s my blog and I can say what I want, so there. When I think of the sheer variety of environments in “Afterfall” (and yes, there are miles and miles of cookie-cutter corridors, I agree), in comparison to something like “Dead Space, ” our little Polish game wins hands down. “Dead Space 2” improved upon the small-scale-repeating-hallway syndrome of the first game, but even thinking about “The Sprawl” in the Dead Space sequel, I would still say the environments in the “Glory” shelter  feel more cohesive, more connected, better built. Of course, thematically, any of the recent first-person “Fallout” games come to mind as well. And while the maps in “Afterfall” are not wide-open sandbox affairs, if I were to compare all the combined interiors of “Fallout 3” or “Fallout: New Vegas” with our little Polish game, “Afterfall,” in my mind, wins once again. I just think the game’s locations are that carefully drawn.

AFTERFALL8There are also a number of subtleties in the game I wish to mention. Whether these were intentional or not, I appreciated them. For example, you will often come across what is clearly a large and lovingly crafted “setpiece-envinroment” (let’s say a destroyed city block or two), which you assume would be crawling with enemies and will be the scene of some terrific fight as you progress. But as you advance into the map, you may find only one or two opponents you need to dispatch…but that’s it. The environment exists mostly as a means to allow the player to soak in the nightmare. This, to me, felt more realistic than being attacked by waves of enemies suddenly. Also, as a gamer well versed in how games typically work, this broke my expectations…in a good way. Additionally, there are a few small, but intriguing, moments built into the script. For example, when Albert finally emerges on the surface (after having lived for decades underground), what he sees before him is NOT the nuclear winter he and other scientists were expecting, but instead a bright and sunny nuclear summer. “The professor is turning in his grave,” says Albert when recalling a now-dead colleague’s firm belief in the nuclear winter theory. And then, as he marvels at the utter destruction of the bleached-white dead city outside the vault, he declares in a bewildering tone: “But the air is so…fresh. Why?” Though all of this is inconsequential as the plot develops, it adds a kind of richness to the story that makes it rise above the standard fare. Lastly, this is a game that deserves some exploration. Although you are not rewarded in any way for exploring (there are rarely hidden prizes awaiting you at a dead end, and clearly nothing like trophies or achievements), by looking over this or that ledge, or following a path in the wrong direction for a short while, you get to see some of the extra artwork in the environment that gives the game such flair. For example, in the final chapter of the game, there is a complex (and rather realistic) backdrop of a large nuclear reactor site that you can gaze down upon—but it would be easy to play the game and never even see it. Oh, one last “invisible” mentionable: The controls were butter-smooth. I played it with my 360 controller connected to my PC via the Wireless Receiver for Windows. When I connected it, all of the on-screen prompts changed to gamepad controls instead of keyboard/mouse controls. Movement, shooting…all of it worked without a hitch. I imagine the game would play exceedingly well with mouse and keyboard too. The game also never stuttered, froze, or crashed. Mechanically, it was seamless and behaved like a million-dollar game.

AFTERFALL9I opened this post by discussing the issue of atmosphere in games, and now it’s time to begrudgingly return to that theme. Given what I consider to be the nuanced backstory, real-world characters for a change, the thoughtfully constructed and varied environments, and some clever gameplay, there is one major issue in “Afterfall: Insanity.” Mark, a reader of this blog who finished the game before I did, put it very succinctly in his reply to my original post regarding the demo version of the game (which I’m replacing with this post, of course): He said that “Afterfall: Insanity” simply fails to scare. In a horror game, that would be the kiss of death, but I have to agree with Mark, as much as it hurts my heart to do so. This game just ain’t scary, folks, and that seriously sucks. To me, this is a failure of atmosphere, and it has me really bugged. My obsessive-compulsive nature forces me to spend the remainder of this post trying (probably in vain) to wrestle this issue to the ground.

