Saturday, October 07, 2006

Zero Shisei no Koe/Fatal Frame 3

Zero: Shisei no Koe
Survival Horror - PS2
Memory Card - 5 save slots
1 player

Here comes the finale to Tecmo's Zero/Fatal Frame series. As a finale, Shisei no Koe brings together both story & gameplay elements from the first two games, while trying to maintain its own identity. To that end, the 3rd entry pulls it off pretty well. But it's in this new identity that the game completely trips over itself.

Rei is the new protagonist for this outing. The story begins with an auto accident that leaves Rei alive, but her fiance, Yuu, dead. As she tries to return to a life of normalcy, on one photographer assignment she sees Yuu and takes a picture. Sure enough, when the photo is developed, he is in it. What's going on here? And why does she find herself in a freaky mansion when she sleeps? Soon her assistant, Miku (heroine of the first game) begins to dream of the same world. When Kei, a friend of Yuu and coincidentally a relative of the twins in the second game, gets involved, then he's dragged into it too. As you can already see, everything seems a little too far-fetched and contrived.

The overall game structure is quite different from the first two games. Since the manor takes place in dreams, you have to sleep in order to visit the nightmare realm. Each day, you'll be in Rei's apartment triggering events so that it'll become evening. Occasionally some of the dream oddities will seep into reality, so even her apartment is not necessarily a safe haven. Sleeping enters you into the dream world, and usually at the start of a new chapter. Finish its objectives, and you'll wake up in reality the next day - sometimes very abruptly. It's very cyclical.

It's the cyclical nature that makes Zero 3 feel like a chore. Whenever you're in Rei's apartment, you make the exact same paths to every location to make sure you haven't missed a new item that has sprung up or a trigger point. It's completely repetitive, and you have to do it every day and night. The feeling isn't much different even when you're in the dream manor. You'll come to see that little thought was given to item locations because 95% of the items are in the same location every night. The game becomes too predictable for its own good.

Related to the respawning items is Shisei no Koe's general lack of difficulty. I've found most of the enemies to be easier than ghosts in the previous two games. But what makes it worse is that you start each dream with 3 medicine bottles, with chance of collecting 7 more each night. So there's no penalty for using medicines since you always get them. If you should happen to run out, you could even leave the dream and come back to have it reset to 3 without having to redo all the events over again. This is the finale! Why are they suddenly being so lenient? There are a couple of ghosts that will give you trouble, but they are almost too hard (cheap?) for their own good.

Then the latter quarter of the game, they have this stupid gimmick where you have to collect these "Purifying Light" candles to keep the main ghost away. The designers probably thought it would create tension, but in a game like this where you may have to figure out your next destination, it creates irritation instead. Why should I be penalized for exploring the mansion the game gives me? Luckily there are enough purifying light items scattered throughout, that you probably won't ever be stuck without it for too long. But if they're readily available, then why have it as a system in the first place? The whole thing just reeks of a last-minute addition.

Despite my barrage of criticism, it's a Zero game so it's still doing something right. The scares are still present, although it's a little less psychological. And the combat is still fun - the best aspects from the previous games made it. I found Crimson Butterfly to be too slow in its battles, so I'm very grateful to see that they made it as fast-paced as the first game, with the technical aspects from the second. You still need to wait for openings, and chain fatal frame opportunities accurately, but without those annoying 5 second reload times. The powerful film is much more sparse this time, so that improvement is much needed.

I found myself liking Zero Shisei no Koe less because it's a good game, and more because it's a Zero game. Throughout the entire time, I did not feel all that connected to it. The combination of lazy repetitive design & jarring transitions from dream world to real world kept me from being immersed in the dream manor. The story did not tie up some of the bigger questions (although, I do know there is an alternate ending at higher difficulty). The framerate stuttered so badly at times, that the action slowed to a crawl. It also lacked variety in enemies. Get 70% through, and you've seen all the ghosts you're going to fight. It just seemed like the game was poorly planned and rushed to market without a clear focus. It's also unfortunate that it wasn't ported to the XBox, because 5.1 audio makes a game like this so much more atmospheric. But if it's of any consolation, they packed a lot of extras (costumes, photo & video galleries, mission mode, etc) into this one.

There was just nothing special about Zero 3 - the first two games one-upped it on pretty much everything. The only exception would be the last boss. Now that was an intense challenge! It's just a shame that the rest of the game couldn't match up.