Three games in, the Fatal Frame series’ central gameplay idea remains creepy as Hell: you basically stand there letting macabre, angry ghosts get closer, and then even closer, and then way-the-Hell-too-much closer … Then, rather than busting out holy water, a special ghost-killing sword, or a tank strapped to a fighter plane, you snap their picture with a magic camera. Sure, it's hokey, but it works. There's something about being armed only with a camera, even a mystical, ghost-busting camera that makes you feel even more scared and helpless.
That said, if you had to sum up the Fatal Frame series into just one emotion, it wouldn’t exactly be fear. No, the feeling that best describes this survival horror series is guilt. Absolute, all encompassing, soul-crushing guilt. Not that there isn’t fear as well. Fatal Frame III is packed with bloodthirsty ghosts, so it's right up there with Silent Hill 4: The Room in its ability to creep you out. But overall, the series is about the emotional consequences of never letting go of loved ones who leave us behind.
Take, for example, Rei Kurusawa. She still mourns for her deceased fiancée, who died in a car accident that she herself caused. While on a photography assignment in a local “haunted house”, Rei comes across an antique photograph of her dead boyfriend and immediately falls into a waking nightmare. She's confined in a lost village overrun by the spirits of the dead.
Fatal Frame III also introduces the chilling idea that your guilt and pain is literally written into your skin, in the form of a painful tattoo that grows and spreads as the story continues. Obviously, with a setup as psychologically daunting as this, the game offers plenty of shocks. However, it also boasts a several brain-teasing puzzles, made somewhat more complex by the slightly different abilities of the three lead characters.
Yes, you read that correctly. In addition to Rei, Fatal Frame III also brings back Miku Hinasaki from the first Fatal Frame as a second playable character, here working as Rei’s assistant. The game bounces back and forth between Rei, Miku, and a third protagonist named Kei Mamakura. He, it turns out, is also connected to the series' history. He's the uncle of Miyo and Mayu, the twins girls who were the lead heroines in Fatal Frame II.
This jumping from one character to another, combined with a tendency to vault from their nightmares to the (at least initially) normal world of Rei’s apartment and back again, is the only way in which Fatal Frame III is out of focus. All this switching around can occasionally pull you out of the game’s carefully built up sense of dread, and also shaves off some of its still considerable emotional impact.
Fatal Frame III is still a genuinely frightening experience (and at times rather depressing too, although we mean that in a good way). It's just that it's following Fatal Frame II: The Crimson Butterfly, which was not only sleep-with-the-lights-on scary, but also told a gut-wrenchingly tragic story that hit with legitimately heart-breaking emotional impact. This new sequel isn't quite as engrossing by comparison.