Fatal Frame / Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse Review – Camera Shy

The way that the Fatal Frame (known as Project Zero in Europe) franchise has been treated is almost criminal. It doesn’t enjoy the stature of survival horror stalwarts like Resident Evil or Silent Hill by any means, but those who’ve dabbled with Koei Tecmo’s series to any extent will tell you that it deserves way more attention than it gets, owing not only to how effective it is at scaring the lights out of players, but also thanks to how unique it is and how it sets itself apart from its peers in the genre.

Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is a perfect example of that- the fourth mainline instalment in the series launched for the Wii back in 2008, but it was available exclusively in Japan, which meant that for years, series fans in the West who wanted to experience it had no official means to do so. Now, however, the scenery has changed, and the horror genre is very much on the comeback trail. In 2021, Koei Tecmo released a remaster of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, and now the company is going back to the “lost” Wii instalment and finally bringing it westward.

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“There’s absolutely no denying that purely as a horror experience, it delivers in more ways than one (though those who have experience with the series won’t be surprised about that in the slightest). At the same time, however, it’s also held back in a few significant ways that do drag the experience down- many of which are made all the more disappointing by how little Koei Tecmo has touched the game in its efforts to remaster it.”

Whether or not Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is worth all that wait – if you have indeed been waiting for it – is a tricky question to answer. There’s absolutely no denying that purely as a horror experience, it delivers in more ways than one (though those who have experience with the series won’t be surprised about that in the slightest). At the same time, however, it’s also held back in a few significant ways that do drag the experience down- many of which are made all the more disappointing by how little Koei Tecmo has touched the game in its efforts to remaster it.

Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is set on Rougetsu Island, where years ago, five girls were held captive in a traumatic experience that led to them almost completely completely damaging their memories. Ten years later, two of those five girls have died under mysterious circumstances, while two more disappeared upon their return to the island. Players step into the shoes of Ruka Minazuki, the fifth survivor of that fateful incident years ago, who also travels to the island to regain her memories and unlock the secrets of her past, in addition to finding out what happened to her two fellow survivors. Meanwhile, detective Choshiro Kirishima, who has been trying to break the very same case for years, stars as the game’s co-protagonist.

Narratively, there’s a lot to like about Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse. It bears all the hallmarks of the series that you’d expect to find here- a relentlessly bleak tone, a multifaceted and complicated mystery that slowly unravels throughout the experience, and a story that is slowly told through bits and pieces that you find in different forms, including notes, newspaper clippings, flashes of memories, and the like. It’s not a groundbreaking, riveting narrative by any means, but it’s more than capable of keeping you genuinely engaged, and more than capable of properly establishing the sinister and oppressive tone this series has always been known for.

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“Narratively, there’s a lot to like about Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse. It bears all the hallmarks of the series that you’d expect to find here- a relentlessly bleak tone, a multifaceted and complicated mystery that slowly unravels throughout the experience, and a story that is slowly told through bits and pieces.”

It’s the gameplay where Mask of the Lunar Eclipse falters. Like all other Fatal Frame games, it relies first and foremost on two main pillars. The first of these, as you’d expect from most survival horror games, is exploration, with Ruka and Choshiro exploring a variety of locations on the creepy and abandoned island, including an old hospital that was turned into a hotel and a number of residences. The second, in true Fatal Frame fashion, is using the iconic Camera Obscura to click photographs of phantoms and battle against vicious wraiths. Conceptually, there’s nothing wrong with either of those pillars, and even in terms of execution, there’s a lot to like here- but the game does mess up with many of its fundamentals.

The simple act of moving around, for instance, is an absolute nuisance, a lot of which is down to the glacial speed at which player characters move. Hell, even the so-called “sprint” is only fractional quicker than the pace a snail would move at, which makes getting from point A to point B a tiring exercise very early on into the game. Given how much the core gameplay loop relies on exploring and traversing environments, that’s a big issue. It doesn’t help that the controls themselves are weirdly clunky, either. The right stick is used to both, control the camera and aim your flashlight, but when you’re sprinting, the camera automatically follows the direction you’re facing. It’s all quite clunky, and even though I did eventually get used to it, it never stopped being annoying.

Controlling the flashlight in particular is a big problem, because finding items in the environment (many of which are crucial for making progress and upgrades) requires you to first shine the light on them. This means you’ll be spending plenty of time scouring the environments and combing over nooks and crannies to find necessary items, and while that in and of itself isn’t a huge issue (especially since an indicator on the bottom right of the screen lets you know when you’re close to one), it does become one when you have to keep wrestling with the aiming controls.

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“The simple act of moving around is an absolute nuisance, a lot of which is down to the glacial speed at which player characters move.”

Combat fares better, primarily because of the tension the game builds with its intentionally slow movements and the downright terrifying design of some of the wraiths and spirits you take on. The controls and clunky movement are still an issue here, and it’s easy to see how the combat could be significantly more effective if it was backed up by a much better playing core gameplay experience, but each encounter feels like a thrilling faceoff, even if it’s a shame that they’re far outweighed by the meandering exploration and combing of environments you’ll be doing as you play through the game.

Honestly, issues with the game’s controls and movement ideally should have been addressed by Koei Tecmo in this remaster, especially seeing as the original game was built around the Wii’s motion controls. And that’s not the only area where Mask of the Lunar Eclipse disappoints as a remaster. From a technical perspective, too, it’s a bit of a letdown. I am, of course, aware of the fact that even back when it first released, it was made for hardware that was way behind the curve even for 2008, so I wasn’t expecting this remaster to be a visual stunner by any means. And while Koei Tecmo has certainly brushed things up here and there and updated the character models, it still feels like a very superficial upgrade.

Don’t get me wrong, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is still a game that I’d recommend to fans of the horror genre, and especially to fans of the series. Those looking for good scares and palpable atmosphere will find them in abundance here, and the fact that this is the first time the game has released in the West is also significant, making it much easier to recommend for those who haven’t played it. But above all else, what this remaster proves most through its deficiencies is that a new, modern Fatal Frame game that irons out the clunkiness and hones in on the series’ biggest strengths could easily go toe to toe with the genre’s biggest giants. Hopefully, Koei Tecmo will find enough success with its recent Fatal Frame re-releases that it decides that it’s finally time to develop a full-fledged new entry in the series. Until that happens though, this will do well enough.

This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.


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