Developer: Tecmo Koei
Release Date: JP/AU/EU – June 2012
Reviewed by: Hjort
Project Zero 2: Wii Edition
It’s been a while since I stopped fearing the dark. As I grew up, I learned enough about the world to find more plausible explanations than ghosts when things went bump in the night, and I started to see the darkness more as comfort than cause for alarm. Today, 29 years old, I introduce you to Project Zero 2: Wii Edition. The game that turned back my personal development by about 20 years.
Project Zero, known as Fatal Frame in the US, and simply as Zero in Japan, is one of the more critically acclaimed survival horror franchises out there, but has so far failed to reach the popularity of competitors like Resident Evil. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because while Resident Evil has been busy trying to maintain its massive popularity by going ever farther away from its survival horror roots, Project Zero has been able to bring classic, classy scares to its comparatively small, but loyal fanbase.
Developer Tecmo brought the series to Playstation 2 and Xbox, but Nintendo gamers were left out until Nintendo themselves showed active interest in the franchise, and brought the fourth instalment exclusively to the Wii back in 2008. Despite Nintendo’s reluctance to release that particular game anywhere but in Japan, they were pleased enough with the result that they now officially share ownership of the series with Tecmo Koei. Out of the three first Project Zero games, Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly was the most well received, even being mentioned by some as the scariest game ever, so it makes sense that Nintendo would use a remake of this title to represent the franchise roots on Wii.
This second story of the series begins as twin sisters Mio and Mayu Amakura pay one last visit to their favourite childhood spot, before the construction of a new dam will drown the forest around it forever. Distracted by a red butterfly, Mayu wanders off deeper into the woods, and as Mio chases after her, the duo find themselves trapped in a cursed village from the 1800’s, populated by the lingering spirits of both inhabitants and unfortunate visitors, much like themselves. Cue the series’ trademark exorcism-by-photography and heart-stopping scares.
In stark contrast to most horror games aimed at, or developed by Westerners, Project Zero 2 has very little in the way of explicit depictions of violence or gore, and relies on a more gothic approach to deliver the scares and drive the story forward. Dark Shinto elements are paired with more classical ghost lore, and the story presentation has more in common with movies like the original versions of The Ring or Tale of Two Sisters, than anything out of Hollywood.
This is not to say that the game entirely lacks disturbing or violent material, however. The plot that unfolds, shedding light on what happened in Minakami village all those years ago, is quite gruesome, and definitely belongs among the darker examples of the genre. It feels even darker since you as the player will put the tragic puzzle together yourself, one diary entry and ghost sighting at a time, gradually starting to feel empathy for the lost souls who now restlessly roam the village streets forever.
The lost village looks great for the most part. The vast majority of the game will be spent indoors, and it’s immediately apparent that most of the graphics work has gone into making the abandoned homes look believable and atmospheric. In the beginning, as you make your way through the moonlit forest paths leading up to the village, the underbrush and branches seem flat and lifeless, but once you find yourself inside one of the deserted houses — where plant life is expected to be dead — the graphics come into their own.
The interior geometry of the houses is not any more intricate than it has to be, given the way houses tend to look, but this has allowed the developers to place more effort into decorating them. Wooden beams of dark brown stretch through the shadows; old kimonos provide colourful contrast to the drab stone walls; rice paper partitions reflect the sparse halos of warm candle light, and you can almost feel the musty smell of the old books that lie scattered across the dust covered desks and floor boards.
Just as well crafted, and integral to the horror experience, are the ghosts. While looking the same way they did when they breathed their last, their aesthetics vary quite a bit. Some have the traditional, kabuki-inspired appearance, with long, unkempt hair and formal funeral getup, whereas others who suffered more traumatic deaths are riddled with cuts, burns or have their broken bodies twisted into unnatural shapes. Their animation goes hand in hand with their respective fates as well, making sure that every single enemy type has an unsettling story to tell the player as they encounter them.
Perfectly accompanying the spooky visuals is a stellar sound design, and I must insist that you dig out a decent pair of headphones before going into Project Zero. The good people at Tecmo Koei know the value of ambience, and as a result have left practically the entirety of the game without a traditional soundtrack. The empty buildings feature blankets of background noise that manage to seem both natural and unnatural at the same time. Although I should have been accustomed to the noises of a certain mansion after a couple of hours of exploration, I still found myself wondering if I heard someone walking around in the next room, or if that was just the floorboards shifting under my weight. Even while navigating the menu screen you will be exposed to all sorts of creaks, rustlings and bumps, to make sure you’ll never get too comfortable.
