Do you remember that bit in the remake of The House on Haunted Hill when whatsit is wandering through the basement of the derelict mental asylum, and she comes upon a forgotten operating theatre? She has her camcorder with her - we all had them, back then - and through its viewing screen, the empty, dusty room is suddenly filled with sexy nurses and wonky old doctors. She lowers the screen and the room's empty. She raises it back up and the room's full. Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is that scene, basically, with your 3DS standing in for the camcorder.
Photography and the supernatural have a venerable intertwined history anyway, of course, dating all the way back to those Victorian scamps and their cut-out fairies, brought to life by hatpins and Box Brownies. As far as video games are concerned, it's a connection that the Fatal Frame series has been very happy to capitalise on. Spirit Camera's a spin-off of sorts: an AR-powered oddity that looks to be as creepy as it is slight.
The core of the package comes with story mode, which tells the strange tale of a spooky old notebook and an evil crone who likes to steal people's faces. The narrative is refreshingly nasty, as it happens, and it unfolds as you page through a short AR pamphlet that accompanies the game, following on-screen instructions that tell you where to point your 3DS camera as you go.
The AR pamphlet looks a little like old REM liner notes: it's all artfully distressed photographs and smudged works of art. When you line up these images with the 3DS, though, magical things can happen. Check the top screen of Nintendo's handheld, and you'll see text burning itself into blank pages, perhaps, or characters in snapshots coming to life as doors creak open, lamps turn on and off, and the paper itself fades away, dropping you into a mysterious nether-realm where you can look around via the magic of gyroscopes.
Sometimes, creatures from this dark place end up in your world, too, and this is where Spirit Camera promises to be at its most effective. Your guide through the game's narrative is a rather downbeat lady named Maya, and at one point, after staring at my tabletop through the 3D camera screen, I turned around and she was sat on a bookcase in my living room, ready to let rip with a tale of woe and mild intrigue. (I was, I should point out, still looking through the camera screen. Tecmo's good, but it's not that good.)
Not everyone just wants to chat, mind. Spirit Camera also features a series of rather prolonged battle sequences as you hunt for evil ghosts around your house before lining them up in the viewfinder and snapping away as their health bars grind down. Combat's clever, but even a cursory playthrough suggests the designers were a bit too keen on it, and since you spend most of your time turning around trying to work out where the undead have warped off too now, you might want to get an office chair and just spin on the spot as you play.
There are a range of different lenses that you'll unlock throughout the course of the adventure, though, and they promise to bring a little tactical thinking to the action, as you use the purple attachment to clear away confounding fog, say, or opt for the one that lets you find any canny spectres hiding in the shadows.
The animation and character models are surprisingly detailed, and the audio is wonderfully cheesy. Somewhere along the line, Spirit Camera crosses from being camp to actually being quietly unnerving, too. Perhaps it's the juxtaposition of gothic horror and the familiar, comforting contents of your own house. Perhaps it's that mind-bending thing about the difference between reality and reality when viewed through a lens or a screen that The House on Haunted Hill had such stylish fun with. Perhaps it's just the artful novelty of having a magic little book on your desk which features pictures that boil away or distort when you point a handheld game console at them.
Spirit Camera promises plenty of gimmicks, then, but I'm not sure its campaign is going to last very long when you finally get your hands on it. Clever ideas aside, it may also prove rather repetitive as you switch between the book, Maya, and the next puzzle you have to crack or ghost you have to duff up. Beyond that, though, there are a range of AR extras that promise to keep you busy if you've lost the little cards the 3DS originally came with, or if you've just become bored of having Link and Samus Aran strike heroic poses next to a cheese sandwich.
The simplest of these add-ons is actually the most fun, I think: a basic camera mode that inserts all manner of spooks and horrors into pictures that you've taken with the 3DS. There are a variety of different twists on offer, as you mess around with 3D pictures or even opt for a lens that alters the faces of your friends and loved ones, covering people with acne or bending their noses into witches' crones. Elsewhere, there are asides in which you take snapshots of people and then read about the ghosts that are presently haunting them, or even use friends' facial geometry to provide the statistics for enemies in a simple combat game. It's more spinning and snapping, by the looks of it, so it's probably a good idea to keep that office chair handy.
More on Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir
Ghost of a chance of a PS3 release then, eh?
Project Zero 2: Wii Edition dated, too.
Spooky 3DS AR horror due next month.
Finally, there's a range of little mini-games that use the AR booklet again, as you hunt for spooky dolls scattered around your house, perhaps, or screw about with a selection of rather scary masks. In of themselves, they're the kinds of thing you might buy on iOS or Android for 69p, play for a few minutes, and then never bother about again. As a whole package, though, they might well come together to keep you plugging away at this 3DS curio long after Maya's story has faded from your mind.
Spirit Camera promises to be a bit of a gimmick-fest, then, but a lot of its gimmicks appear to be pretty entertaining. It brings video game ghosts out of their boring old mansions and chucks them into your bedroom, or your bathroom, or the bottom of the garden where Victorians might have spent their time photographing fairies. If nothing else, it will make you want to watch The House on Haunted Hill again. It's got Taye Diggs in it, you know. Why did that guy never become a star, eh?