Big giant NO
Hope everyone had a Happy Halloween! Though more than a day late, I felt compelled to honor the horror festivities we had this season using this humble little Japanophile blog of mine in some way or another. Rather than diving into some bizzarro horror manga by the likes of Itou Junji and such, I’ve decided to ramble a bit about one of my favorite Japanese survival horror video game series that I find myself playing every October: 零 (Zero), otherwise known as Project Zero in Europe and Fatal Frame in the United States.
The kanji for Zero can also be alternatively read as rei, which sounds like 霊 rei… which, in turn, means “spirit”. As the name suggests, unlike other well-known survivor horror games such as Silent Hill or Resident Evil, the Zero series pits you against vengeful ghosts instead of zombies or the dark confines of your psyche.
Even the good ghosts are freaky
From a western standpoint, the really scary ghosts tend to be subtle and unseen (The Blair Witch Project comes to mind), so it’s hard to imagine survival horror combat being fit for ectoplasmic spookies without cheapening the scare effect. Not only that, but this game certainly isn’t Ghostbusters either (don’t get me wrong, that would be a great thing in a completely different situation).
Among the many things Japanese culture manages to excel in, they definitely hit the nail on horror fiction. They have plenty of disturbing tales to tell, and their depictions of ghosts are downright terrifying or at least unsettling, whether seen or unseen. These ghosts, called yuurei (幽霊), are transformed souls [reikon 霊魂] that still linger in the physical realm, due to funeral and post-funeral rites having not been performed for them. One of the more well-known and conventional type of yuurei they use in horror fiction are vengeful spirits – onryou (怨霊) as they’re called – which are wronged spirits that experienced an unclean death (murder or suicide). Strong emotions such as rage, hatred, jealousy, etc. caused their souls to be unable to pass onto the afterlife, manifesting into dangerous spirits that are basically walking curses confined to their place of death. Encountering one will not only scare you shitless, but you’ll experience very, very bad things. Usually involving death and spreading their curse to you, and usually in unique ways depending on the spirit (look up the urban legends of Kuchisake-Onna or Teketeke).
Once you enter their domain, you’re… basically fucked.
As you can imagine, yandere girls are even worse when they’re dead
Yuurei are the ghosts that you find yourself being attacked by in Zero, which may or not be the vengeful spirits or simply those who’ve been spirited away (神隠し). The main antagonists are always super-powerful onryou that are the main source/victims of the curses.
Torment the moe
All main protagonist in every entry are females (except for the spin-off Spirit Camera, where the player is the main character and thus could be a boy). Extra cute, and extra frail female characters. You’re not even a cop, an FBI agent, or Biohazard 4‘s version of Leon doing ridiculous black-flips, suplexes and shit. You’re just a petite Japanese girl being thrown into a hellhole of dead abominations.
Luckily, you stumble across a weapon to combat these dead abominations… an old camera. Wait.. huh?
That’s right. You’re armed with a “Camera Obscura” (射影機 Shaeki), a camera with the ability to exorcise/ward off ghosts and other spiritual entities using various types of film. This isn’t Pocket Monsters Snap. The terror of the “combat” comes from the fact that the camera is most effective when you charge up the capture circle by keeping your viewfinder on the ghosts for as long as possible and letting the abominations get as close to you as possible for a close-up. As long as the ghost is within your capture circle, feel free to go trigger-happy with the camera… but that method isn’t very sufficient, and is a waste of your good film. In the first Zero, your film is limited, but the weakest film type available (Type-14) can be refilled at every save point as long as the stock is under 30. From Zero ~Crimson Butterfly~ onwards, the series introduces a new film type, Type-07, which is unlimited, but it has almost no exorcism power and is basically useless for fighting ghosts. Better film types include Type-34 (first game only)/Type-61 (Regular), Type-74 (really strong, first game only), Type 90 (really strong), and Type-零/Type-ZERO (the strongest). Naturally, as a survival horror game, better film types are scarce, so it’s better to save them for the more menacing ghosts, such as bosses.
Shaeki upgrade screen (Zero ~Crimson Butterfly~)
Each time you defeat an enemy or capture a shot of wandering ghosts, you receive spirit points which you can use to upgrade your camera’s various functions, which may vary depending on the installment. There are also specific special functions (Track Ghost, Zoom, etc) you can obtain that significantly upgrade the Camera Obscura, granting them abilities that don’t consume film. Depending on the game, this system may vary. For example, in the first Zero, using bonus functions requires consumable items called Spirit Stones (霊石 reiseki), whereas in Zero ~Crimson Buttefly~ all you need is to charge your spirit power during battle to use auxiliary functions. Spirit Stones (念珠 nenju) are used to increase the maximum level of your upgrades in Zero ~Crimson Butterfly~, whereas in Zero ~Mask of the Lunar Eclipse~ , spirit points and Spirit Orbs are replaced with red/blue crystals (霊力の欠片 spirit power fragments).
