Project Zero, also known as Fatal Frame in America, is one of those ‘classic’ survival horror series that I just never got around to. Although the games have been released exclusively on Nintendo platforms in the past few years (with the 5th game, on the Wii U, coming to the West digitally after the 4th game never made it), Project Zero began on the PS2, joining the ranks of many other niche horror games that didn’t belong to the Resident Evil or Silent Hill series. The premise is simple: haunted mansion, ghosts, and a magical camera.
The game follows the tradition of many other survival horror games, combining exploration, puzzles, and combat into one package. The mansion itself is a particular highlight of the game. The biggest reason is that, by essence, Project Zero is a very Japanese game, evidently created without any original intentions of exportability to the West. The game is about Japanese folklore, the horror is very Japanese, and, well, everything is Japanese. The mansion is a stark contrast to the Spencer Mansion from Resident Evil. The entire layout, interior and design of the mansion is very Japanese and just gives the game a unique vibe not found often in video games. Not only is the mansion great to look at from a cultural point of view, but it’s also eerily designed, featuring some rather creepy locations and a rather decrepit condition. The downside is that the mansion is not particularly massive. There are a few different floors and a garden to explore, but sadly there are no other locations in the game, which, split into different ‘nights’, see’s you exploring the same and familiar rooms over and over for the duration of the game.
The puzzles in this game are also a bit odd. There are a couple of ‘proper’ puzzles in the game, for example lighting candles, placing Buddha statues and dealing with different masks to open doors. These are all par for the course with the game providing hints and tips to these through the many documents you’ll find scattered around the mansion. However there is a bit of an odd oversight in this game regarding simple locked doors. You’ll find two doors in the game that are locked by combination. Finding the combination is easy enough as they’re brightly highlighted in red in the documents you read. However when you attempt to input the combination, the game presents a circle of what I can only assume are Japanese Kanji, instead of numbers. Once you know the pattern, that is, zero is the top and one begins immediately left of zero, and so on, you can input the codes easily. But it’s such a weird thing not to translate and can potentially end up confusing the hell out of any player adamant not to check up a guide because they can’t figure the damn thing out. The game also features a few standard ‘use item in this place’ bits too, which are easy enough. The puzzles are perhaps no the main focus of Project Zero, certainly, they’re not as much of a draw as Silent Hill. However those that do appreciate some decent but not overly difficult puzzles will have no trouble at all here.
The combat is perhaps the highlight of Project Zero, albeit a very flawed highlight. I want to begin by explaining the control system used in this game as it’s an integral part of the combat system. By default the game features a 3D movement system where your character moves based upon camera position, which makes it very hard to transition between angles. Yes, this game features fixed angles and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Tank controls are fortunately available, but it’s a little strange in that square, the run button, just sends the character going, meaning you just kind of hold square to run, turning when necessary. Personally I found myself getting stuck on scenery a lot, making navigation in smaller areas a little more difficult when simple tables and chairs pose a bigger threat to you than the ghosts themselves. Despite these minor issues however, the controls are fairly decent. That is, until you get into combat.
Combat in the game is fairly simple with an extra helping of depth for harder difficulty/alternate modes. On the default control method, pressing circle readies the camera putting you into first person aiming mode. Left analogue stick aims, and right analogue stick moves the character. Holding square will speed up your aim, triangle will do a 180, and R1/X take a shot with R2 doing a special attack. I’ll forgive Project Zero a little bit for the dodgy aiming/moving, as in 2002 console FPS games weren’t really a huge thing I suppose. That said, it still doesn’t change the fact that moving with the right stick and aiming with the left is just plain weird and difficult, as not only are likely used to a standard system, it just feels unintuitive as well. That said, I will give them points for having pretty much everything you’d need, as the faster aiming and 180 are here right out of the gate. The problem is that during combat, movement is incredibly vital.
As you likely already know, in this game you’re going to be fighting ghosts. The idea is that you aim the camera crosshair directly at the ghosts face. Take a picture, and you deal damage. The longer you focus on their face the more power you gain, but if you take a picture whilst not visibly aiming at their face you do nothing and lose the charge. Meanwhile there are a few trick shots you can do, for example of the ring turns yellow whilst aiming this means you can take a shot in order to break their current attack, which becomes an essential part of combat later in the game. There are a variety of ghosts in the game to face. Some are slow and descend upon the player at a slow rate. Some will shift from side to side as they approach. Some of them like to absolutely fuck your shit up by teleporting all over the place, but especially behind you, and some love to come at you fast. Due to the poor movement whilst aiming this can make keeping up with ghosts quite difficult and frustrating. However, combat is still delightfully challenging, if a little repetitive, as there aren’t too many variations in ghosts. This makes up for the frustrating moments, but be warned, frustrating moments will be had and you can’t help but feel like the controls are a problem in not allowing you to position yourself very well, as range is also a huge factor in combat.
Killing ghosts will give you points to spend on upgrades. A cool element of the game is that you can find passive ghosts upon entering rooms who don’t attack you but simply appear for a fleeting moment. If you can quickly grab a picture of these guys before they vanish forever, you can get some experience and sometimes a fair amount of it. You can also find hidden ghosts in the environments by targeting in all manner of places, and let me tell you there’s a great shock to be had when you’re exploring areas looking for hidden ghosts, only for a giant enemy ghost to appear right in your face. In fact, I’d say finding these hidden ghosts, along with the passive ghosts, are essential to getting upgrades as killing normal ghosts simply won’t cut it. You can upgrade a few basic elements of your camera, as well as buy special abilities. These abilities can only be used with a currency you’ll find throughout the levels. I have to admit, I did not buy a single ability, instead preferring to upgrade my camera, and I managed to finish the game with some trouble, but certainly not a lot of it. So really I have no idea how good these abilities are, but from what I gather you can stun ghosts and the like, which is probably very useful considering some of the attacks they have.
It’s tough to write about Project Zero since it’s a game that has so many other little things to write about, it’s hard to put it all together. Project Zero is a pretty decent game. There is a lot of backtracking and re-treading of old areas, but there are plenty of clues given to the player in order to guide them in the right direction. Combat is fun, scary and genuinely challenging, if a little frustrating due to some control issues, and the puzzles are a good distraction. The mansion is creepy, the story interesting (even if the protagonist has absolutely no character or personality, or, well, anything except a motive), and the game provides some pretty scary moments, even if all its tricks are played out within an hour. I suppose really, the devil is in the details and Project Zero is just one of those games you have to see for yourself.
Project Zero was developed by Tecmo and released in 2001/2002 for the Playstation 2, and later for the Xbox. Apparently you can grab it on the NA PSN, but you should be able to get a copy relatively cheap anyway, much more cheaper than Project Zero 2/3 in the UK anyway. Screenshots are my own and look like shit, they’re taken from gameplay with the PCSX2 emulator. It was played in software mode due to a variety of gamebreaking glitches that occur in hardware mode.