Survival Horror is one of the most diverse and flooded genres of gaming, especially when looking back at the PlayStation and PS2 eras. Sure, RPGs are more varied, but when you compare your Resident Evils to your Obscures, Forbidden Sirens and Galerians, you can instantly see how far apart each of them are. So when I tell you that there is a Survival Horror series of ghost stories where your only means of offense and survival is a camera, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
That is exactly what the Project Zero (also know as Fatal Frame) series is. Each game is built around the idea of atmosphere being the scariest aspect of horror. Jump scares do certainly happen, but that isn’t the major point of the games, unlike Resident Evil. But did this unique and completely different take on Survival Horror benefit Project Zero, or did it just cause the series to end up fitting its name too well? Let’s find out!
Taking place in Japan in the year 1986, the first game in the Project Zero series tells the tale of a brother and sister who have the innate ability to actually see supernatural events. Beginning with Mafuyu entering a creepy old house, things go very wrong as he searches the building for his tutor Junsei Takamine. In the end, Mafuyu disappears, and the game switches to his young sister Miku.
From there, you have to explore the old mansion with your Camera Obscura as the only weapon to ward off the various ghosts you come across. The plot begins to unravel details about evil supernatural forces, spirits wants to escape into the living world and young women raised to be sacrificed. This is one heck of a dark storyline that will stick with you for years to come.
Each ghost you come across has at least some resemblance of a backstory that you learn through the game, too. So rather than just being cannon fodder enemies like the monsters in most Survival Horror games, these ghosts actually feel like characters in the overall story. You feel for them. And that just makes everything far more horrific… Knowing that they were once normal humans living various different kinds of lives (some not so nice), everything about the horror and survival aspect switches gears. You actually feel sorry for the ghosts and part of you wants to help them move on. This feeling of a connection to the ghosts only ends up making you even more unnerved when they appear out of nowhere, trying to kill you.
In true Survival Horror fashion, there are multiple endings as well. In this case, there are two endings (three if you have the Xbox version). However, rather than being different depending on your actions in game, the endings change depending on which difficulty you are playing on. Therefore, rather than just letting you replay the game on the easiest difficult to see all the endings, you are forced to challenge yourself and play Hard Mode.
However, if you only want to see the canon ending, then you just need to play through the game on Normal, as the “first” ending has been stated as the true ending. This is because it actually leads into the third game in the series.
Overall, the storyline of Project Zero is so detailed and well thought out that it’s one of the few games that is almost as enjoyable to watch as it is to play. The fact that the developers went into so much effort on the plot that they gave the different ghosts backstories as well is incredible. If you are looking for a horror game that is more than just “kill these monsters and open these doors”, then Project Zero will be right up your street!
The graphics, sadly, are probably one of the let-downs for Project Zero. Not because they are bad, but because they haven’t aged all that well. At the time of release, the game was stunning! The anime style characters actually still looked realistic enough that you could become completely invested in them. However, even the later PS2 entries in the series ended up looking far better.
That doesn’t take away from the atmosphere that the game builds through its design, though. The use of black and white graphics at the start, when you’re in control of Mafuyu, and the subsequent switch to colour when the game moves to Miku, was a great touch and a brilliant way to make the player feel on edge. On top of that, the lack of lighting fits the setting down to a tee. The fact that the only real light you can rely on through the game is your torch may seem like a horror cliche, but it works even better in Project Zero due to the level design. There are so many small corridors and turns that only certain areas get lit up at any one time!
In fact, the aged graphics actually add to the atmosphere, as the slightly grainy look of the characters and textures make you feel on edge, never quite settling into a comfort zone.
Even when you switch to the first person view of the Camera Obscura, nothing changes and there is no loss of quality in the graphics. Everything holds up perfectly well, and there isn’t any lag or stuttering either. The user interface and menus are simplistic, making them very easy to use and navigate. It also means that the game feels very clean and well polished when you are playing it. Add to this the use of text boxes for most of the dialogue in-game and you get a truly old school horror feel that permeates the entire experience.
This is truly a game for those that love the classic, lost art of suspense-driven horror from the older movie masterpieces.
One of the first things that needs to be said, and is a definite winner, is that Project Zero continues to use the Survival Horror tradition of semi fixed camera angles throughout the mansion. This means that the camera is almost completely stuck in position, carefully placed to add a sense of the unknown and a fear of what might be around the corner. Add to this the fact that Miku’s running speed is actually more of a jog, and you quickly realise that running away from any enemies is going to be a tall order to carry out successfully.
Now, this might be off-putting for some people, which does explain when Resident Evil ended up ditching the fixed camera angles with Resident Evil 4 onward. However, for those of you who are going into Project Zero looking for a scary horror game, rather than just a gore-fest, it builds up the overpowering sense of dread perfectly!
Exploration is also encouraged by the developers, as you’ll be able to find various different items stashed away throughout the mansion. These range from the typical healing items to cassette recordings that contain additional storyline information. This just adds to the overall enjoyment of the game, as you learn more about the history of the mansion and everything that went on within its walls.
The use of puzzles to hinder progress until you have solved them is also a Survival Horror staple, but is another one that the game does so well! Each puzzle is challenging without being overly complicated to the point that you want to throw your controller. Therefore, it sits somewhere between Resident Evil’s “push this statue to that obvious square on the floor” and Silent Hill’s “you must know how to read Latin backwards whilst playing Mozart with a broken ruler” level of difficulty. Thus, you get a good sense of satisfaction when you solve the puzzle, without feeling like it was a cheap and quick win.
Finally, by sticking to the tried and tested formula of save points, which are relatively few and far between, you are always on edge. You don’t want to mess up and die because you could end up having to redo large sections of the game. Thankfully, the developers also had the foresight to alleviate the worst of this by including the ability to save at the end of each chapter. Thus, at the very least, you didn’t run the risk of finishing a quarter of the game without saving and then having to start from the beginning again.
As mentioned earlier, your only “weapon” against the ghosts of Project Zero is the Camera Obscura. This special camera is able to take photos of peaceful spirits whilst also hurting aggressive ones. However, it is almost a mini-game in and of itself, as you need to aim at the ghosts in first person, and time your photo correctly in order to get the best hit on your enemies. Add to this the fact that it had limited amounts of film that you need to find throughout the mansion, and things get even scarier.
Run out of film, and you have no way to defend yourself. So you need to use precision timing and accuracy to defeat the ghosts, making sure you don’t waste film. All in all, the gameplay for Project Zero is a lot of fun, but also very scary. Everything just adds to the tension is a way that most Survival Horror games can’t manage!
And That’s All Folks
In the end, Project Zero (or Fatal Frame) is an absolute classic of a Survival Horror game. Whilst it may not have aged well graphically, it is so amazingly designed that the older graphics only serve to add to the tension that the game builds up. The use of the camera as a weapon, and the need for precision, makes ever encounter with an aggressive ghost a concern. And the fact that every ghost has some sort of backstory is a huge success on behalf of the developers.
Project Zero is definitely one of the best Survival Horror series out there, which explains why it is still getting new games in one form or another even to this day. That’s despite the fact that the Survival Horror genre has moved onto very different game styles (like the action orientated Resident Evil 6 or the first person horror of Amnesia). Simply put, the fact that Project Zero still holds life is testament to how well the games are made, and this first one is no different. If you’re a fan of horror and get the chance to play Project Zero, don’t miss it. You won’t regret it!