I have a confession to make: I’m a big Project Zero fan (or Fatal Frame if you want to call it like that). Ok well, it’s not much of a confession, since the third game was featured among my 15 greats list. So you can imagine my trepidation as the fifth chapter finally made its way onto our shores, after missing out on the fourth game. Not me, I imported it and even played it on release day. I mean the rest of the world.
And now my copy arrived. And after playing through the prologue and two chapters (essentially the same content of the demo version, meaning everyone can check it out for themselves), I thought I would vent out a bit. The game can still change a lot, of course. But the first impression is not very good. At all.
The biggest problem, and one that will probably not change for the entire game, is the imprecise controls. Both search mode and camera mode have issues of their own. Despite the over-the-shoulders camera a la Project Zero 4, which worked okay, the game actually uses a strange mix of fixed camera and third-person. To explain, pushing backward on the stick will not make you back away, it will actually make you perform a 180. It’s incredibly unwieldy, and the only way around it is to have the finger on the camera centering button all the time. And that’s not all of it. The player character animates in a very twitchy way, as if her movements were digital rather than analog. All of this stuff comes together and makes navigation a pain.
Camera mode is not free of trouble either. The motion sensor works relatively well, but is prone to losing calibration. When that happens, your only hope is actually to get out of camera mode and pause the game. Especially annoying during combat. Fortunately, motion controls can be disabled… partly. But just because you choose to stick with the, ahem, sticks, that doesn’t mean you are out of the water yet: camera orientation is still only available by tilting the Gamepad. And camera orientation influences your sticks rotation as well. Great recipe for disaster. Oh, and for some unknown reason, if you invert the Y axis and then tilt the Gamepad in portrait mode, the analog stick gets swapped around and the X axis gets inverted instead. It’s a complete pain that means you can’t actually use portrait mode accurately with the regular controls. This is stuff that probably should have been patched already, but given the game was released last year in Japan, there’s little hope for that.
So the controls are really annoying, especially for a series that usually nailed them pretty well. But enough of that, because there are other problems, at least in this early part. Many reviews have complained about the railroading: this is not technically true, since the second chapter already has a huge forest area made up of small paths that all look the same (and I mean boring). But aside from farming items, there’s almost never anything of interest there. It’s not like exploring an old house. And PZ2 already did the forest exploring part a lot better. They give you (the illusion of) freedom by having so many paths around, but it actually just annoys you because there’s only one interesting path: and outside of that, stationary ghosts are almost absent.
The combat may be even more disappointing. The new system doesn’t allow you to build power, you need to get more than 5 targets on the reticle to get a Shutter shot that will knock back a ghost. Sounds like it should favor strategy, but for now, it has only made combat a slog, as I can only do that or wait for a Fatal Frame chance. Also, it look like both hostile ghosts and stationary ghosts have their speed calibrated for the quicker motion controls, because using the sticks really seems too slow at points. And really, even the early ghosts seem to have way too much health.
Even technically it’s a mixed bag. The framerate is all over the place, holding up well during exploration but often plunging whenever more than one ghost appears on screen. Overall the game looks like an early 360/PS3 title, which is perhaps understandable given the likely low budget, but I would at least expect decent performance. Some kind of (broken) pathfinding seems to have been employed too, because I’ve seen ghosts actually “jump” over rocks, whereas in any of the previous games they’d just pass through anything in their path. Of course, it looks very buggy, and next to the jerky animations and movements, it’s all just disappointing. But perhaps the biggest disappointment of all, and I’m gonna leave it at one short sentence: the very first ghost you encounter acts more like a zombie than a ghost. Why? Is this Resident Evil?
I paid full price for this and I’m at least curious about the story, so I’ll keep playing and see what happens. After all, it could still get better… somehow. But as a fan of the series, this is a tough pill to swallow. And considering the free demo is made up of these early chapters, I can’t see it convincing many people to buy it.