I’m here to tell you a story. A story about a haunted game about haunted people with gameplay so bad it now haunts me. This week I have conjured up the vengeful spirit of rightfully deceased control schemes from the grave to warn you to beware of not-quite-classic titles and the gameplay of the damned.
I was in a horror kind of mood last week -as everyone should be on Halloween- and I decided to take advantage of the sales on PSN to put some time in on a creepy-looking franchise that I had never gotten a chance to play. So I downloaded Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented and got ready for a spooky good time.
I’ve long admired the Fatal Frame series from afar for its classical Japanese aesthetics, female-centric stories, and its unique approach to ghostly horror, with the primary combat function being banishing ghosts by photographing them. Finally diving in, I was really impressed with how well the graphics have held up and the wonderfully oppressive atmosphere of the haunted Dream Manor where the main protagonist Rei spends her nights.
What immediately bugged the shit out of me was the actual gameplay, which were similar to old school Resident Evil in that you don’t control the in-game camera, the camera controls you, rendering you no line of sight for your character while exploring in third person. But where Resident Evil games let you get used to this travesty, Fatal Frame’s mechanics force you to switch back and forth between third person and first person, making it extremely disorienting at times. Still, worth the slog when there’s so much to explore. Moving on.
The story was really cool, and you even got to move around Rei’s house during the day, researching the images you capture in your dreams and building the narrative of her life that has led her to this point where she inhabits a mansion filled with nasty spirits in her dreams. It’s all so cool. There’s a steep learning curve that the game does little to assuage, pretty much telling you “sink or swim, noob” but I was enjoying the intensity of the dark mood and overall structure of the game.
Then Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented really started living up to its name; and not because it was the third game in the Fatal Frame series. The enemies became nigh-invincible, more plentiful, and downright enraging. As I said before, you navigate in third person in a fixed perspective that changes whenever it feels like it, often rendering you unable to see in front of your own face. To do that, you bring up your camera. Early on, this isn’t a huge problem. The ghosts teleport, but they approach you fairly slowly so once you get your bearings, you can capture them on film almost at will.
But once the really nasty spirits come out, they teleport, the weave through walls, they ATTACK through walls, and many of the environments are pretty much just narrow corridors and extremely small rooms. And they’re aggressive. Being a player of video games, I’m used to aggressive enemies, but I’m also used to the game giving me the tools to properly avoid or dispatch those enemies.
You don’t have significant mobility in first person view so to fight the tough spirits, you need to stick and move. But the fact that you could be running away from that crazy flying dead bastard with the bloody cleaver and have the controls flip when the camera changes and then be running toward him to get chopped an instant later is a deal breaker. And that you need to search 360 degrees to get a bead on him and by the time you find him and begin to charge up your shot, he’s already on top of you wrecking your shit doesn’t help. Add in the disorientation and too-long time it takes to transition between the two views and the tank-like movement of your dainty avatar you’ve got a headache. Or at least, I did.
I’ve written extensively on how I believe that challenge makes a story feel more worthwhile, but when it gets to the point where you are playing a genuinely creepy horror game and it doesn’t scare you anymore because you are too preoccupied with raging at the terrible controls, something is wrong. Difficult challenges are one thing, but hobbling players with shitty, unresponsive, and treacherous gaemplay is something else entirely. At about seven hours in, I decided I wasn’t having fun anymore and tapped out having barely gotten into the second playable character’s story.
Here’s the kicker: Fatal Frame 3 isn’t even ten years old. Resident Evil 4 came out the same year. I played that one a short while ago and while the initial control scheme was a beast, I tamed it within a few hours. It remained awkward, but it was never infuriating. Psychonauts came out the same year as well, and while I wrote a previous article detailing my issues with its platforming mechanics, it was nowhere near as bad. I‘ve also played Shadow of the Colossus during the past year without incident, so while it’s safe to say gaming has really smoothed out since the PS2 era, I think it’s safe to say that The Tormented wasn’t even on par for its time.
Sometimes it takes an experience like this to really appreciate how far gaming has come as an entertainment medium in such a short time. We’ve gotten so used to silky-smooth controls that even going back to legendary beloved titles like Half Life 2 you notice annoying things like lagging load times and dated collision detection that sees you hung up on objects in ways that would be unacceptable in a modern game.
Yesterday’s awkward controls are today’s unplayable disaster, so remember to tread lightly when venturing into the past, fellow gamers. For sometimes the real horror lies not in the godless abomination thirsting for your mortal blood you can see before it’s too late, but in poor gameplay design and dated mechanics that you can’t.