While it’s not hard to hard to find official localised released of Japanese games these days, even just a decade ago that was far from the case. Sure, plenty of Japanese games did get global releases, but they very often came with staggered releases and region-specific names. Case in point, the fourth game in the iconic Fatal Frame and Project Zero series never had an official Western release. that’s a wrong that’s being set right with Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse – or as it’s known in Europe, Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse.
Originally released for the Nintendo Wii, die hard fans were able to play this in the West thanks to an eventual fan patch, but now there’s an official localised re-release that’s been upgraded on its route to modern platforms.
Each Fatal Frame title is a standalone story with some small connective threads, and Mask of the Lunar Eclipse continues that trend – this time with Suda51 having a hand in the writing and directing. The wacky Tarantino-esque nature of most of his titles isn’t on display here at all, but you can absolutely see his love for inventive, film-inspired storytelling shining through.
Mask of the Lunar Eclipse sees you rotating through a cast of protagonists. Ten years ago, Detective Choshiro rescued the other three protagonists – Ruka Minazuki, Misaki Aso, Madoka Tsukimori – from a kidnapper who had taken them and two other young girls. All five girls lost their memories of the event, but now two of the girls have died under mysterious circumstances, inspiring the other three to return to the island they were rescued from to uncover the truth behind what happened. Choshiro, meanwhile, finds himself back on the island to rescue the girls once more and also piece together the true story behind the island and the kidnappings ten years ago.
Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse does a stellar job intertwining these multiple stories and protagonists in a way that remains engaging from beginning to end. Ruka, Choshiro, and the duo of Misaki and Madoka all arrive at the island for different reasons and under different circumstances, but as you rotate between their stories each chapter, you get fragments of a bigger picture that doesn’t make itself clear until much later. Once it does, though, and the three stories meld into a full narrative, it’s a shocking adventure that’s well worth the hours of intrigue and theorizing that lead up to it.
For some, though, the pacing at which all of this unravels might be a bit too slow. There are two key elements to the gameplay in Fatal Frame, with exploration to find items and unlock rooms, and combat against spirits using the mysterious Camera Obscura. Exploration is slow yet purposeful as your characters are equipped with flashlights that not only illuminate the environment but also identify items you can pick up. The original Nintendo Wii version of the game had a motion-controlled flashlight that sluggishly lagged behind your movements, but in the remake your flashlight is tied to the camera and your right-stick. It’s now more accurate, but still slow in a way that adds to the tension in some situations while contributing some frustrations in others.
The game does a good job of hinting at when you’re close to discovering an item, but the amount of times I missed things because I didn’t bother slowly moving my flashlight to the floor or back up to the wall in every part of a room had me more than a little frustrated. While the loop of exploring and recovering items fits well with the flow of the game, there’s also a tedious animation you have to sit through every time you want to grab an item that mostly serves to drag the pacing down even further, only rarely providing some fun scare moments. With other frustrating stop-and-go moments alongside, it all takes the slow yet deliberate pacing pacing of the game and twists it too far into being too slow and monotonous for its own good.
Tension picks up pretty frequently thanks to spirit attacks, though, and this is where the Camera Obscura comes into play. The only weapon at your disposal for the entire game, this camera lets you enter a first-person lens view where you’ll have to align the incoming ghosts at the center of your camera and snap a photo at the right moment to stun and defeat them.
Part of the tension here comes from how slow and awkward your characters are, every one of them moving like a tank and refusing to run at any speed faster than “kinda slow.” The thrill in these engagements also comes from the risk-reward of how they play out – do you hold the camera steady long enough to charge the meter and deliver a killing blow, or do you lose sight of the ghost or maybe pull the trigger just a bit too late?
Despite technically being combat, and happening fairly frequently, these moments are when you feel the most vulnerable and stressed out in the entire game. Your vision is tighter, your movement is restricted, and you’re forced to allow the ghosts to come as close to you as possible in order to defeat them. In a genre that so frequently manages to undermine itself with unnecessary combat mechanics, Fatal Frame manages to perfect a combat system that ends up making you even more scared than you were when there was nothing to fight.
Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse can be slow and repetitive, but it succeeds in delivering a haunting, unique horror experience driven by all the best elements of Japanese horror and folklore. This updated remaster is gorgeous on the Nintendo Switch, but there are some frame rate hitches in larger environments and frequent wait-times to open doors. For fans of the franchise, this is a lot of what you’d already expect from Fatal Frame, on par with the other entries in this iconic if not flawed franchise, and it proves that there’s enough life left here to continue exploring the twisted tales of the Camera Obscura for years to come.