Double, double toil and trouble

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

Dark skiesA common trend with sequels is to go the ‘bigger, better, more’ route. And while the ‘bigger’ and ‘more’ parts are easy enough to achieve, they don’t always equate to ‘better’. This, however, is not the case with Fatal Frame 2, or Project Zero 2, as European markets stubbornly persist in naming the series. While the game is bigger than its predecessor in every respect and offers a lot more content, I also find it distinctly better. In fact, I think it’s the best entry in the series. And if you thought the first game delivered in the chills-and-scares department, you won’t be disappointed here either. It’s not actually necessary to have played the first game to understand this one, as it is, in fact, a prequel, but if you have, then you may spot a couple of familiar names.

Neon butterfliesThis time, you get two heroines for the price of one, as well as an entire village instead of just one haunted house. The story follows a pair of 15-year-old twins: Mio, the plucky one in the white skirt, whom you’ll control for most of the game, and Mayu, the shy, more spiritually-attuned one in the brown dress. Mayu had an accident as a child, which left her with a limp, and Mio is very protective of her. While out on a walk near the future site of a dam, Mayu spots a crimson butterfly and follows it through the forest. Mio chases her, only to find herself in an abandoned village. The sky has darkened, and the path back through the woods has mysteriously vanished. The sisters therefore have no choice but to figure out what’s wrong with the place. The problem is that Mayu’s spiritual sensitivity soon causes trouble.

It's my party, and I die if I want toThe Fatal Frame series is nothing if not formulaic, and many things make a comeback from the first opus. You explore a haunted locale with a female character whose only weapon is a camera which has the ability to see and harm spirits: an effective combination which compounds a feeling of vulnerability with the necessity to get a good close look at ghosts. Most of the important protagonists are female, including the villains, of which the main one successfully combines creepiness and insanity. A gruesome, failed ritual is, again, at the source of the haunting, although this one has an added layer of psychological torture which ranks it a step above its peersIs it Halloween already?. It’s also early enough in the series for suspension of disbelief to work: later games suffer from the fact that you start wondering just how many gruesome rituals there are in Japan. Once you finish the game, your playthrough is graded, and you can use the accumulated points from the pictures you’ve taken to purchase goodies for any subsequent playthroughs. These include camera upgrades and different costumes for the girls. The first playthrough also unlocks an additional difficulty, an additional ending and a mission mode in which Mio can battle various combinations of ghosts. Oh, and just like in the first opus, leaving the game paused for a while produces…interesting results *shudders*.

Are we receiving?In terms of exploration and storyline progression, the tried-and-true spiel of solving puzzles, and finding notes and recordings applies. However, the puzzles are more diverse than in the first game, and, instead of an old cassette player, Mio finds a portable spirit stone radio. The idea is that some ghosts’ thoughts are trapped within gems that she’ll find lying around, which, when used with the radio, play these thoughts out like recordings. Well, whatever works.

Hey, sister, MOVE!As with the majority of action games where partners are involved, Mayu tends to be a hassle, and this is probably the most annoying aspect of the game. She’s a slow walker (or hobbler) and will complain if left too far behind. Hostile ghosts may also attack her during combat, and while this may provide Mio with a handy decoy to land a shot, Mayu’s not invincible, and if she dies, it’s Game Over. You can’t use items to heal her either, unlike Mio. Fortunately–or is it unfortunately?–this is a sporadic problem at best, because Mio spends most of the game chasing after Mayu, who quickly falls under the village’s spell and wanders off on her own; you control her for short bursts, but all she can do is walk towards a predetermined destination. On the other hand, when she does follow Mio around, Mayu is handy for pointing out important clues, as she will stop and stare at them.

Mayu-related annoyances aside, atmosphere is just as successful as in the previous game, if not more, because of the scope of the locale. The music–or rather, the background ambience–is still as unnerving, with its eerie chimes, distorted noises and furtive whispers. Random ghost encounters can occur anywhere, especially if Mio idles for too long, even in rooms containing save points (red lanterns which will turn off if a ghost is present). The decrepit village is shrouded in thick darkness, there’s Keep that camera downan ominous-looking altar located right at the entrance, the largest house is situated beyond a bridge over a murky river, a path winds off into the forest towards a dilapidated shrine, and there is also a very gloomy cemetery, where ghosts enjoy popping up as soon as Mio raises her camera. There were four influential families in the village, and thus, there are four main houses to visit: Osaka, Kiryu, Tachibana and Kurosawa. I shall take this opportunity to warn you about the Kiryu house. The unsettling atmosphere is off the charts, and it contains two of the game’s scariest/most disturbing ghosts: the Kiryu twins, of “why did you kill?” fame, and Fallen Woman, who is simply painful to look at. Another highlight of the ghost cast worth mentioning is Woman in Box, who is a direct reference to Sadako, of Ring fame.