My theory goes thusly: There is no single major flaw in the game that utterly wrecks whatever atmosphere it tries to build. Instead, through a series of shortcomings (which accrue over time), the game unknowingly pulls you out of immersion at every possible moment, it seems. In other words, this game seriously (but unintentionally) sabotages its own atmosphere. (And before I embark on the following rant, I hope there’s no need for me to prove how absolutely forgiving I am of half-baked videogames, to a fault…just look at the dreck I play and enjoy!)

Consider the following evidence: As if I couldn’t help myself, when starting the game the first irritant I noticed immediately was the bad voice acting of those around me. I’m used to this for sure in non-Western games, but here it seriously bugged me for some reason. My colleagues hanging around the vault did not feel like actual people; the banter was not natural, and phrases were repeated much too often. (One girl keeps saying to her partner on the corner “I have to go,” yet she never departs and simply repeats it every time you walk by). Then there’s the typical non-native English speaking problem of over-enunciating everything: “I (pause) AM (pause) READ-ING (pause) FROM (pause) A (pause) SCRIPT.” Next, some of the character animations are just bad—they are jerky, over-gesticulated, and some of the arm movements seem alien as if the arms are too long and they bend improperly. The facial animation tech here feels last-gen (and it probably is). Next is something I noticed when I played the demo, and it is still a problem in the game, of course:  The cutscenes are generally weak and problematic—some of the shorter ones are fine, but a few of the longer ones suffer from the fact that whomever is constructing them needs to take a class in film editing or composition, or something. We get odd angles on characters, poor intercutting between folks who are speaking, we get irrelevant camera shots that don’t focus properly on the action, and generally confusing perspectives and P.O.V.’s. Add to this the jerky (and sometimes improbable) character animations, and the mix doesn’t sit well.

AFTERFALL10Back to the issue of the game not being scary: The reality is I never felt as though I was seriously in danger. The “monsters”inside the vault (which are humans who have mutated by being exposed to some chemical through the vault’s ventilation system) just don’t seem monstrous enough; their frontal attacks don’t instill much fear, and they don’t look especially terrifying. The “monsters” outside the vault (about 3 varieties of humans who have mutated due to the fusion bomb, I presume, one of which explodes when shot and another which is a ghost, for all intents and purposes) are perhaps a little more interesting…but that doesn’t make them more terrifying. Even worse, taking down these enemies is not particularly difficult. Albert has a variety of really dull firearms (pistol, shotty, rifle) or really dull melee weapons he can use (yes, there’s great variety in the melee weapons [axe, exhaust pipe, saw blade, homemade mace, table leg, etc.], but none of them are actually any different). The truth is that any weapon will do the killing job equally. None of it matters because killing these opponents is generally a breeze. Here’s a real telling aspect: I played the game on “normal” (which is my default if I am going to be writing about it)…and over the course of the 8-hour game, I died three times (including two boss fights). This is a far, far cry from watching poor Isaac in “Dead Space” come to his grisly end (time and again) because of my missteps. Poor, decapitated dude. Isaac should take survival lessons from Albert Tokaj, since he is apparently invincible. Confession time: Even when I was kind of playing poorly on purpose just to try and artificially induce some tension and at least get close to dying (of course, having to do this is never a good sign), I would survive intact…and trust me I am not that great a “twitch” gamer. So, I take credit for nothing here. I guess I am grateful the game never stalled due to any steep learning curves…but what of tension (especially in a horror game)?

