Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

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.