I’m not very good at horror games. I’m not even a huge fan of the horror genre, in films or in games. Mainly because I’m a giant coward; I can barely make it through the tamest of horror films without many a sleepless night spent asking “why do I do this to myself?” I imagine a lot of people feel the same. So why did I pick up Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly? Well, to Rewind even further, there was a time when 4Player Podcast (4PP) was popular on YouTube (I think they’re still around, actually) and a particular player, Brad, was well-known for his hatred of scary games. Naturally, his reactions on screen were always absolutely class. There were numerous compilation videos of Brad playing games like F.E.A.R, The Grudge, and of course, Fatal Frame; his shrieking, running, and constant habit of hiding in the pause menu were hilarious. I also remember Fatal Frame II and III specifically catching my eye, as the games looked, well, decent. After some research, it seemed Fatal Frame II was widely considered the best in the series, so I went out and picked it up. If Brad can do it, I told myself, so can I. This was (mostly) true, as it took me ages to beat the game – I could only play in short bursts, in order to avoid any permanent mental and/or physical trauma – but I did beat it. It’s one of the only horror games I’ve managed a complete playthrough of, and it’s always been a favourite of mine for that reason. I mean, it was excellent enough to pull me into a genre that I usually avoid, so that says something in and of itself.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (released in 2003 for the PlayStation 2) sees you playing as Mio, attempting to find your twin sister, Mayu, and escape after finding yourselves trapped and separated in the cursed All God’s Village. After an unknown cataclysmic event, All God’s Village and all its inhabitants became stuck in a perpetual cycle of this repeating disaster. In order to stop these events and escape the village, Mio learns about the Crimson Sacrifice ritual, performed periodically by the villagers, and more crucially, a set of twins. In this ritual, the elder twin must strangle the younger, in order to satiate the Hellish Abyss – a yawning black hole hidden beneath the village. The villagers, stuck in a neverending cycle of the night the Crimson ritual failed, are now doomed to try and repeat it forever. As Mio, you’ll have to save your twin sister and escape this fate, and the cursed village, overrun by ghosts.
The gameplay in Fatal Frame II was actually quite challenging – the main “combat” mechanics involved capturing the spirits that haunt the village with your exorcising weapon: the Camera Obscura. Different ghosts presented different challenges – some would teleport around and disappear periodically, while others were slow, but difficult to wear down. You were always looking for that crucial Fatal Frame opportunity: a specific moment, unique to each ghost, that required precise timing in order to inflict massive damage. Some ghosts had Fatal Frame moments that were nearly impossible to capture. Resource management was also something to be mindful of, ensuring that you had higher quality film in reserve for tougher ghosts, and plenty of herbal medicine to heal yourself when necessary. Exploring the haunted manors in the village – while horrifying – was critical in order to arm yourself with the tools you needed to make it through the game.
Fatal Frame II also had a genuinely engaging story, with important narrative beats highlighted by some impressive ghost encounters. While many of them were fairly standard in terms of Japanese ghost-story staples, like the countless women with long, dark hair covering their faces, they were still terrifying. My personal favourite (or least favourite, depending on how you look at it) was always Chitose Tachibana, who had a particular “attack” that would cause your entire screen to go black, forcing you to bumble around in the dark while she comes after you. I also loved (and hated) the Broken Neck Woman, who would attack you at certain points in the story, but could also show up randomly while you explored. Her creepy dialogue and appearance always set me on edge, and I dreaded every encounter with her.
If these scripted encounters weren’t enough to get your heartrate up, there was always the threat of random ghost encounters, aka, my greatest fear. Once you’d beaten the scripted spirits, even the “boss” ones, they still had a chance of randomly appearing while you were in the area. In a game that was already overflowing with terrifying encounters, jump scares, and moments that would send chills down even the steeliest of spines, these random encounters were the bane of my existence. There was nothing worse than being stuck on a puzzle, or scouring the houses of All God’s Village for healing items and being attacked by one of these ghosts that you weren’t expecting. They also had a tendency to appear at the most inopportune moments, i.e. the second you went into viewfinder (first person) mode with the camera. There is one specific memory I have of an encounter with a ghost dubbed “Falling Woman” in the Kiryu house. This ghost was particularly good for jump scares – when she appeared, you would hear a loud scream before she fell right next to you. So picture me, attempting to look through a window in viewfinder mode, when I hear an earsplitting shriek as she falls right past my face. I dropped my controller and damn near quit the game right there. But this was just one of the many minor heart attacks I suffered playing this game. Whether it was solving a puzzle under pressure while Sae Kurosawa’s ghost (whose touch meant death) slowly approached you, or facing off against the Kiryu twins (one real, one fake) in a room the size of a closet, this game was first class at maintaining an oppressive atmosphere of tension.
Despite all the white-knuckle encounters and sleepless nights, I always enjoyed this game (even went back to play the Director’s Cut) and it still stands out to me as a classic horror title. With the challenging gameplay, excellent pacing, and impactful narrative, I would consider this a must-play for horror genre aficionados (of which I am not one). I have some great memories of sitting in the dark, with the volume up, slowly creeping my way through this game. Flinching at every noise, and wary of every unexplored room, I managed to drag myself through to the end of this game, and it was worth every anxiety-filled moment. Having written this, I’m even considering returning to this title to see how well it holds up… catch me avoiding the Sunken Woman bridge ghost and hiding in the pause menu!