Leaky evidence

The culprit: Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3)

I remember the hype surrounding the release of Heavy Rain. There was even an interview with the developers on the news. Despite the fact that Quantic Dream had already made a similar game before (Fahrenheit, or Indigo Prophecy in the US), it was hailed as a groundbreaking achievement. I agree that it’s a riveting first-time experience. Apart from a sluggish prologue which partly serves as a tutorial sequence, Make up your mind!the plot is well-paced and does a good job of keeping the player involved. There’s quite a lot of action, demanding quick reflexes, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a requirement of the scenario. The music is appropriately dramatic or melancholy, as the scene requires. The main protagonists pull their weight very honourably, enhanced by the realistic modelling that went into them (they’re all based on actual actors, who, with one exception, also voiced them), and, all in all, it’s great fun. Until you start scrutinising the details. And that’s when things start to fall apart.

First things first: if quicktime events drive you up the wall…you might reconsider playing altogether, since the entire game is based on them. It unfolds like a semi-interactive film with several possible outcomes depending on the player’s choices. There are no menus, no stats, no save points (the game saves automatically at key points and between chapters) and very little in the way of fixed controls: R2 makes your character walk, and you then direct them with the left joystick, while L2 lets you listen in on their thoughts. Everything else is controlled by variable on-screen prompts: you could be asked to spin the right joystick to put on a Shake for your life!bandage, sloooowly move it from side to side to rock a baby to sleep, shake the entire controller to escape strangulation, or hold down an improbable combination of buttons to wiggle through some live electric wires. Since some of these prompts mimic real movements, it certainly feels immersive. It also keeps the player on their toes. On your first time through, there’s no telling what exactly the game can ask you to do, especially in a time-sensitive context, and some of the combinations can be difficult to pull off. From this perspective, replaying the game can either be a good thing, since you know what to expect and are therefore less likely to mess up, or a bad thing, because it kills the suspense. But then, the nature of the plot inevitably kills the suspense anyway.

IconicThere is a serial killer on the loose, who likes to kidnap young boys and drown them in rainwater by locking them in an open-air tank. Once they’re dead, he dumps their bodies on a wasteland, leaving an orchid on their chests and an origami figure in their hands (and the game itself comes with a square of paper and instructions on how to reproduce the origami figure depicted on the case). Four characters find themselves involved, and the scenario is split more or less evenly between them, alternately putting you in control of each one. Each of them can die, by mistake or by choice, and two of them can end up in a relationship, for a total of 16 different epilogues across all characters. Before you ask, yes, there’s a trophy for seeing them all.

Heroic staaaare...The first protagonist is a divorced father of two, Ethan Mars. He’s lost one son to a car accident, and now, his second son gets kidnapped by the killer. To all intents and purposes, he’s the hero of the story: he gets the most screen time and the most emotional investment. He’s a caring dad, if a tad passive at first, and you have to at least give him credit for perseverance. The killer decides to test his resolve with some Saw-like trials, rewarding him with clues as to his son’s whereabouts if he manages to complete them. Success or failure is up to you, but poor Ethan gets to go through hell (and maybe back), physically and psychologically, whatever you do: the game just goes balls to the wall on the melodrama with him, tugging at every possible heartstring it can get its grubby little mitts on. On a less serious note, he’s also infamous for his overly emphatic delivery when calling out for his sons (“JAAAASOOON!” and “SHAAUUUUNNN!!”). Also, a fair warning for sensitive eyes: he has a scripted shower scene at the beginning of the game. There is man bum.

