Version tested: Wii
The scariest film I've ever watched is the original Japanese version of Ring. I've only seen it once, but the image of that ghastly woman, with her hair on backwards (beat that, Shoreditch), crawling out of a TV set, is seared forever into my psyche. I looked it up on YouTube just now and physically shivered at the sight of her.
Project Zero 2 is a ghost story of similar visual terrors, with its own reverse-haired apparitions hiding in boxes, spirits with heads hanging loosely from broken necks ready to leap out from shadowy corners, and more screams, moans and groans than a badly-dubbed porno. It is, frequently, chilling.
It is also a series (known as Fatal Frame in the US - much better title, that) which had, until now, completely passed me by, though I was aware of its cult status amongst horror aficionados.
Remakes and remasters are still very much in fashion, of course. I was horrified in all the wrong ways by the botched handling of Konami's recent Silent Hill HD updates, but Tecmo's title has been subjected to a much more rigorous and thoughtful reappraisal in this new Wii version.
Gone are the top-down fixed camera viewpoints of the PS2 original, for instance, in favour of a more modern third-person approach where the camera is always behind the player's character. Another key change is the look of the twins at the centre of the story, Mayu and Mio: they've been aged a bit here, with more emphasis on facial expressions to accommodate the change in view. (For a slightly weird discussion of this, see the recent Iwata Asks interview.)
Returning to a favourite childhood spot in a forest, the twins stumble upon an apparently deserted village, which soon sucks them into the unfolding terror of its dark secret. The entire drama hinges on the relationship between Mio (whom you control) and her sister. The bond between them is convincing and compelling enough that it had me desperate by the end not only to escape the perpetual darkness, but also find out where it was all leading.
In essence, it's like exploring a giant haunted house. There's the odd puzzle to solve, but mainly you're wandering around looking for stuff and tackling ghosts. Your weapon, such as it is, is the Camera Obscura, which has special properties that allow it to reveal and attack spirits with a click of the shutter.
When a ghost is in range, the B button brings up the viewfinder and the A button takes a photo. The longer you hold a ghost in view (you can lock on with Z), the more charge it builds and the more damage the picture inflicts. Dare to let them in close and you'll get a split-second chance to take a powerful 'fatal frame'.
The restricted camera view makes these encounters all the more unsettling, as does the ghosts' nasty habit of vanishing and reappearing behind you. A filament at the top of the viewfinder indicates the rough location of a spirit and whether it's hostile (red) or one to snap for the collection (blue).
There are many 'blue' moments in the game, some with a very short window of opportunity, and each successful snap earns you points which can be spent on levelling up abilities.
Unencumbered by fond memories of the original, and coming to what is, despite the tweaks, a nine-year-old game, I struggled to get on with it at the outset. It was the controls at first. The core mechanics are (understandably) old-fashioned in that frustratingly unresponsive habit of the genre in its earlier days, and Mio's pace is painfully slow throughout, even when running.
Adapted for use on Wii, left and right on the nunchuk point Mio in the desired direction and up moves her forwards; C is held for strafing (which I hardly ever used); and a double-shake on the Wii remote performs a 180-degree turn.
The remote is also used to direct your general view. The problem is, it relies on the accelerometer, which works as well as it's always done on Wii, i.e. not very. It can get extremely irritating in a tight battle when it's hard enough even to turn around and look the right way, let alone target and snap a ghost before it disappears again.
And then there's the voice acting, which I understand has been re-recorded for this release. It's inexcusably poor for a first-party release (Nintendo, bizarrely, now co-owns Project Zero) and quite why there isn't an option to use the original Japanese instead is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.
The adventure itself, meanwhile, takes an age to build up a head of steam, not helped by a lot of early backtracking and stop-starting as you gradually learn the basics. But then, several hours in - probably around chapter four or five - it all just clicks into place.
I stopped caring about the shoddy acting as I was so gripped by the story; I didn't mind the slightly wonky controls as they added to the nerve-shredding drama of battles (I've always been sceptical of that particular argument in this genre, but I must admit I enjoyed the artificially raised tension here).
The story works not because it's particularly well-written, but mostly due to a confident sense of restraint which preserves the nail-biting atmosphere. Its secrets are fed to the player in tantalising, agonising morsels as the awful truth gradually reveals itself through cut-scenes, disturbing film reel clips played on old projectors, hidden documents and stones with messages that are decoded by a special radio and which crackle eerily out of the Wii controller. At last, the perfect use for that tinny speaker.
Elsewhere, the addition of a Haunted House mode adds value to the package. There are three on-rails game types here, in which the aim is to make it through a section without showing too much fear. This is measured by how much you shake the controller, doing its best to freak you out in the process. It's better as a concept than in practice, though, far too sensitive to non-jitters. Expect to see the idea more fully realised when gaming goes biometric in the years to come.
In truth, Project Zero 2's gameplay is pretty basic throughout and showing its age in areas - although the graphical makeover, bar some dodgy textures, is very good. But with the lights off, it's as spine-tinglingly scary as any game I've played, with some truly haunting moments and gasp-inducing set-pieces delivered as it reaches its disquieting climax.
It's an unusual title to see this late in Wii's life, for sure, but one fright fans wishing to give the old system one last run out will appreciate. And with modern survival-horror titles like Dead Space now swapping chills for thrills and spills at the hands of marketing men, a classic ghost story with some good old-fashioned scares can go a long way.
7 / 10