Hey, psst, turn around!One aspect of the game which has received a substantial upgrade is combat. There are noticeably more ghosts, which often appear in groups and still come in the hidden, vanishing and hostile variety: hidden ones are only detectable when the camera’s capture circle turns blue in a specific spot, while the vanishing ones, as their name implies, will only appear for a short time, some being particularly difficult to snap. Some of these cannot be captured on your first playthrough, since they appear before Mio has the camera or require a camera function which only becomes available upon clearing the game. But since Mio will start each subsequent playthrough with the camera already in hand, this maximises replayability.

The camera itself has more diverse functionalities than in the first game. Each photo Mio takes will still grant points which can then be used to upgrade the camera’s basic functions, but it can also be further spruced up with attachments (including one which enables Mio to evade attacks) and extra lenses. These require both points and Spirit Orbs to upgrade, and serve to either cripple ghosts or deal more damage. The camera also has Don't be fooled by the cute facean infinite supply of the weakest available film, meaning that Mio will never be strapped for ‘ammo’. You still receive extra points for specific kinds of photos (close-up, well-framed, multiple ghosts), in particular the ‘fatal frame’ shot which gives the series its name. This can be taken at a moment when a ghost is particularly vulnerable (usually right before or right after an attack), but is only detectable via the aforementioned attachments. More importantly, if you hit a fatal frame, you can now combo it with a second fatal frame and possibly even a third one, if your timing is good and provided the ghost hasn’t been knocked too far back, thus racking up the damage and the points.

Unsafe corridorsAll in all, I find that this game improves on every aspect that made its predecessor successful, thus making it a big hit in my book. If you’re a fan of psychological horror, this is for you, and if there’s only one Fatal Frame game you must play, make sure it’s this one. As a heads-up, it has been recently re-released in Europe on the Wii, with updated graphics and an additional ending from the Xbox version, but also a two-player mode and some of the less successful gameplay aspects from Fatal Frame 4, which leaves me feeling ambivalent about it.

Madness? This. Is. Japan!

The culprit: Hatoful Boyfriend (PC, Mac, download only)

There are moments in life when you’re left wondering “what the hell did I just see?” Things that baffle you beyond reason. Hatoful Boyfriend is one of those things. It’s no secret that some cultural peculiarities of the Asian world will always puzzle us Westerners (and vice-versa), particularly in the entertainment sector. But this…

First things first:There are no words... Hatoful Boyfriend, as the name indicates, is a dating sim. This is not a genre I would normally touch with a 10-foot pole, but this game was brought to my attention by an utterly fearless forum acquaintance, who pointed out that, not only was it completely insane, but also surprisingly well-thought out (how’s that for a paradox?). My curiosity was piqued and, since it only cost $5, and since I’m always up for unusual experiences, after some deliberation, I decided to take the plunge. For the record, there is a free demo version available, but trust me, you WANT to get the full version. That is, provided you want the game at all. Not only does it include a secret character, but a substantial extra storyline as well. The latter basically explains the entire backstory of the game (you’re in for some shocks, let me tell you), but also puts you in control of a different character and is very different in tone.

The first thought that comes to my mind in association with dating sims is “dirty little secret”. It’s not the kind of game you’d normally go trumpeting around the rooftops about. I’m fairly sure, however, that you’ve never experienced anything quite like this UFO before. I certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the premise: in the not-too-distant future, a particularly Not quite Hogwartsvirulent mutation of the avian flu wipes out most of humanity and simultaneously makes birds sapient. Not exactly your usual sappy romance setting. Be that as it may, the consequence is that birds take over society, and a human girl (that’s your protagonist) finds herself enrolled in a high-school for gifted birds. All the while living in a cave and hunting for her meals. I’ll just let all that sink in for a moment.

Obviously, since there are no humans around at the school, her only romantic prospects lie with birds. And before you start backing off in dubitative disgust, I assure you that nothing sexual ever happens. There isn’t even any PDA to speak of. Thankfully, might I add. That’s not to say that nothing dodgy ever happens, because one of the potential romantic subplots is steeped in textual gore (and some innuendo). And two others are so Overreacting much?WEIRD that no description could ever do them justice. That aside, this premise is also what explains the title of the game; “hatoful” is a play on the word “heartful”: “hato” means “pigeon” in Japanese. Not that “heartful boyfriend” makes very much sense in English, but we’ll just let that slide. The actual translation of the game is fun and well-executed, barring some rare, bizarre cultural references and the odd typo/spelling mistake.

The first part of the gameBad boy is devoted to establishing the setting and introducing the potential romantic interests (except the secret character, whom you’ll have to go digging for). For starters, you can pick your character’s name at the beginning of the game. You can also opt to have a ‘humanised portrait’ of each of the eight romance options displayed. Whenever a potential prince charming is first introduced, a title screen with his name and portrait appears. If you pick the humanised option, there will also be a picture of what he would look like if he were human (well, except one of them…he just looks like a bird in both). This greatly helps to make them more relatable. Uh...nice suitOtherwise, you’re stuck with a pigeon, three fantails, a quail, a partridge, a mourning dove and a bleeding-heart. Sexy (not). They are, respectively, the protagonist’s best friend, two aristocratic fellow-student brothers and a wacky sports enthusiast, the narcoleptic math teacher, the creepy school doctor, a quiet bookworm and a…well, I guess anime-freak will have to do as a description. Yeah, that’s the secret character.