I don't think a refund's gonna cut itSecond is Scott Shelby, a middle-aged, portly private eye who has been hired by the families of the previous victims to investigate the murders. This guy remains fairly low-key at the outset and somewhat tangential to the others, since he has his own plot arc, involving an unlikely sidekick in the form of the mother of one of the victims, a rich CEO and his depraved son. All this leaves him very little opportunity to interact with the rest of the cast, to the point where it sometimes feels like he’s in a different story altogether. Couple that with the fact that his chapters don’t really gather steam until the end of the game, and the fact that he doesn’t exactly have the flashiest personality, and you get a character that’s easy to overlook. So easy that I was actually surprised to realise that he gets the most fight scenes of the entire cast. Bit of a shame. Thankfully, though, no shower scene for him.

Babyface is on the caseThird is Norman Jayden–or Nahman, as fans have affectionately dubbed him, due to his voice actor’s decidedly odd choice of accent–a young, shrewd (and cute) smartass of an FBI agent with a drug problem, who has been sent to help the local police investigate the murders. He is, hands down, my favourite of the four and the overall fan favourite as well. Not only could he be Fox Mulder’s cousin (loner agent with unorthodox methods), but his chapters deal hands-on with the murder investigation. He’s the proud owner of an ARI (Augmented Reality Interface): a pair of sunglasses and a glove, which create an interactive interface for scanning crime scenes and analysing clues. Think of a mix between Minority Report and CSI. And not only do you get to play super-Evidence ahoy!sleuth with that snazzy toy, but you’re also confronted with Jayden’s addiction issues (to take or not to take), his antagonistic relationship with his cop colleagues and the decidedly spectacular fights he gets himself into. “I seem to spend most of my time getting the shit kicked out of me”, as he says himself. Poor Norm. And no shower scene for him either (alas!). But his chapters include a very clear reference to The Shining, for any Kubrick fans.

You know what they say about curiosity and cats?Fourth is Madison Paige, a young journalist with an insomnia problem. She encounters a battered Ethan in a motel, where she has checked in because the impersonal environment helps her sleep. She then decides to ferret out his secrets. Depending on your decisions, she can also ferret her way into his pants. I raised an eyebrow when the semi-interactive hanky-panky popped up. Three years earlier, Mass Effect got all but burned at the stake for including a glimpse of a bare bum during a minute-long cutscene, and this got through without making any waves? It’s not that I’m shocked at the content, which is pretty tame, but I didn’t expect this much tolerance after only three years. Anyways. Madison is plucky and gutsy. Problem is, not only does she have a killer hip-swing when she walks, but she features in a fight scene Somehow, I don't think any of that's gonna helpin underwear, a shower scene, a booty-shaking dancing scene followed by a striptease, a sex scene and an escape from a drill-wielding maniac which looks like something straight out of Hostel. All of this is optional (except the fight scene in underwear), and there’s even a trophy for avoiding the striptease, but I still felt that her status as the only female protagonist was just a tad overexploited. Sure, she’s a looker, but was that really her only contribution to the story? Especially since her role is otherwise somewhat redundant.

As the vehicles for the plot, the characters are the game’s best asset. They do have some stereotypical features, Scott feels a bit left out, and the romance between Ethan and Madison is both rushed and awkwardly timed, but on the whole, they are well-written, and you ultimately feel involved in their fates. It’s the storyline structure that doesn’t hold water (pun Dude be trippin' hardfully intended). First of all, an additional supernatural plotline was originally intended but dropped along the way. Significant traces of it still remain (Ethan’s blackouts), and not only do they feel distinctly out of place, but they never lead to anything. Secondly, there’s the identity of the killer. It’s always the same, so obviously, once you finish the game, the element of surprise is lost, although you can go for the “Perfect Crime” trophy (which, as you can guess, involves letting the killer get away) to mix things up. However, once you do know whodunit, it feels forced. In one episode, at least, there’s an evident struggle to make the killer’s identity fit with the events as depicted. As if the writers were trying too hard to be clever. Thirdly, some of the epilogues were clearly written with a precise continuity of events in mind, but you can still obtain them by doing things differently. The resulting ending sequences feel a bit sloppy (eg. awkwardly fitting dialogue lines, or Ethan appearing cleanly shaved in one scene and bearded in the next one). Fourthly, there are plenty of minute inconsistencies riddling the game (eg. Madison acting surprised upon hearing the killer’s name, when she has no reason to be), but going into more detail would mean spoilers, so I shall refrain. Finally, the ball was dropped in the DLC department. There was a whole string of additional episodes planned under the title of Heavy Rain Chronicles to explore each character’s past. However, only one episode was made, featuring Madison in yet another escape-from-maniac situation, which is both underwhelming and disappointing (can you tell I wanted more Jayden?).