But to be honest, I don’t think I’ve yet identified the biggest scare-killer here. For me what seriously wrecked any spine-tingling immersion is the lackluster sound design. Yup, it seems strange to say so, but I think this is what primarily sucked all the atmosphere out of “Afterfall: Insanity” for me. When I think of contemporary franchises that are drenched in atmosphere (F.E.A.R., Fatal Frame, Dead Space, among many others) all of them are equally drenched in remarkable, startling sound design. Again, I bring “Dead Space” to the fore. If you haven’t played that game with headphones on, be ready to change your underwear about every 30 minutes or so. The sound is eerie, surprising, sickening—all at the same time. It is both in-your-face and incredibly subtle—all at the same time. I know a thing or two about sound-making (I’ve had 2 CDs published and distributed by independent record labels over the years, both of which are widely available on the net and in brick-and-mortar stores—with a few tracks making their way onto television [HBO’s “The Sopranos”] and film [Billy Kent’s “The OH in Ohio” among others—if you’re interested, search for “The Joy Project” on Amazon or Rhapsody or iTunes, or whatever…it’s just a hobby that I’ve had some limited success with). Sorry for that aside, but I can confidently say that the sound design in “Afterfall: Insanity” just sucks. Sound will disappear suddenly when you turn in the wrong direction; some of the sounds are not appropriately large enough given the massive environments on display (a real lost opportunity); often while walking about in the outside world, there would be no background sounds at all, other than the small clicking of my heels (with no reverberation off the destroyed buildings next to me); then the opposite problem would occur where there would be gale-force wind sounds in a small area where there was no indication visually that wind was blowing anywhere; next, the monster growls do not instill fear and are not menacing enough. I could go on, but you get the picture. Interestingly, this is not the first time where sound design (or lack thereof) has actually come damn near ruining a game for me. Venturing a guess, I would say that sound design took a serious backseat to other elements of the game (say, the wonderfully developed environments), and this fact detracted from my experience with the game in a big way.

afterfalllastYes, I’m going to end on that negative note. If another “Afterfall” game is made, will I play it? I absolutely will. At the same time, I’ve heard the developers boast that their game will be forthcoming on major consoles like the 360 and the PS3 next year. Seriously? Uh, that’s probably not going to happen, given the general lack of “fit and finish” here. But I wish them the best of luck. They have a fan in me…but only if improvements are on the nuclear horizon.



Fatal Frame 3 (Emulated/PC, 2005): Kodachrome in Emulation
December 11, 2011, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Fatal Frame 3 (Emulated/PC, 2005, Japan)

Wanna take an already beautiful game (in 2005 terms) and make it even beautiful-er? (That’s a word; I know it is.) Well then, dig out your dusty copy of PS2’s “Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented” and play it at three times its native resolution on PCSX2, the PS2 emulator for PC. (Note: Killer video card [460GTX] and blazing CPU [3.9Ghz] required). Your eyes may not bleed, but they won’t cry either.

Though I am a fan of the stylish and suspenseful “Fatal Frame” series of games, the third installment sat on my shelf for an embarrassing amount of time (3 years) before I ripped the iso image from it and loaded it into PCSX2 a few weeks ago. My impetus for doing so was only because I recently learned—from a subscriber to this very blog, mind you—that a fourth game in the series had been released in 2009, but only in Japan…and only for the Wii. (Yeah, that console I promised myself I’d never stoop to owning.) Then, having learned from this same reader that a PC-based Wii emulator (called Dolphin) existed (just like PCSX2 plays PS2 games on the PC), before I knew it, I had a copy of “Fatal Frame 4” (and the fan-made English patch) in my sweaty little nunchuck-grasping hands, ready to kill some ghosts. Yeah!

But then I stopped…oh, right. I never played “Fatal Frame 3,” sitting over there on the shelf, lonely, abandoned. Stop the presses! Jeez, the least I can do is play these damn games in some semblance of order. Just put the nunchuck down, sir! Now, back away! That’s right, just back slowly away from that used Wiimote you bought even though you don’t own the console! (More on this forthcoming in a future post, but a little spoiler: Using Dolphin, the Wii emulator, to play high-rez Wii games on your PC with the nunchuck and motion-sensing Wiimote works like a charm. Best of all, it doesn’t require a Wii! So we elitist hardcore gamers [ahem…] can keep our guilty secret gaming habits in the closet [err..…]).

Anyway, back to the present: If I had simply played “Fatal Frame 3” on my PS2, I probably would not bother writing about it, only because the game garnered pretty rave reviews ‘round the net upon its release, and many of those reviews are easily accessible still (and more coherent than this by far). But having opted to play this title for the first time on my PC using PCSX2, I thought it was worth writing a little bit about the game, how it behaved in emulation (since emulators in general can be hit or miss), while providing a few choice screens of its beauty. Fortunately, this is one survival horror game that is classy and pretty and runs generally well on a capable PC.