The dolls stare into your soul…
Another function the Camera Obscura provides is a filament, which is an interface seen somewhere on the screen depending on the game. When the filament glows blue, that means a hint/”hidden ghost” is nearby. In Japanese religion, spirits aren’t limited to just the soul of a human being, but they can be associated with various objects including inanimate objects. Taking pictures of certain objects (in every game after the first game, it’s best to do this with the unlimited Type-07 film) that the filament detects spirit power from can give you hints of what to do next. When the filament glows red, it means you’re in the midst of encountering a hostile ghost, which sucks if you’re at a save point (unlike the old school Biohazard games, there aren’t any safe havens in these games and you’re not allowed to save if your filament is red). For both colors of the filament, they start becoming more luminescent as you get closer to their respective targets. The filament system has been modified for some of the more recent games, but these basic elements remain consistent.
P-…puzzles are supposed to be the cool-down period…
While the game is set in modern Japan, the stories force the girls to be trapped in very rural old school Japanese settings. The setting and puzzle designs for every Zero game is traditionally Japanese, which will please anyone who is knowledgeable about Japan’s history, culture, myths and folklore. It adds to the story’s horror in a way that only traditional Japanese beliefs about spirits and hauntings can do – coming across icons that seem rather common to traditional Japanese culture can be rather unsettling in the context of the game’s story. Wandering around rooms filled with Hinamatsuri dolls or a dark kimono room does not foster a very pleasant feeling in these games. Especially when you consider that, again, the idea of spirits in Japan aren’t limited to the human soul, which helps makes such dead Japanese settings even more eerie than they are.
The best part about the Zero games is that, unlike Biohazard and Silent Hill (which are great horror games, at least for their earlier installments, moreso for the former), combat is not that much of a common occurrence in this game. There’s a real build up with suspense whilst exploring the respective haunted locations, finding out what really happened to the location’s victims through notes, and finally interweaving them with fitting ghost stalkings and battles. The atmosphere is consistently unsettling and a lot of it comes from how much of a good horror story they manage to tell rather than just the visuals/random whispers of the ghosts and the heartbeat of the controller making the player anxious (which by all means is still a great way to immerse the players – I love it).
Can’t be survival horror without notes!
Along with staying true to the routes that have made it such a huge success, these are definitely the reasons why these tend to be my most favorite horror games of all time (Silent Hill II and Forbidden Siren come after). In terms of keeping things within the vicinity of this series, Zero ~Crimson Butterfly~/Zero ~Deep Crimson Butterfly~ (remake) ranks right up there as #1 in terms of the story (and my favorite protagonists, the Amakura twins), and the original Zero ranks up there in terms of COMPLETE NIGHTMARE (Broken Neck, Rope Priestess, floating head, and MY EEEEEEYEEEES stalk you throughout most of the game, ugh!).
Sadly, because it’s my favorite horror game series, this makes me absolutely despise Nintendo of America for not letting Koei Tecmo bringing over the fourth and fifth games of the series to western shores. The only Fatal Frame/Project Zero games the west has seen since Zero ~Voice of the Tattoo~ (Fatal Frame: The Tormented) were the low-tier spin-off Spirit Camera (which requires you to play in a brightly lit room because it uses the 3DS’s AR functions) and Zero ~Deep Crimson Butterfly~, which was a remake of a game we already got AND it was only for Europe. Seriously, Nintendo of America already fucked me over when they made Xenoblade Chronicles (NA Wii) a limited print run and this makes me respect them even less.
Every installment: post-game kimono outfits!
The Evil Within , horror games by Frictional Games, and Five Nights at Freddy’s aside, Zero ~Black-Haired Shrine Maiden~ might possibly be the only true horror game survival horror enthusiasts are willing to touch these days, AND FOR ME PERSONALLY, WOULD BE A FANTASTIC REASON TO PURCHASE A WII U TO BEGIN WITH, and if they don’t bring it over… they’re making a big mistake. At the very least, Nintendo isn’t getting my money any time soon.
Wow lewd. Koei Tecmo, pls