It’s been about seven years since U.S. fans of horror games have been graced with a new Fatal Frame game to scare their pants off. While Fatal Frame IV saw a release in Japan in 2008, anyone on this side of the Pacific is still out of luck. With no sign of that game slated for a domestic release, the closest thing that Stateside gamers have to cling to is the spiritual successor, Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, for the 3DS. While not a direct descendent of the early Fatal Frame games, it bares the mark of Tecmo, the franchise’s publisher, and centers around a variant of the ominous Camera Obscura.
Spirit Camera makes heavy use of the 3DS’ photo capabilities, setting a good portion of the game in the real world, using augmented reality to bring the spirit world to life. Players step into the unwitting role of the protagonist after receiving a mysterious, unmarked package, which included a camera, and an ominous, untitled book, which we soon find out is called the Diary of Faces. Using the real world version of the book, which is included packaged in with the game, players can augment reality through the 3DS to explore the mysteries that the book holds and use it to traverse worlds into the diary and explore the Old House. By placing the camera over the first page of the book, the player has unleashed a curse, which has doomed them to having their face taken by the “Woman in Black.” Helping a friendly ghost named Maya remember her past is your only hope at not being condemned to spend eternity suffering in the pages of the Diary.
The gameplay is a mixture of playing in the real world and in the virtual world, all from the first-person perspective. When the story takes you into the Diary, it’s a pretty straightforward experience, as you’re wandering the halls of the Old House, and trying to figure out a way to escape and get back to the real world. Upon returning, gaming actually kicks in as players use the gyroscope, the camera, and in the included AR book to actually partake in the story. The only time there’s really any action is when a ghost comes out of the book and tried to attack you, and in order to defeat them, you need to move around (like actually move around, using the game’s gyroscope) and line up a reticule from the Camera Obscura over them to unleash a charged “shot.” Once something is in focus, you take a picture, and that actually damages your attacker. It’s a cool experience, but, aside from flipping through the pages of the AR book, that’s about all the action the game offers.
In the tradition of the Fatal Frame games, Spirit Camera manages to keep players guessing, and slips a few frights in here and there. The story is well crafted, particularly if you enjoy Japanese horror, with a near constant flow of disturbing characters, and unexpected turns. There is one thing that Spirit Camera has over any game in the Fatal Frame series (and most horror games for that matter), in that it manages to up the stakes when it comes to psychologically messing with the player through augmented reality. While it is abundantly clear that these things are just projected on the 3DS’ screen, there’s still a little something off putting about seeing a ghostly hand emerge from the book on the table in front of you as it tries to pull you back into it.
In addition to the main game, there’s a series of mini games that open up as you complete certain parts of the story, or discover certain things in the diary. There isn’t a ton of added value here since most of them are just chapters of the story broken out, and expanded upon a bit. There are a couple of enjoyable diversions that revolve around awakening spirits in photos of you or your friends, but these aren’t really a huge selling point for the game.
Overall, Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is a good experience, but not a great game. The story is well crafted in the vein of its predecessors, but its over fairly quickly. Beyond that, the gameplay is only well suited for the 3DS as long as it’s being enjoyed inside the home – you can’t play this portable game at the park, or on the bus, or really anywhere where you can’t get up and move around. If you look at the game only as an augmented reality experiment, it’s well executed and fairly spooky, however, there’s not really enough meat here to justify a $40 price tag. Fatal Frame fans should check it out to get their Camera Obscura fix, but everyone else should be weary of the cost associated with examining the Diary of Faces.