This series of games is well-known enough that they require little explanation. In other words, “this is that game where you shoot ghosts with a camera and dispatch them.” The stories in each game are loosely connected, the most common thread being your only weapon, The Camera Obscura, and a haunted house you must wander around in. The first game involves a young gal, Miku, who is searching for her missing brother, Mafayu, who was investigating ghost stories surrounding Himuro Mansion. She gets trapped inside the mansion and has to fight her way out. The second installment (generally considered the scariest in the series) involves twin sisters, Mio and Mayu, who get lost while wandering in the forest and end up trapped in a fog-shrouded village where a supernatural disaster killed everyone a long time ago. Trying to avoid a recreation of the superstitious villagers’ Crimson Sacrifice Ritual (wherein a virgin is offered up to keep a hellish abyss from swallowing everything), the two sisters unwittingly get wrapped up in the bloody proceedings. That brings us to the third installment, where Rei, a seriously depressed 23-year-old freelance photojournalist who accidentally killed her boyfriend, Yuu, a few years ago in a bout of reckless driving, is plagued by nightmares of a haunted manor (the Manor of Sleep), and she visits there every night as she slumbers. Connected to The Manor of Sleep is Himuro Mansion from Fatal Frame 1, and the sacrificial-themed-abyss storyline is revisited in a different form. Since The Manor of Sleep is built over top of this “hellhole” where virgins are tattooed and then painfully staked to the bottom of a crevasse in the earth to prevent the spread of darkness (or something like that), lots of lost souls and ghosts like to hang about the decrepit place, most of them generally ill-tempered. For some reason, Rei’s dead lover seems to be lounging about the manor too, and urban legend has it that if she ventures deeply enough into the The Manor of Sleep, she may be able to reunite with Yuu…but at what cost? Cue scary violins.

While there are some cross-references to characters within the games, and some of the protagonists or NPCs are relatives of those from other games (Miku, from the first game reappears in the third game), the only really clear connection between these titles is the fact that nasty ghosts with checkered pasts get all up in your face as you s-l-o-w-l-y creep up and down dark and rotting corridors. As mentioned, your only defense is to zap them with your old-timey supernatural camera, which each character conveniently finds at some point. As explained in each game, the camera itself was developed by the occultist Kunihiko Asou, whose goal was to use western technology to explore and explain eastern supernatural beliefs and worlds. His inventions (which also include a radio that picks up transmissions from the spirit dimension and a film projector which does some ghostly thing-or-another) have been highly sought after by collectors…but they also happen to be haphazardly left about abandoned sites for folks to accidentally find and use. In horror game parlance, this makes total sense, of course…

“Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented” is divided into two general areas. There’s the waking world, which is represented by Rei wandering about her suburban home, with her roommate Miku always underfoot, developing photos, answering the phone, petting the cat, and looking out the window where it is perpetually raining. The other half of the game occurs when you go to your bedroom and decide to sleep, which you can do at will. At this point, Rei enters the ghostly world, which is represented by the decrepit, long-abandoned Manor of Sleep where some heavy shit (most of it ritualistic killings associated with some hardcore religious practices) went down at some point in the past. It is there that Rei attempts to uncover the mystery surrounding the labyrinthine, haunted manor and also why she keeps seeing her dead boyfriend there. Surprisingly, at several points in the game, when you sleep you find yourself NOT playing the Rei character, but instead playing Miku (her roommate) or another male character (Kei, a journalist also investigating the manor) who also happen to be having the identical nightmares. This helps to alter gameplay a little bit since each character has a slightly different gaming profile (different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses). Every time you wake from your dream, you are simply lying in your bed, home sweet home (well, sort of). When back in reality as Rei, you can process the information (photos, recordings, and diaries, among other collectibles) that you gathered during your nightmare trek in the Manor of Sleep to uncover more information about the backstory.