Say it with flowersBottom line? Heavy Rain is a heck of a first time experience, if you’re not intrinsically predisposed against its cinematic presentation and its hybrid nature. But there’s a strong likelihood that it’ll lose a large chunk of its charm once the credits roll, and you start chipping away at the shiny surface paint to uncover cracks in the walls. Ultimately, it’s how willing and/or able you are to deal with those that will determine the game’s staying power for you.

I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts!

The culprit: Fatal Frame/Project Zero (PlayStation 2, Xbox)

Enter if you dareDespite scaring extremely easily, I am a confirmed fan of psychological horror. You know, the kind that doesn’t involve limbs flying in all directions and litres of haemoglobin gushing all over the place. One of the scariest films I’ve ever seen was the original Japanese version of Ring, and despite having its own set of clichés, J-Horror, as the genre is called, usually proves very effective on me. So, in my hunt for something that would unsettle me more than the Silent Hill series–which isn’t completely up my street–, Fatal Frame naturally caught my attention. European releases of this game (and the rest of the series as well) are inexplicably titled Project Zero–the name of the team that created it–but that’s beside the point. The point being that if you like psychological horror in general and J-Horror in particular, you should definitely give this a try.

How cosyThe premise of the game is the tried-and-true haunted house setup: a famous novelist goes missing on a research trip to an abandoned mansion, his assistant goes to look for him and suffers the same fate, and finally, it falls to the assistant’s sister, 17-year-old Miku, to make sense of it all and attempt to find her brother. Exploration and plot advancement are also rather traditional: Miku will find copious notes, journals and cassettes that will fill her in on the mansion’s past (and the genuinely gruesome ritual that’s at the source of it all), and will periodically need to solve puzzles to progress. Still, even if the structure is nothing new, the execution is genuinely effective.

Yes, there is someone right behind youOne peculiarity of the Fatal Frame series is its decidedly feminine angle: most of the main characters are female, including the villains, who aren’t so much villains as vengeful victims, as Asian ghosts tend to be. There’s probably a message about the victimisation of women and the sublimation of female fear somewhere in there, but what can I say? Horrific situations definitely have more of an impact when you’re put in control of a terrified girl with no real means of defence rather than a guy with a big gun. Miku’s unease is both contagious and literally palpable, since the controller vibration is put to use to mimic her heartbeat when she becomes frightened. She also walks and runs veeeeery slooooowly (it’s more of a hesitant jog than a run, really), which, besides being infuriating at times, does actually contribute to the feeling that, all in all, she’d much rather be anywhere else than in that godforsaken house.

Fancy a walk in the forest?Atmosphere is the big winner in this game, as it’s the main vector of fear. The music is minimal, consisting mostly of eerie ambient backdrops which end up getting under your skin. The game is set exclusively inside the mansion and on its grounds (which include a pond and a forest temple) over four nights. This equates to ubiquitous darkness, only alleviated by candles, torches and the solitary beam of Miku’s flashlight, and all the creaking, groaning, wind-whistling and what-the-hell-was-that-noise you could expect from an old abandoned house. Whispers,  footsteps, mysterious figures shadowed on blinds, doors closing and objects falling on their own. Broken windows with moonlight barely filtering through, Lovely interior decorationcrumbling floors and collapsing ceilings, bloody handprints on the walls, dusty kimonos stretched on stands, an unsettilingly lifelike doll kneeling in a corner, a pool with blood dripping onto the surface from an unknown source, a long corridor with ropes hanging from the ceiling and a mirror standing at the end, and so on and so forth. And copious amounts of ghost encounters, of course. Oh, and, for an added kick, try pausing the game and leaving it for a while. I had a nice little jolt when I did that to take care of something else, then looked up at my screen.