The voice work is not quite as close to perfection, but has still been handled well. The twin sisters’ voice acting is merely functional, with lines delivered believably enough for them not to break the spell of immersion, but just like the story, the true stars of the show are the ghosts. Sure, there are a couple of ghosts whose lines seem to indicate aggression and sentience in such a way that they start feeling more like your average videogame enemy, and less like a restless soul halfway into the spirit world. Generally speaking, though, lines and deliveries are eerie combinations of desperation and confusion, anger and sadness, making for some truly haunting moments – no pun intended. A prime example is one particular ghost, whom with the shivering voice of someone who is about to cry, repeatedly pleads for someone to help her as you unleash your paparazzi skills. She seems genuinely terrified of you, but that doesn’t make the situation any less scary – quite the contrary.
Project Zero 2 also makes some use of the Wii remote’s internal speaker, mostly to spice things up during battle, but also for listening to voices stored in the crystal remnants of spectres, which is an interesting touch. It’s just too bad the low quality of the speaker and the chaotic sound mix of the clips make them hard to understand, and that it’s not possible to re-route the sound to the TV speakers or headphones. Still, the crystals aren’t vital to plot or gameplay, and when the rest of the sound production is so good, it’s not a very big deal.
Unsettling story, atmospheric graphics and clever sound design is all well and good, but without gameplay and pacing to bring them all together, a horror game could still easily fall flat on its supernatural butt. Luckily, the team behind Project Zero 2 has experience, and it shows. While they certainly aren’t above resorting to startles to frighten you, they are well aware that startles alone won’t go far, and consistently build up considerable amounts of tension before unleashing hell upon you. They also build up tension leading into nothing from time to time, having you expect disasters that never come, but almost making you wish they had, just to free you from the nerve-wracking uncertainty. Anywhere you go in the game, you know that bad things will happen – you just don’t know when or how – and it will get to you.
Controlling Mio is simple enough, but isn’t always done the way you’d expect, or assume. Both camera and flashlight control are handled via tilt instead of IR; you tilt up and down to move the flashlight accordingly, and twist the Wii remote sideways to pan. Not the most intuitive setup, especially not for those of us used to games like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but it does work.
The biggest control issue, and the game’s biggest technical flaw, is the tank like movement of the main characters. The speed at which you move around – even when running – is slow, and turning is just as sluggish. The 180 degree turn performed by shaking either nunchuk or Wii remote is quick and precise, but won’t do you much good if you just want to turn a corner, or examine something beside you. All that being said, the game has been designed with this in mind, and you won’t find yourself dying just because you were fighting the controls as much as the malevolent spirits.
Although taking pictures of your enemies might sound less exciting than, say, blasting their ugly heads off with a shotgun, the battle system actually has a surprising amount of depth and a whole lot of tension. Basic attacks are carried out by making sure you have a ghost in your camera’s viewfinder and pushing the button. The longer you manage to keep the spirit in your sights, the more energy will build up inside the camera, dealing more damage to them, and rewarding you with more spirit points that you can spend on upgrades. Of course, letting an enemy go around unattended for too long will also leave you open to attack, or risk having the ghost disappear on you. This system guarantees that every single enemy encounter matters, and can have a bigger impact on your overall performance than merely your supply of medicine or film for your camera. Pair this with spirit point bonuses handed out for capturing multiple targets, pulling off combos, and more, and you’ve got yourself a very rewarding battle system.
The customization aspect is not exactly rocket science, but enough to give the game a somewhat strategic touch, and provide additional depth. At first you can only spend spirit points to increase your camera’s power, size of the targeting circle and so on, but soon you will find brand new lenses that give you entirely new abilities that you can upgrade, and combine up to three of them for desired effects in battle, like freezing enemies in their tracks, or making them more vulnerable to combos.
All of the battles will require your full attention, but it’s not until a couple of hours in that things start to get challenging, and you will begin to keep a close eye on your supplies. Scavenging the gloomy locales for medicine, keys and diary entries will become increasingly important as you find your progress hindered by locked doors and puzzles more and more often. The puzzles in question tend to be quite well integrated into the game world, and will regularly have you find objects and operation instructions or hints, before actually solving said puzzle, giving both your legs and brains a workout every so often.
