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Patrick Hope: Say cheese and die!

It’s not too often that a game which sounds really stupid in theory actually works out to be way better in practice. It’s pretty hard to make a concept like “Clay Fighter” (claymation characters fight each other in a “Mortal Kombat” knockoff) or “Blood Wake” (“Twisted Metal,” but with boats) sound good. And when you pitch the idea of “fight ghosts by taking their pictures,” well, it doesn’t sound like a surefire million-dollar idea. But hey, that’s the plot of the “Fatal Frame” series, which is our subject today.

“Fatal Frame” is a horror series which started in 2001 and is developed by Tecmo Koei, who you might know for “Tecmo Bowl,” “Ninja Gaiden,” “Dynasty Warriors,” and other series that are notable for not being any of those. In those days, the horror genre looked awfully different from now, when it’s completely overcrowded. You had your big dogs of “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill” at one end and crazy experimental stuff like “Clock Tower” and at the other. There was a definite niche to be filled and “Fatal Frame” did so nicely.

There are four “Fatal Frame” games, though only three were released in the United States. And the gameplay is pretty similar across all installments. Your protagonist is armed with a fancy-shmancy camera obscura that can take pictures of ghosts. For whatever reason, this camera can also dispel spirits, which is done by charging a “spirit meter” that makes your shots more powerful and tracking the ghost through the camera’s lens.

You get bonus points for snapping the shot just as the ghost is getting ready to attack you, too. Needless to say, you’re going to be spending a lot of time ghostbusting for fun and survival as you explore the various ruins and mysterious villages that dot the “Fatal Frame” landscape.

In what was definitely a novelty when it first debuted (remember that “The Ring” didn’t come out until 2002, so we didn’t have much contact with Japanese horror over here), all three “Fatal Frame” games go full-on Japanese horror, with cursed villages that don’t appear on any map, shrine maidens, and forbidden Shinto rituals. It’s much in the vein of my Halloween review from last year, “Corpse Party,” though the narrative in “Fatal Frame” isn’t as strong.

To be fair, expecting a straight horror game to match up to a visual novel in story isn’t the most reasonable thing out there, but there you go. And all the “Fatal Frame” games are strong in the story department. Few things can measure up to “Corpse Party,” in all honesty. But never let it be said that “Fatal Frame” skimps on atmosphere.

In each “Fatal Frame” game, you’re going to be crawling around some creepy, extremely haunted, poorly-lit location, whether it’s a mansion or a shrine or whatever. Actually, in “Fatal Frame III,” you explore this dream world thing that adds an extra layer of creepy, because having your dreams be haunted is always a solid way to make sure that you, as the player, won’t be sleeping after finishing the game. The game also employed a funky faux surround sound system so ambient creaking and ghostly murmurs sound really good, especially for a game that’s 13 years old.

Horror games today have kind of reached this weird saturation point. After the success of stuff like “Amnesia” and “Slender,” a lot of games have become reliant entirely on jump scares and poor lighting, ignoring what actually can make games scary. The “Fatal Frame” series is marketed as the scariest set of games out there.

Seriously, every one of their boxes hypes the scare factor. And they don’t disappoint. This is how horror games should be. And the second two games are on the PlayStation Network, so you really don’t have an excuse to check them out if you’re looking to be scared.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. The back of the Fatal Frame II box says “Do not play this game alone.” They aren’t kidding.