Ghost paparazziGhosts are the only enemies and the only allies in this game, most being designated by a straightforward description of their appearance (eg. Long Arms, Bound Man; very few of them have a name), and Miku’s only means of dealing with them is an antique camera she inherited from her mother. In a literal take on the old superstition of cameras capturing people’s souls, this camera has the ability to take pictures of spirits, damaging hostile ones. It uses film like ammo, and there are different, increasingly powerful grades of film available. The lowest grade can be found in infinite supply at any save point, which looks like an old camera on a stand. Every picture is worth a certain number of points, which can then be used to upgrade the camera. Basic upgrades enhance its range and the power of its shots, while special upgrades require Spirit Stones and may slow a hostile ghost down, paralyse it or simply inflict more The opportune momentdamage. Timing is also important in combat; close-up shots are worth more points, and each ghost has their own ‘fatal frame’: a moment when they are more vulnerable, signalled by the camera’s capture circle turning orange instead of blue. This usually occurs either right before or right after an attack, so while these shots deal a lot of damage, they can also be perilous.

An added fear factor is that not all hostile ghosts are scripted encounters. There is a randomised chance of encountering a hostile ghost in almost every room of the house, which creates a permanent feeling of dread and urgency. Really, Miku’s not 100% safe anywhere, not even in a room with a save point (its light will turn red instead of blue if something’s in the room). Ghost appearances are signalled by a chiming noise and heartbeat, and you’ll probably be pricking your ears in suspense more than once. It’s also entirely possible to have Miku pull out the camera (say, to take a picture of a puzzle clue), only to be greeted by a ghost DIRECTLY IN HER FACE. As far as specific ghosts are concerned, the first encounter with Broken Neck will more than likely have you jumping in your seat (“It hurts! It hurts!”), while the numerous run-ins you’ll have with Blinded (“My eyes…”) may very well turn into nightmare fuel. They’re not the only scary ghosts in the game, but they were certainly the main highlights as far as I was concerned. I’ll spare you the pictures to preserve shock value.

There's something there...really!Non-hostile ghosts come in two flavours: hidden ghosts, which will only appear when Miku takes their picture (her only means of finding them is the camera’s capture circle turning blue) and vanishing ghosts, which will appear at certain precise spots for a short while. Some of these are hair-tearingly difficult to snap, but of course, they’re usually also worth the most points.

Replay value has also been taken into account. After you finish the game once, various goodies are unlocked, such as a music player or the list of all ghosts in the game, which allows you to check which ones you’ve captured (and some are only available on second-or-more playthroughs). You also gain access to additional difficulties, as well as a mission mode which pits Miku against various combinations of the ghosts she’s encountered. Your playthrough is given a rating based on how much damage Miku has dealt, which grants you a certain number of points to spend on camera upgrades that carry over to your next playthrough. Finishing the game or the mission mode on different difficulties also unlocks additional costumes for Miku, which, besides changing her appearance, will make her move a tad faster. And last but not least, an alternate ending becomes available for subsequent playthroughs.

Don't fall inAll in all, this game doesn’t make any groundbreaking innovations, and it does have several drawbacks: the controls are fairly unwieldy, the graphics aren’t exactly top-of-the-line, the translation feels shoddy at times, and the voice acting is adequate at best. You’ll probably need a guide to capture most of the vanishing ghosts, and there’s an unnecessarily complicated album feature which allows you to save the pictures you’ve taken (but is separate from your game saves). Still, the main point of a survival/horror game is to induce fear, unease and a sense of danger, and that’s something Fatal Frame excels at.