A common way for the game to keep your physical reactions on their toes is using random events, such as the ghost hand, which was introduced in Fatal Frame IV. When you come across an item of interest, you have to actively reach out for it, by holding the A-button pressed down until you actually have the object in your grasp. Sometimes, at random, you will see disembodied hands stretch out of the shadows, for your soft, warm arm. If you don’t react quickly enough by letting go of the button, the hand will grab you and drain you of your precious health until you manage to shake it off. Since the camera angles, Mio’s speed of movement, and the environments differ, there are no distinct visual cues to warn you, other than the pale, translucent hand itself, at which point it might already be too late. Project Zero 2 doesn’t even let you feel safe when you find medicine; that’s how dedicated it is to make you change your underpants a bit more often.
Clocking in at about 15 hours of gameplay for the story mode, Project Zero has pretty good value, considering the quality of the experience. When you spend most of your time mumbling things like “oh no, please don’t make me go down there” or “holycrapholycrapholycrap”, but still keep wanting to play for another ten minutes, you know you’re into something good. There is also some replay value, with six different endings to unlock, multiple outfits to buy, as well as spirits and items that don’t show until your second playthrough, but these are all more fan service than universal incentives to keep you coming back for more. It is a very strong main campaign, but when it’s over, you’ll want meatier extra material than new clothes.
Sadly, very little of the story mode’s strongest aspects translate over to the game’s main extra: Haunted House. What sounded like a good idea on paper, turned out to be little more than a waste of time and disc space. At its core, Haunted House mode is simple on-rails affair, with three different sub modes, and three different environments that combine for several variations. The most simplistic one is a matter of traversing a location from point A to point B, while random ghost encounters and startles try to make you jump out of your seat – almost literally. The Wii remote and nunchuk’s accelerometers are supposed to register your movements, and keep track of when and how much you react to something, so that it can give you an analysis of your cowardice upon completion of the level.
I say “are supposed to”, because despite having worked just fine during the main game, the accelerometers seem far less willing to cooperate as soon as you go into a Haunted House. The one single time I was genuinely startled by a ghost, the game didn’t notice at all, but instead decided to penalize me with points at times when not a damn thing was happening, and I sat as still as a garden pond in winter. Perhaps this mode was meant to feature the mythical Vitality Sensor at some point, but got scrapped? Even if the motion sensors had worked the way they should, the game mode still wouldn’t have been worthwhile, since it just relies on random events and lacks all the finesse and pacing of the main game. There is no time for this Haunted House mode to build any sort of atmosphere, and there is absolutely no sense of urgency since you are so aware that the ghosts can’t harm you, and that all you need to do to succeed, is to keep a button pressed down.
The two other Haunted House modes are slightly better thanks to increased player input, but are still far too shallow to feel truly playable, and much too haphazard to be scary. For instance, having to collect a number of items while being chased by a malicious spirit is an idea with potential, but since both you and your stalker move around on rails at such slow speeds, it feels more like two irate seniors in a rest home following each other around with their walkers, instead of a race against certain death. Had we been allowed some use of our beloved Camera Obscura, and given free movement, this could possibly have been expanded upon into this series’ equivalent to Resident Evil’s Mercenaries mode, but as it stands right now it’s just not anywhere near that depth or lasting appeal.
The Haunted House mode does allow for a second player to join in to control the scares, and to be fair it is possible that this will increase the entertainment depending on the people playing, but since I haven’t had the opportunity to try this out, I can’t say. Personally I doubt I’d be feeling all that scared knowing that someone playing next to me is trying to scare me, though.
Project Zero 2: Wii Edition is not only the scariest game on the system (and yes, I loved the brilliant Silent Hill: Memories), but also one of the scariest games I have ever played. The backstory is disturbingly dark; the ghosts are brilliant in the way that they manage to seem equally threatening and tragic, and the constant feeling of vulnerability as you explore the cursed mansions is impressive. It’s true that there is very little reason to come back to the game once you’ve seen the credits roll, but the journey getting there is easily worth the ticket price. If you are in the market for a classic survival horror adventure or want one last fling on the Wii, you owe it to yourself to get this game. Unplug the phone, turn off the lights, put your headphones on, and try to come up with some believable explanation as to why you are screaming in falsetto so late at night, for when your neighbours ask. Then you can join me in hoping that Nintendo has big plans for the series, ideally on the Wii U. Preferably global plans, because there is absolutely no reason why a game of this calibre should go unpublished in any part of the world.