Version tested: Wii
Rarely has a such a great series been dogged by such careless disregard. Passed around no fewer than four publishers for its first three incarnations, the fact the Fatal Frame series - known as Project Zero in Europe when it bothers to show up here - never gained more than a loyal cult following has been a perennial source of frustration for survival horror fans.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Nintendo has elected to deny Western gamers the Wii-exclusive fourth chapter in the series, The Mask of the Lunar Eclipse.
Thank goodness for the internet, then. Undeterred, a talented group of fans set about developing an unofficial English-language patch which, remarkably, also manages to circumvent region-locking shenanigans, giving import gamers peace of mind that they can go ahead and buy the game without having to consider shady hardware modifications.
Having gone to all that effort, one would assume that the collaborative efforts of Grasshopper Manufacture's Goichi Suda (aka Suda 51) and series developer Tecmo must be amazing. But it's actually surprising how little has changed in years since the original. The setting shifts and the cast changes, but essentially Fatal Frame is still content to be Ghostbusters with a magic camera, frail high-school girls and a penchant for knee-high socks.
Still, with a tone as unremittingly bleak as ever, this is about as far from Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray as you could imagine, focusing on a bizarre ritual that robbed a group of young girls of the memories of a kidnapping and the events surrounding it. Set 10 years after the incident, three of the girls return to Rougetsu Island ("the island nearest the underworld"), followed by a detective who's still investigating the man behind the mayhem.
Broken down into chapters, Fatal Frame IV takes a similar approach to its predecessor, with each of the main characters starring in rotation and gradually peeling away the layers of obfuscation. The air of dark mystery remains an engaging hook, although some may find it a little over-familiar - particularly grizzled survival-horror veterans who eat crazy conspiracies pieced together via flashbacks and endless journal fragments for breakfast.
It's clear from the outset that the developers are content to stick to what they know and repeat the creaking formula. Whereas Silent Hill's recent reinvention, Shattered Memories, was bold enough to discard the shackles of the genre's ancient history, Tecmo strides back into the old frontier, shirt tucked into its stonewashed denim [knee-high socks, surely? - Ed].
The stark truth is that much of the experience is a sluggish chore in terms of control and quest design. Comparisons with Silent Hill are unavoidable - both are third-person games which involve exploring darkened, abandoned environments with a torch - but the two control systems could hardly be more different.
For one thing, you can't simply point the torch beam in Fatal Frame IV freely and fluidly like you would naturally. Aiming your viewpoint is excruciating, forcing you to slowly and steadily point in the direction you want, gently tilting the Wii remote up or down as required. Forensically scouring every location takes an order of magnitude longer than it should as a result - a process also hindered by treacle-slow turning speed and a 'running' speed best described as sedate.
Helpfully the game has introduced a new Item Filament meter in the bottom right of the screen, which gradually intensifies when you're in the direct line of sight with something worth picking up. Annoyingly though you can't even see the item of interest until your torch beam has passed over it, so you still have to painstakingly modify your aim, often inch by inch, until it finally appears. Simple processes such as walking room to room and picking up items turn into numbing chores, taking you out of the game and grinding away your affection with slothful routine.
Combat is no better. Once spirits announce their arrival you whip out your Camera Obscura, the view switches to first-person and you then train your reticule on them and try and get the best-possible shot once the power meters fill up. Timing and positioning become all-important, because without a close-up shot you won't do much damage, so you're often forced to wait until the very last moment before capturing a picture to send ghosties reeling back in shrieking agony.
This would all be fine if it worked, but it's horrible to use for much the same reasons as general exploration. Although some might argue that the soupy aiming, turning and movement speed all add to the sense of nerve-jangling desperation, that's no excuse for a system that defies reasonable input expectations.
Eventually, one of the characters, detective Chouschiro Kirishima, adds a welcome element of novelty to proceedings with his special Spirit Stone Flashlight. This operates in roughly the same way as the Camera Obscura, except it damages ghosts with charged beams of light instead.
With movement mapped to the nunchuk stick, and aiming performed via the Wii remote, it ought to be a beautiful combination almost tailor-made for a game like this. But for some reason you're blessed with all the turning and aiming speed of an stricken oil tanker - useless in the context of a game where enemies disappear and reappear out of thin air, often right behind or beside you.
Sharp movements and nimble evasion are nearly impossible, and are limited to ducking out of viewfinder mode to run, or shaking the remote to perform a 180-degree turn. At first this isn't a huge problem because enemies are equally slow and ponderous, but when the game starts throwing faster enemies, and more of them, you're in trouble.
Even the most basic actions, like adjusting your aim to react to a downward lunge, are hopelessly sluggish, so combat is actually more challenging on the Wii than it ever was on PS2 or Xbox. Rather than redesign the game for Wii, Tecmo and Grasshopper have retrofitted the old-style gameplay to pointer mechanics that might as well have been designed to be counterintuitive. The sensation is akin to controlling a mouse cursor on a choked PC.
And yet despite being mercilessly unpleasant to control, there's still a degree of grim enjoyment to be had locking horns with such wilfully unhelpful mechanics. As many a survival-horrorphile will attest, taking such games at face value is never a good idea. There's always a pain threshold to negotiate, and once you get over that the enjoyment intensifies.
This is definitely the case here, because once you start to accept the crippled movement, the stodgy aiming and the incessant need to crawl over every room to get a key to unlock a door somewhere, you stop griping and start enjoying the intrigue and narrative again. You start to stay one step ahead of the game; saving at every opportunity, stocking up on health items, and upgrading your camera abilities with all the red and blue crystals you've been slavishly collecting.
You can't fault the game for its art and all-round style, either. The atmosphere is as intense as ever, and its neglected environments and unhinged enemy design still has the capacity to chill the blood all these years later. One can only ponder what these talented artists would come up with on more technically advanced systems, but with Mask of the Lunar Eclipse hardly selling in vast quantities in its homeland this may be the last we see of their series.
In which case, fans may want to overlook its numerous flaws and take what they can get. The nonsensical premise is strangely absorbing, and the tense routine of battling spiteful spooks with the camera remains enjoyable. In fact, even all these years on, there's nothing quite like it.
For others, however, this is essentially more of the same with dodgy controls - and that's after you go to the trouble of getting it working. Maybe Nintendo was onto something.
7 / 10
Fatal Frame IV is out now in Japan and available on import. Getting it working on a PAL or NTSC Wii involves little more than dragging and dropping a few folders onto a blank SD card. The translation is text-only. Full instructions can be found elsewhere on the internet.