These two worlds do not stay separate for long, though. Early in the game when Rei enters the Manor of Sleep, she is accidentally touched by one of the ghosts (a heavily tattooed, long-dead princess named Reika Kuze), and when Rei wakes up, she finds a similar tattoo slowly and painfully spreading across her body. She fears she is being taken over, and this puts a distinct deadline on her nightly investigations; she better find out what she needs to find out before it is game over. The lines between the real world and the twilight world continue to blur when Rei begins seeing flashes of apparitions in her own mundane, two-story suburban home—a pair of legs under the stairs, a woman crab-walking through her rafters, and a ghost nonchalantly hanging out near the altar Rei has set up in the livingroom to honor her dead boyfriend, Yuu. To me, this was one of the most unsettling aspects to the game—as Rei goes about her business in her unremarkable, westernized house with its muted-colors on the walls and her microwave and a purring kitty cat (a stark difference to the dark, cold, colorless, rotting hallways and rooms of the Manor of Sleep where ghosts eat your face off amidst your nightmares), life here at home should be relatively safe. But once the first apparitions started leaking into the real world (even though they pose no real threat in this setting), I became more unsettled walking around Rei’s house than I did of the manor itself. Also, over there, at the end of the hallway, is the darkened room where Rei’s now dead boyfriend used to live; everything in the room is still as it was when Yuu was alive. You can enter the dimly lit room to search Yuu’s bookshelf or desk for clues…and it is all creepy in that “this isn’t supposed to be scary, but it is” kind of way. It is subtle videogame horror at its best. The difference between this and, say, the horror in “Dead Space” are worlds apart.

As in all the games, the genius and creepy gimmick in “Fatal Frame 3” is picture-taking. To effectively dispatch these wretched things (that take the semi-transparent forms of women, men, and children) that suddenly appear out of nowhere and float about the dark rooms and hallways moaning and spewing references to their historical misdeeds is to exit third-person perspective (which is how you walk about) and enter first-person perspective by bringing the camera up to your face. Then, you watch them closely through the viewfinder of your Camera Obscura, following their wispy maneuvers, and allow them to get close enough—we’re talking breathing distance, right up to your face—and then, right when that gaping maw is about to swallow you up, you snap a picture when the reticule/viewfinder briefly flashes red. This zaps their stamina, gains you points for upgrades, and blasts them back from you. Now with a little breathing room, you pull the camera down from your face, entering third-person perspective once again, jog a bit left or right, or back-peddle a little, then enter first-person perspective again for more photography…until the ghost…well, gives up the ghost. Again, it is not necessarily lightening quick action, but the absolute tension created by this cat-and-mouse is pure genius. For some reason, while fighting these apparitions, I absolutely come to HATE them and am so relieved and emboldened when they vanish from the room, I typically say out loud “HOW YOU LIKE ME NOW, BITCH?!.” Why is that?

Since I’ve played all the games to date, I can confidently say that, beyond being scary, “Fatal Frame 3” has the most depressing vibe of all the games. Where the highly acclaimed “Fatal Frame 2” may have more jumpscares and a more epic story, the third installment uses pathos in a way that only Japanese game-makers can. After all, the subtitle for this game is “The Tormented,” and Rei is an absolutely tormented, damn-near-hopeless heroine who continues to put her life at risk by entering the Manor of Sleep every night because she has no choice—she is dogged by her sadness and is desperately seeking a way out of it. In a nutshell, this game is simply about whether or not we, as human beings, can survive the loss of a loved one—can we find the means to go on living, or do we succumb to our own deaths? Upbeat, huh? As a gamer, you may not be into this kind of “depress-o-vision,” but it sure makes for a compelling, adult game where sympathizing with the protagonist is a snap.

