By Dave Haldane
Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is a spin-off title in the Project Zero series (better known as Fatal Frame). Whilst this game’s core concept is consistent with the main series the change in play style and controls provide a unique and new experience.
The story begins with your discovery of a mystical “Camera Obscura” and the “Diary of Faces”. Upon opening the diary you discover a young amnesiac, Maya, and a terrible curse. Not surprisingly this pre-empts a journey to help Maya recover her memory and solve the mystery of the curse. The story isn’t overly complex but the way they present it is almost insulting. Considering the pedigree of the series I expected a clever tale which slowly unfolds as you explore areas. What I got was a game that just outright tells you what is happening and what it wants you to believe. Whilst the story isn't bad it’s a far cry from the cleverly structured, expansive stories of the main games.
One of the standout features of this game is the control method. In a clever move the developers have integrated the 3DS features really well; the camera on your 3DS is the “Camera Obscura” and a physical augmented reality (AR) book plays the part of the Diary of Faces. “Why is this clever” you ask? It’s clever because the Project Zero games work by creating an immersive atmosphere to give you those deep down scares. What could be more immersive than actually holding the camera in your hands or seeing a physical object “come to life”? It’s a clever psychological trick and, for the most part, works really well in creating a tense and spooky atmosphere.
You play by using the 3DS camera as your “point of view”. If you’re told to locate and talk to Maya you need use the 3DS to physically look around the room and find her. If you’re told to look at page 5 of the Diary of Faces they mean that you should look at it thru the 3DS. The Camera Obscura’s ability to “see the unseen” has been a staple in the series and is referenced really well here.
The game can be broken down into three sections; talking to Maya, using the diary and exorcizing spirits. Talking to Maya is the developer’s way of progressing the story and fairly boring. All you do is locate her in the room then press A repeatedly while she explains what’s going on (most of which is blatantly obvious). Using the diary is the AR portion of the game and mostly just special effects with an occasional mini game. The mini games can be fun but are ridiculously easy. It’s a shame they went this route as it was a clever idea and felt wasted when most of the AR sections just involved finding a particular page in the diary.
Then we come to exorcising spirits, the pièce de résistance and saving grace for the game. For those who have played other Project Zero titles you’ll know what to expect here. It’s essentially the same mechanic but the Camera Obscura is actually responsive! To exorcize spirits you simply locate them in the room and photograph of them. Once located you don’t have to take the photo immediately though. You can keep the camera trained on them to build a spirit meter; the higher the meter, the more damage you do when you take the shot. Alternatively you can risk waiting until the moment just before a spirit hits you; if you time it right you’ll get a fatal frame which does a heap of extra damage.
In the regular Project Zero games a key component of your strategy was weighing up the risk of going for a fatal frame against the safety of taking a normal shot and retreating. As Spirit Camera doesn’t offer you the option to change location your only defence is to make the spirit recoil by getting a fatal frame. I was a bit disappointed by this as it pretty much voided any tactical gameplay and reduced each fight to just waiting for fatal frame opportunities.
Aside from the main story Spirit Camera offers two additional modes; haunted visions and cursed pages. Unfortunately these are just mini games replicating some of the features introduced during the story. Haunted visions is a clever concept allowing you to take photos of your surroundings, uncover spirits or fight friends and family whilst cursed pages is a bunch of AR mini-games.
Whilst a game utilising the AR and motion features of the 3DS is long overdue I felt that Spirit Camera fell well short of being the killer title we were promised. The entire experience took me just over 2.5 hours and the AR games were frustratingly buggy if the diary wasn’t perfectly lit. Often my shadow would fall over the Diary of Faces and I’d be graced with some loud static and a message stating that the AR book could not be found. Other times I’d be pointing the camera at the right page but the 3DS wouldn’t recognise the book was even there! This didn’t happen all the time but was frequent enough to kill the atmosphere; especially when it happened in the middle of a cut scene!
Another problem with this game was the level of "hand holding". No sooner was a new concept or technique introduced then the game moved on to the next section, never to use that skill again. For example; you find new lenses for the camera that lets you illuminate darkness. This means you can now view a certain page of the diary as the picture was dark. Maya tells you what to do and, once done, you never use the lens again. I was hoping that I’d find special spirits where I had to mix up lenses in order to find them.
Spirit Camera is a fantastic idea that should have worked really well. Unfortunately I felt it never realised its potential and felt more like a tech demo than an actual game. The concept is sound but the gameplay was short and lacking. It did get me thinking about a WiiU version of Project Zero however… Imagine playing a third person spooky adventure game on your TV then, when you hear a ghost, pulling up the tablet like a camera and looking around the room. THAT sort of game would address all my issues with this game AND the main series… maybe I should get a patent… :P
In conclusion Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is a good game. Unfortunately it feels like a missed opportunity as it’s ridiculously short and way too easy. In my opinion it’s worth checking out but wait for it to appear in a bargain bin.