Project Zero PS2 (PAL) (VERSION REVIEWED) Project Zero Xbox (PAL)  

With all these games about zombies and vampires, there seems to be no fear garnered from probably the oldest horror creatures: Ghosts. These are probably the most realistic of unexplainable phenomenon since people claim to see them while some of those even claim to channel their spirits. Movies love ghosts because of all the tricks it can muster suspense within their viewer. Video games however haven’t really bothered to translate the humble spectre into the horror genre because let’s face it, you can’t be invaded by ghostly hordes. Tecmo have however attempted to do the impossible and make them scary. But will it just startle you, or will you have nightmares?

Project Zero starts with a fleeting description of a Miku, a girl trying to find her brother who has gone missing. Cut to a rather abrupt flashback to when her brother first arrived at the Himrou mansion to look for a famous author who, oddly enough also went missing. It seems that this building has some connection with ancient Shinto rituals and bad things happening there. There is also a history of brutal murders. Shortly after arriving at the mansion, Mafuyu; Miku’s brother discovers an old notebook that belonged to the author, describing his desire to base his next book on the lore behind the mansion. Then without much fanfare, a rather sinister looking spectre appears in front of him and begins attacking. Soon after this, the real quest to find Miku’s brother starts. The problem with the plot is the sheer mass of stupidity. If the locals urged the film crew to stay away from a haunted mansion, it’s a sign not to go near it. The reason behind the brother going in is a little strange too, since he isn’t related to the first crew at all. With Miku entering the mansion, it just feels like a doomed mission. Everyone else who ever went in is now dead. Why should she be any different?

Not even the pretty flickering candles can save this girl from the wisp behind her...

One thing that Project Zero gets on the right mark is the atmosphere. In the third person perspective, while it feels a lot like a Japanese Resident Evil, the rooms all look gloomy enough to warrant anxiousness. The sound of muttering and groaning from the unseen paranormal activity surrounding the building does make you wonder just what is actually going to happen. What it does well in freaking you out, it does badly in setting the tone. Dialogue is laughable, and the delivery is hammier than a cannibalistic pot bellied pig. When you hear audio tapes, the emotion in their voices seems forced compared to one of actual fear or despair. This is really doesn’t help the already weakfish storyline at all. Character models are detailed but expressionless like porcelain dolls, except for the ghosts who look more gormless than terrifying. One fairly unsettling touch is the pause screen. If you leave it too long, bloody handprints with begin to touch the screen and fade after a while.

If you have played a survival horror game before, then Project Zero’s basic movement, questing and puzzle parts will seem all too familiar. The difference here though is that everything moves too slowly. While Miku moves at a snail’s pace, her brother might as well be on crutches. Going up and down stairs or ladders is a heavily time consuming and potentially dangerous activity. Puzzles are recycled so much that you begin to see a pattern forming even before the end of the first chunk of the game. The most frequent one is where you must press Japanese characters into a wall. While solvable, the novelty wears off after the first one. So far, this game is starting to sound like a third rate disaster…

While zombies may eat lead or fire, ghosts prefer cheese.

Then we come to the “combat”. Your currently controlled character, mostly the really paranoid girl, will be holding a special camera. Since it is unfair for one to try to spot the invisible, you have a “filament” at your disposal which detects clues (blue) or spirits (orange). I personally think this is a great idea of how to make ghosts scarier. There is that aspect of the movies, but also making it interactive gives it edge. The camera however is slightly unwieldy, as the most effective technique is to switch in and out of the first person mode. This completely defeats the point of the right analogue stick in this mode, but is necessary because said stick is really difficult to handle effectively. When you do see a ghost, you must switch to first person mode and line up a decent shot. Most of the time, ghosts won’t see you or purposefully ignore you. But on the odd set piece where the ghost is purposefully trying to kill you, you can line up the camera onto their face. Doing so charges the shot so when it is unleashed at full capacity it hurts them more. Shooting them as they’re about to attack you is a useful tactic, known as the Zero shot. Each shot you take extracts spectral energy to upgrade your camera’s capabilities. You can upgrade your camera to be more effective, even unlocking special abilities which consume Spirit Stones. They are rather effective ones, but your ability to use them is highly limited due to the necessity of using Spirit Stones.

When all is said and done, Project Zero is a deceivingly average. One second it’ll show greatness by doing something well, the next it brings it all down to earth with a rather loud unexplainable thump. The atmosphere that the game is there and produces the right reaction, but the controls in first person mode combined with the diabolically awful voice acting and the non-creepy variety of sound effects undermine the efforts gone into it. There are times where this game actually saps the fun out of the survival horror genre just by having the control scheme. It should be pointed out that the Xbox version is the better looking and probably the better version to play. But handling these ghosts is less Ghostbusters but more The Eye in a photo-shoot.

The Xbox version is the superior one due to the better graphics and slightly more robust control scheme. It also has added content in comparison with the PS2 version. This game goes under the name of Fatal Frame in the US, and Zero in Japan.