Since ultimately my reason for writing about this is to discuss how the game behaves in emulation, let me mention the few hiccups that do occur. First, since parts of the game are extremely dark, all the playable characters have flashlights to help with navigation. Unfortunately, the shadows are often cast at hard, geometric angles and straight lines (creating odd, shadowy shapes, like triangles and boxes, on the walls and floors), rather than being fluid. In instances where the game turns into a black and white affair (an effect that is connected to part of the story called the “miasma”), the light cast by the flashlight can be shown on screen as a lavender or light green swath of color, instead of a white beam of light. These shadow-related issues, I presume, are a limitation of GSDX (the graphics plugin for PCSX2) in proper rendering, but really it’s no big deal and it doesn’t destroy the immersion (and being able to play the game at higher resolutions is worth the small glitch).

Unfortunately, there is another strange hiccup that may actually prevent you from finishing the game, depending on your gaming rig, which version of PCSX2 you are using, and how tenacious a gamer you truly are. (I’ve seen this glitch mentioned elsewhere, and it did happen to me, yet this title is listed as being completely compatible and playable in PCSX2, so the error may not occur consistently.) During the game, characters can collect various cassette tape recordings that provide more insight into the story. Rei may listen to these tapes on the player in her bedroom. But the problem occurs when you return to the play screen after listening: Rei simply disappears off screen—poof—vanishing into the thin air, while nothing else changes (the background, for example). It’s a funny effect seeing her peeled from the background like magic, but not so funny when you realize that the game has also seized. Typically, quitting PCSX2 and restarting fixes the matter. When this occurred, if I collected a tape I wanted to listen to, I simply made sure to make a save FIRST, then I listened to the tape because I knew Rei would vanish and the game would freeze upon returning to gameplay. And this worked fine—using your earlier save, you can restart the game at a point where you’ve not listened to the tape yet (even though you’ve heard it already), and go on your merry way. Early on in the game, listening to the tapes is a bonus, and the gameplay does not depend upon you having actually heard any of them. Problem solved.

But of course, things can’t remain that simple. Right before the last chapter, this mechanic changes, and the game requires you to listen to one particular tape and then, based on what you’ve heard, continue on playing immediately thereafter. If you don’t listen to the tape, the game will not let you proceed (it just keeps telling you to listen to the tape), so you must listen first, then continue playing. In this case, returning to an earlier save where you’ve not yet heard the tape is not an option. After putting about 25 hours into the game at this point and facing the possibility of not being able to see the ending, my stomach sank. ‘Oh, shit,’ I thought. ‘What the hell do I do?’

Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. I encountered a similar problem when trying to play “Siren 2” on PCSX2 6 months ago (see the post here) where the emulator simply wouldn’t render something on screen that I needed to see properly (and use) in order to continue. (By the way, this is why, if using any emulator at all, actually referring to the emulator’s “games compatibility” list is always worth it before starting a game—you’ll know up front if it is actually playable all the way through or not.) It was during my time with “Siren 2” that I learned the complicated process of exporting gamesaves out of PCSX2 and importing them to a memory card on my actual, dusty PS2 console. In both cases (with “Siren 2” and “Fatal Frame 3”) I was able to get over the emulation shortcomings by playing the game (past the hiccup point) on the actual console itself. This involves transferring the converted PCSX2 save on a USB flash drive onto your old-timey PS2 memory card (and yes, every PS2 actually has a USB port on it). You boot the game on the PS2 and load the appropriate save, play it until you are past the problem area, make a new save on the console’s memory card, and then convert and import that save back into PCSX2 (back to the USB flash drive) on your PC to continue playing. Whew! But if you encounter this issue and need to engage in these shenanigans when using an emulator, be aware. In order to transfer saves into and out of PCSX2 and the PS2 console, you’ve got to have a modded PS2 console that can run “homebrew.” (You have to be able to run a program like ULaunchELF, which is a well-known, fan-made file browser for the PS2 console that will let you plug a USB flash drive into the PS2’s USB slot and view and copy/paste files back and forth to the PS2’s memory card). Doing this also requires 3 or 4 small pieces of freeware that will convert your saves into the proper format so that the console will recognize them and so that PCSX2 can recognize them (you need to convert them a  few times, actually). Of course to do this, you also need to be able to play the game on your console for a short while, which will require either the actual game disc, or a “backup copy” of the PS2 game iso burned to a disc. (If your machine is already modded to run homebrew like “ULaunchELF” then it will also play non-original game discs too.) If you’ve stumbled upon this blog post because you are experiencing this problem, leave a reply to the post, and I can message you and explain how I accomplished it.

