Developer: Tecmo Koei / Publisher: Nintendo / Played on: Nintendo 3DS / Price: $37.99 / ESRB: Teen (Blood, Violence)
It’s been a year since the Nintendo 3DS launched in North America and by now you’d think that there would be a healthy supply of software that takes advantage of the handheld’s augmented reality technology. The AR cards that were included with the device made a convincing statement about its potential. So it is a surprise that it took this long for a game to come out that matched the functional depth of those AR cards, and that furthermore, it would come from a game that’s also spin-off of the cult survival horror series, Fatal Frame.
When you think about it, the series’ ubiquitous camera obscura and the camera features of the 3DS actually sound like a promising match. Known as Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, this exercise in augmented reality caught Nintendo’s attention that they handled the publishing themselves, as opposed to series developer/publisher Tecmo Koei.
If you have played any of the Fatal Frame games, then much of Spirit Camera’s narrative will be familiar to you. Once again, the setting is in a house and you’re helping a young adult woman put an end to a curse. Her name is Maya and she’s trapped in this house by an aged white-haired woman who has not only trapped other victims but has also ripped their faces off (though oddly enough, not Maya’s face). With the 3DS camera acting as the camera obscura, the handheld itself becomes the main weapon in breaking the curse.
Aside from Maya’s guidance, your only other aid is an actual 16-page diary that contains clues and secrets about the house and its tormented occupants. If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s this diary that acts as the augmented reality platform for Spirit Camera.
Nintendo doesn’t hide Spirit Camera’s connection to the survival horror series. The story mode is in fact titled ‘Fatal Frame: The Diary of Faces’. Since you yourself play the protagonist, there’s no third person exploration; any movement within the old house is on rails, although you’re free to look around as the game moves you forward.
Maya will regularly advise you to consult the diary for important clues, and every page takes advantage of the 3DS’ augmented reality. Spirit Camera truly shines when you’re given a riddle that requires you to do more than just point the 3D camera toward a page. Without giving anything away, there are surprises in store if you apply some obtuse thinking not that all different from the AR card games.
Playing off the superstition that taking a photo of someone steals their souls, taking photos of ghosts is the only way you can defend yourself against these apparitions, which are the game’s adversaries. Yet like past Fatal Frames, you can’t just continually snap away to take down a spook.
The most effective way is to wait until the very moment the ghost is about to strike you; taking a photo then will yield the most damage. You can deal even more damage the longer you preemptively keep the ghost in your viewfinder before taking the shot. I always thought that it was ingenious of the series to have different kinds of camera film as the ‘ammo’ for the camera.
Unfortunately, film isn’t present in this game, although there is depth in combat when it comes to the variety of camera lenses and the fact that certain ghosts are only detectable with a specific lens.
When trying to find the ghosts, you’ll need to deal with all 360 degrees of your viewing space, and in rare occasions, above or below you. Helping you out is a glowing yellow pointer that, when followed properly, guides to the ghost’s general area.
With good thinking and decent reflexes, you can free Maya in about two hours, which is an unfortunate contrast to the 10+ hour play lengths of the previous games in the series, let alone your average 3DS game. In an attempt to make up for this, Spirit Camera includes a collection of non-story modes, split into two sections.
Haunted Visions contains some mildly amusing ways to turn your 3DS camera into a window to the spirit world. The game can distort your face, reveal spirits hidden in everyday objects or put you up against ghosts that live in your home. The novelty wears off rather quickly, much more so than the other section, titled Cursed Pages. As the title implies, Cursed Pages gets extra mileage out of the diary with variations on puzzles from The Diary of Faces. Two of the minigames feature a boy from the story mode and his two games; hide-and-seek and tracking the eye movements of four masks.
The creepiest game of the bunch involves matching traditionally dressed Japanese dolls, these figurines being a fittingly disturbing mainstay in the Fatal Frame series.
Spirit Camera’s use of augmented reality does present one unfortunate immersion trade-off when you consider that this is a horror game. Many survival horror games are best enjoyed with as little light as possible, a problem for Spirit Camera when you need a good amount of light for the 3DS to detect the diary pages.
My solution, however silly, was to play the battle and conversation scenes in my darkened bedroom and place the diary in my sunlit living room. I would only go into the living room whenever I needed to look in the book; needless to say, I got some exercise, not only with all the walking back and forth, but also through constant rotating while I was in battle.
As the graphical qualities of the 3DS and the PlayStation 2 aren’t that different, there’s a sense of visual connection between Spirit Camera and the past Fatal Frame games. This is mostly due to the series’ continued use of houses and mansions as settings but also with the familiar style of the character designs.
Maya’s maiden look is as innocent as they come, while the tortured souls in the house are fittingly dark and often disfigured in ways familiar to Japanese horror fans: long and messy hair, scratched-out faces, etc.. The handheld’s 3D capabilities lend well to both the first person exploration of the house and the ghost battles; there was hardly any blurring with the 3D slider maxed out.
The fact that the sound becomes a valuable and practical asset during the battles is a testament to Spirit Camera’s audio work. If you listen closely, you can get the edge on the ghosts, prompting you to rotate toward the source of their moaning, often before the yellow pointer on the lens appears.
The audio is produced well enough that relying on the 3DS stereo speakers is more than adequate, even though the ideal play session should include headphones.
Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is a perfect reminder of how long it has been since we’ve had a Fatal Frame game. It manages to capture the series well enough that it might as well be considered a sequel as opposed to a spin-off. Part of a series or not, Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir effectively uses the 3DS augmented reality technology, sometimes in brain-teasing ways that make players feel a sense of accomplishment when puzzles are solved.
The only 3DS game that rivals the AR integration in this game is the card collection that came with the handheld. It’s just too bad Spirit Camera’s play length is disappointingly short, even when you include the non-story modes.