Not very tactfulAnyway, the concept is simple: once you decide which birdie makes your character’s heart flutter (ho ho ho), you then proceed to win their affection by choosing specific actions or lines of dialogue in conversation or at certain events (there’s a sports event, a school festival, fireworks, etc.). You can save at any time, which is helpful if you’re at all unsure of what to do. Every once in a while, you’ll also have an electives day, where the heroine can choose between attending math, music or gym class, which will raise one of her stats: wisdom, charisma or vitality, respectively. This will affect her chances with some of the options. Some of them even have slightly different outcomes, depending on which stat you choose to boost. Finally, you can also buy some beans to gift to the bird of your choice for the in-game equivalent of Valentine’s Day. Each has their preference, so this affects the protagonist’s chances as well.

This is all rather straightforward, and the game, additionally, never overstays its welcome, by making each storyline manageably short (about 30 mins). Moreover, you can fast-forward through parts you’ve already seen by clicking on the arrow in the upper right corner of the screen. Each ending grants you an image in the Gallery, as well as some mysterious notes in the Archive section of the main menu, which add a disquieting undercurrent to things. Once you’ve seen them all, including a side-storyline which involves pairing up two other birds who have nothing to do with the school, and a ‘bad ending’ where the heroine fails to romance anybody–or “anybirdie”, as the game humorously puts it–and, startlingly, gets killed by a group of hawks for it (these two Or is it?endings can be achieved in one go, by the way), you’ll have access to the aforementioned extra storyline. This takes longer than the usual playthrough, restricts saving to certain key moments, involves all potential romantic interests, with you in control of the best friend, and…let’s just say that it’s a mix of crime, thriller, horror, melodrama, comedy, romance, RPG and sci-fi. And that it will blow your mind.

You wouldn’t expect talking birds to make for particularly relatable characters, and, while I’m not familiar with the conventions of the dating sim genre, I don’t suppose that character development is a priority. Surprisingly enough, though, these birds do get their own backstories (most are substantially padded out in the extra Pigeon buddystoryline), and, after a while, they just start feeling like ‘normal’ characters, and you end up empathising with some of them. Not all romances end well, and not all of them are equally successful in their execution: there is, for example, a definite bias towards the best friend, who easily gets the most–rather moving, might I add–content and makes the most sense as a partner. Two of the other romances are also very predictable.

She gets bonus points for quoting Valkyrie ProfileStill, for a game which I had zero expectations for prior to playing, Hatoful Boyfriend turned out to be a pleasant, thoroughly entertaining surprise. This isn’t an all-time-great, by any means, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone (definitely not to male players), but it you’re curious and would like to experience something completely different, original and utterly cuckoo (see what I did there?), go right ahead.

This is why people are afraid of clowns

The culprit: Final Fantasy VI (Super Nintendo, PlayStation, GameBoy Advance)

Final Fantasy VI was the first Final Fantasy game I played, and, as such, it holds a good deal of sentimental value. To this day, it remains one of my favourite games of the series. It’s also still one of the most popular ones. The last FF of the The will to fight SNES generation, it was unleashed upon the Western world as FFIII back in the day, due to the numerical confusion caused by the non-release of FFII and the real FFIII. Epic, exciting, engrossing, full of drama, humour and emotion, this game brought a new sense of scope to the FF saga. Gone are the elemental crystals and four orphans copypasted from the first FF. The game develops a distinctly steampunk vibe and not only introduces the first–and, for a long time, only–female lead in the series, but also its first truly memorable and unique villain. Couple that with one of the largest and most lovable character casts, not to forget a wonderful soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success.

Graphically, in comparison to the two FFs which preceded it on the SNES, the game is a good few miles ahead. 2D it may be, but it’s beautiful 2D. The environments are quaint and detailed, just like illustrations to a fairytale. The only background that I can outright criticise is the chocobo riding screen, which just ends up hurting your brain after a while. The sprites are large and very expressive, broadening the palette of the characters’ visible emotions even further than FFV. There is also no longer any difference in size between the sprites on the world map and the sprites on the battlefield.

Just as all its predecessors, FFVI has been remade a couple of times, and now exists on the SNES, PS and GBA. Like FFV, the PS version comes with lovely introductory and concluding FMVs. But, unlike FFV, I wouldn’t really be able to give a definite recommendation as to which version to play. I’ve not tried the PS one, although I hear it has a serious issue with loading times, but between the SNES and GBA versions, it’s really a toss-up. The game remains largely identical, with only two optional dungeons and four new Espers added to the mix (and, considering the huge amount of Espers already available in the original game, they feel like overkill). The major bugs have been squished, and the script has been partially retranslated, but considering the iconic status that Ted Woolsey’s original SNES text has acquired, this wasn’t exactly necessary or expected. However, none of these changes harm the game either, so it’s just a matter of picking the easiest version to find. But, by all means, if you love RPGs and have never played this game before, do yourself a favour and remedy that ASAP.

Detailed review available! Read more here.