One other potential emulator-related problem does arise: As mentioned, there are sections of the game that turn from color to black-and-white. This has to do with the “miasma” (just think “bad vibes”) seeping out of the hellish abyss which the entire story revolves around. During times of miasma (which start to occur about halfway through the story), there are certain unkillable ghosts that dog you throughout the manor—your only option is to run away. The way you solve the problem of the black-and-white miasma is by finding and activating candles of “purifying light” strewn about the place, making everything normal again (but once they burn down, you are back to miasma and the hunt for more candles). It’s a familiar gameplay technique used to tighten up the tension, basically. The weird problem in emulation is this: For some PC systems that cannot handle it, there can be a serious slowdown during these black-and-white sequences. I’m not quite sure why, as you’d think rendering tons of colors would be more strain on a system than black and white. Nevertheless, in this case the opposite is true. Some of it might have to do with a  slight on-screen fog that appears as well during the miasma sequences—fog and rain are known issues when it comes to proper emulation in any game. Thankfully these sequences don’t appear until mid-game as mentioned, and they are controllable by dispelling the miasma through candles, which you must do anyway.

Amidst all these emulator complexities, there is one “saving” grace (heh, heh): Since lots of games have quirky issues with saving when being played in emulation, the smartypants developers of PCSX2 built in the handy-dandy “save state” function. (Actually, such functionality exists in many emulators.) In this case, by pressing F1 on your keyboard, players can literally save the game at any second they choose, not having to wait for save opportunities offered by the game itself. (In the case of this game, much like other Japanese horror survival titles, save-points are located throughout various maps that can be used once you reach one [here, a little lamp with a blue flame in the Manor of Sleep scattered about or the Camera Obscura itself sitting on Rei’s desk in the waking world], with a total of 5 save slots that can be overwritten. But with PCSX2’s “save state” function that allows “free saving” at any point you choose, there’s little chance of getting stuck having to repeat large portions of any game you play even if it starts behaving strangely. Unfortunately, with this particular kind of hiccup, even a “save state” wouldn’t fix the problem since continuing on with the game after listening to the tape was an impossibility (for me.)

Even if “Fatal Frame 3” looks beautiful in emulation, that doesn’t mean the game itself is without fault. The game is lengthy, and there are many extras the player can go hunting for that reveal more and more detail about the backstory. Snap a picture of an “extra ghost” or a “hidden image” here or there, research that picture, and more of the narrative comes to life in the form of written notes in your diary; these tasks are not all necessary to completing the game though. In this sense, the more time you put into the game, the more you’ll get out of it, narratively speaking. While this sounds ideal, games can be longer than necessary, and for me “Fatal Frame 3” fell into this category. Personally, I don’t mind a lengthy game, as long as that length is accompanied by a variety of gameplay elements or at least a variety of locations to experience. But this game has neither. Gameplay-wise, taking a picture never really changes (you raise the camera to your eye, focus, snap), although some powerups can change your tactics. Still, it is essentially the same task, rinse and repeat. More striking, the game is especially stingy regarding new places to explore. There are a few hidden rooms here and there, but the entire game occurs within the walls of The Manor of Sleep, which is connected to Himuro Mansion (from the first game in the series), and in Rei’s suburban house. While the developers do the best they can in making The Manor of Sleep into a snaking maze of corridors and rooms that are slowly revealed each time you go to bed and enter the nightmare, ultimately you find yourself saying “Oh, I’m here again” when you enter this room or that, and this sense of déjà vu starts to happen within the game rather quickly. One other trick the developers use to alter the repeating spaces is to change the static camera angle of a room or two, or to suddenly rearrange the furniture, when the room is entered from a different direction or with a different playable character—but it’s still the same repeated locations. I guess I’m spoiled, but for a game that took me almost 32 hours to play, I want to be able to explore half the universe at least, like in “Mass Effect.” But here we get a few dozen rooms and a few dozen blood soaked hallways in total, one or two caverns, and that’s it. Random (and reoccurring) ghost encounters are another attempt to break the monotony (as you run down that same hallway once again), but sometimes this ends in more irritation than diversion from the repetition.

