Photograph the Angry Spirits of Rougetsu Island in Fatal Frame 4: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse

I finally did it--I made it to the end of Fatal Frame 4: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, the game that was released exclusively in Japan in 2008 for the Nintendo Wii. Just getting my hands on this game alone was a chore (you can read about that effort here), so finally finishing it feels like quite an accomplishment in my video game geek-ified mind. Personal obsessions aside, Fatal Frame 4 (or FF4) is an impressive game in its own right and a great addition to the Fatal Frame series. Read on for my complete review.

I've only played two other Fatal Frame games--Crimson Butterfly for the Wii (read that review here) and Maiden of Black Water for the Wii U (I haven't finished that one yet)--so I can only comment on how FF4 stacks up against those two games. Based on my experience with this series, FF4 has to be the most densely plotted. I could try to explain the plot in my own words, but I'll spare you the pain and just pull from Wikipedia instead:

"In 1970, ten years prior to the start of the game, suspected serial killer Yo Haibara kidnapped five girls from their rooms in a sanatorium on Rougetsu, an island south of Honshu. The girls were rescued from a cavern beneath the sanatorium by detective Choshiro Kirishima, who had been pursuing Haibara, but they had all lost their memories. Two years later, a catastrophe strikes Rougetsu Island which kills off the inhabitants. Eight years later, in the present, two of the rescued girls have died in mysterious circumstances and two of the survivors, Misaki Aso and Madoka Tsukimori, return to discover the truth about their pasts. Despite being warned by her mother not to return to the island, fellow survivor Ruka Minazuki goes there to find Misaki and Madoka. Shortly before Ruka's arrival, Madoka is killed by hostile spirits. Choshiro, the detective who rescued them, also returns to the island to both find Ruka and continue his pursuit of Haibara. During her exploration, Ruka learns that she and Misaki are suffering from a malady known as the Hidden Moon Disease, which affects their memories and identity and is spread by touch and vision. Each character also collects pieces of a mask used in a local ritual dance to ease the passing of souls into the afterlife."

In FF4, players switch between Ruka, Misaki and Choshiro as they explore Rougetsu Island for answers about Hidden Moon Disease and the curse that wiped out the island's population years ago. As with other games in the Fatal Frame series, players use the Camera Obscura (as well as a new weapon, a Spirit Flashlight) to fight against attacking ghosts. The initial levels take place within the Rougetsu sanatorium and its neighboring hospital, while later levels expand into other areas of the island. Players also have to solve a variety of puzzles to advance through the game, puzzles the include using the Wiimote to play series of notes on a piano.

As with other well-made horror games, the environments in FF4 emanate a pervasive feeling of dread and isolation. Even though the game has plenty of ghosts (both harmless and hostile), it uses its creepy level designs, sound effects and other audio and video cues to constantly remind players of how alone they are on Rougetsu Island. The three main characters never cross paths, and players will frequently hear the echoes of their characters' footsteps as they explore many dark and empty hallways, rooms and caverns. While each of the Fatal Frame games involve ancient Japanese folklore and superstitions, the usage of 20th century architecture in the sanatorium and hospital in FF4 helps players make the narrative connection between a terrifying curse from a murky past and its more recent, modern-day victims.

I've been impressed before with how Nintendo has worked in the motion controls of Wii and Wii U into the Fatal Frame series, and FF4 is no exception. The Wiimote and nunchuk combo were easy to use when aiming the Camera Obscura, picking up objects, pointing flashlights and solving puzzles. The speaker on the Wiimote adds to the game as well: Players can use it to listen to phantom phone calls that are received throughout the game, and the screams of ghosts that have been defeated by the Camera Obscura begin on the TV's speakers and then transition to the Wiimote's speaker. Even after playing the game for a few hours, this audio shifting technique still gave me chills.

Of course, the major challenge with playing FF4 is getting the unofficial, fan-made English patch and making sure that it works with the game. I suppose that players who are not fluent in Japanese could derive some entertainment from FF4 without the patch, but I wouldn't recommend it. It would be impossible to understand which locations to investigate and what is necessary to solve puzzles in order to advance the game. Furthermore, reading the many documents that are left behind by the island's doomed residents (medical reports, journal entries, investigation notes, etc.) are crucial to the game's story and mood. The documents vividly convey the confusion and fear of these characters, characters who knew that they were connected to something they didn't understand and could not escape no matter what they chose to do. If you can't understand the dialog and written words of FF4, you'll miss the overwhelming majority of what the game has to offer.

English patch issues aside, FF4 does have other problems. For as well designed as its environments are, players have to do plenty of backtracking in the sanatorium and hospital levels. These buildings do not give up their secrets easily, so players wind up wandering around the same floors and rooms in order to find everything. Personally, the biggest problem I had with FF4 were the piano playing segments, which are required in several parts of the game (including the final boss battle). Playing a virtual piano with Wiimote was like playing a real piano with my fingers taped together: it was slow, awkward, and I was just as likely to hit the wrong keys as I was the right ones. Of the many clever ways that this game employs motion controls, the piano puzzles were the only duds in my opinion.

Overall, I highly recommend FF4 to both Fatal Frame fans and gamers who love to play survival horror games. Even though it was only released in Japan, the gamers who choose to acquire a copy will be in for a treat.


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