In addition, there is a kind of haphazard quality to the way a player progresses through the game, which leads to the inevitable hour or two (or eight) of mindless wandering, unsure of what to do next. (This is probably why it took me 32 hours to play!) For example, a door you need to breach is spiritually sealed, and the seal needs to be broken by taking a picture of something, usually a ghost. Sometimes these seals appear during the shutter chance of killing a mini-boss ghost—flash, the ghost “dies,” and the door will be opened. Then, you proceed. In these cases, the progression is linear and makes good sense. But other times, you must search about, literally just pointing your camera at random blank walls when your sensor lights up to see if your camera’s reticle will activate, indicating a hidden image. If you get lucky and it does, you can snap a picture, and if you are double lucky, it will be the right image that will unseal said door. (The location of this hidden image will have nothing to do with the location of the door you are trying to unseal, by the way—it all feels sort of haphazardly planned.) If you are only half-lucky though, it might be an “extra” hidden image that will reveal a part of the backstory, but it will not be the puzzle piece needed to proceed in the game…and your aimless hunt continues. As you can imagine, after about an hour of wandering the same halls I’ve wandered thoroughly already, the inevitable frustration (and boredom, frankly) begin to set in. “Okay, enough of this. Where’s that walkthrough?” There is always the possibility that I was out of touch with my objectives, or the background story, that may have provided me with clues as to some of these hurdles…so this may be my fault entirely. Still, the upshot of this is that the game felt several hours longer than it needed to be in my opinion.

Rather than ending on a negative note, one element of this game deserves special praise: The best word I can use to describe the ambient sound design is “delicate.” This game, as far as I know, appeared before super-realistic-ultra-surround-3D-in-your-face-puncture-your-eardrums sound tech came along, and it simply uses stereo—but to such great effect. If you are not experiencing this game while wearing headphones, you are missing the point. Unlike so many games that leave your ears bleeding, the mastery of the sound mix here is evident in its gentleness. Most of it is extremely subdued, eerily quiet most of the time—the swirl of a faraway wind striking some chord moves slowly from left to right, while the sound of a tiny, tiny child that is at least 10 miles away in the background, slathered in reverb, slowly counts to ten (you can barely hear her, and she would be easily missed if you weren’t searching the soundscape for her). At another time, that child’s miniscule voice is replaced by some disembodied moaning that can barely be heard a thousand yards away, a small, but mournful sound drenched in reverb and pushed way back in the mix. These are all the victims of the tragedy that has transpired in the manor. Even the main characters, when speaking to each other to advance the narrative, do so in hushed tones, as if they are all too afraid to speak aloud, or perhaps they are all too depressed. Most of the ambient sounds fall into this “only sort of there” ethereal category; doors that may as well be a football field away creak open or closed somewhere in the manor of their own accord. A tiny bell rings just once somewhere in another dimension, perhaps a wind chime caught by the tattered gown of some half-rotten ghost floating down a hallway.

In contrast, during battle…well, exactly how powerful could the simple “snap” of a camera—your only weapon—actually be? After all, the sound of your weapon in any game is one of the major components of making you feel like you’ve got some power. Well, against the fragile backdrop of ambient sounds on display here, the snap of the camera (as well as the sound of the discharging flash and the high-pitched whir of the flash recharging) is damn near deafening (in headphones, anyway). The sound is just as powerful as any shotgun. In other words, the whole package works wonderfully. Some Asian sound dude somewhere very clearly knew what he was doing here.

Barring the possible gamesave problem I discussed earlier, this game is wonderful to play in emulation—if you have the time and don’t mind a slow-burn creeper with ill-tempered ghosts trying to suck the life out of you.