In the original 1998 Ring movie from director Hideo Nakata, the entire film's premise revolves around a vengeful spirit called Sadako, whose internal rage gave birth to a video tape curse via a phenomenon known as ‘thoughtography’. While Sadako is ultimately the driving force behind the film’s narrative, it’s only until the last few scenes that we finally see the spirit with our own eyes (bar a few “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” appearances). With a total runtime of just over ninety-five minutes, Sadako is only visible for roughly fifty seconds.
Ghosts and apparitions are a lot scarier when they’re lurking in the background, unseen for the most part, only announcing their presence in subtle ways: a creaking floorboard; a piano key ringing out in an adjacent room; a soft, rattling groan seeping out of a crack in a doorway. There’s a fine balance to be struck when depicting ghosts in media - if you show too much, you run the risk of diminishing the potential impact to the audience. Examples include Pennywise from It, the Woman in Black from, uh, The Woman in Black, and - unfortunately - the plethora of ghosts found in Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse.
Mask of the Lunar Eclipse on Switch marks the first instance the game has been made officially available in the west, having originally launched as a Japan exclusive in 2008 for the Wii. For many fans of the franchise, it's the final missing piece in a series that is over twenty years old. But while this new remastered version updates the game’s visuals by a considerable degree, it still very much feels like a fifteen-year old game, one that - for many western players - doesn’t have the added benefit of nostalgia to soften its ageing gameplay mechanics.
For the uninitiated, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse stars four protagonists as they explore the desolate Rougetsu Island. Three of these were once inhabitants of the island at a young age, who return after multiple deaths force them to confront their pasts and solve the mystery of the island. The fourth protagonist is a detective who had once investigated a string of murders on the island and now finds himself back to take on a multitude of creepy ghosts with his trusty flashlight in hand.
The overall narrative is definitely intriguing and easily stands as one of the game’s more interesting aspects. As you explore the various environments, you’ll find copious notebooks, diaries, pamphlets, and drawings, all of which serve to flesh out the overarching mystery. With this in mind, much of the game’s finer details are found within optional environmental cues, so if you’re someone who prefers to simply blast through the main objectives, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of these.
With its core gameplay, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse feels very much like a “classic” survival horror game. You’ll move through rooms and corridors at a glacial pace, shine your flashlight into every nook and cranny in the hope of finding hidden items, and solve benign puzzles to gain access to new pathways. While you do so, of course, a multitude of hostile ghosts will present themselves at frequent intervals, and it’s here that you’ll need to make use of the franchise’s iconic ‘Camera Obscura’ to dispatch them.
The controls, while functional, definitely feel unnecessarily fiddly, even for a survival horror. Walking around is simple, yet cumbersome, and despite the game boasting a free-form camera system, the camera won’t actually follow you unless you start running. This isn’t so much a problem during quieter moments, but when you’re trying to navigate out of the way of an encroaching ghost, or quickly trying to catch a wandering spectre before it disappears, getting the right angle quick enough can be a bit of a nightmare at times. Thankfully, moving the camera around while you’re in the first-person perspective is a bit more manageable, as you’ve got the option to either use the right analogue stick, the Switch’s gyro aiming, or a combination of both.
Speaking of ghost encounters, this is where the game loses much of its potential scare factor. The figures are undoubtedly visually creepy, but the frequency at which they appear along with the almost arcade-like gameplay required to defeat them lessens their impact. When they show up, a light at the top of the screen pops up to indicate what kind of ghost is in the vicinity along with where exactly they’re oriented in relation to the player, so there’s practically no element of surprise. Once you spot the ghost, you simply need to whip out the camera with a quick ‘X’ tap, shifting the perspective from third-person to first-person. Then, keep the ghost in the centre of your viewfinder and quickly take its picture to deal damage.
There are, however, a number of ways the game manages to mix up its core combat. Primarily, by waiting until a ghost is just about to strike before taking its picture, you’ll execute a perfect ‘fatal frame’ attack, dealing additional damage and allowing you to string together combos. You’ve also got a smorgasbord of upgrades and add-ons for the camera as well, which allow for more powerful shots, the ability to dodge incoming attacks, and more.
It’s definitely engaging, but there’s undoubtedly a bit of a disconnect between the quiet, subtle horror found in the exploration of the environment and the more in-your-face action found during combat sequences. Encounters fill the screen with elaborate target indicators, written combo achievements, and blue orbs that zip from your ghostly opponent and into your character. It's bizarre, but it’s an issue that’s unfortunately plagued the Fatal Frame series since its inception; we hope that Koei Tecmo can find a better balance should it launch a brand new entry in the future.
Outside of the combat, you can also snap ghosts on the fly. These are specifically known as 'spectres', and they hang around for brief moments of time before vanishing into thin air. You'll need to be quick here if you want to take their picture, but successfully doing so will grant you a handful of points. It's a lot of fun catching the ghosts just in time, and it makes you feel like a true paranormal investigator. In addition, hidden 'Hozuki dolls' can be found within the environment too, and taking photos of these will also grant you points.
You can spend these points at save stations found within the game, exchanging them for healing items, camera equipment, or even additional costumes. You can also view exactly which ghosts you've revealed in the in-game menu, along with records of all narrative logs found on your travels. There are an awful lot of items to discover, so having them all accessible at the press of a button is a great way to make sure you're fully up to speed on the story.
In terms of visuals, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse has definitely had a significant upgrade over the original Wii version, boasting more realistic character models and sharper environmental detail. That said, there's no mistaking this for a modern game; the animation in particular feels very 'Wii-era', and if you're coming off the back of the more recent Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, the downgrade here is definitely noticeable.
Performance is also a bit hit and miss. The frame rate remains relatively solid throughout, but the game often struggles when loading new areas. You'll frequently find that your character will put their hand on a doorknob and freeze for a few moments while the next room renders. This makes the transitions look a bit janky, and we would have preferred the developers masked this delay more effectively; perhaps a short cutscene similar to Resident Evil or Luigi's Mansion would have sufficed.
For fans of the franchise, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse should be a no-brainer. Fifteen years after its original release in Japan, its launch in the west brings some welcome upgrades to the visuals and presentation. That said, you can definitely feel the game's age in the core gameplay and little has been done to bring this more in line with modern sensibilities. Movement is janky, the camera never quite feels spot on, and the loading between rooms really shouldn't be an issue in 2023. Additionally, the frequent presence of ghosts and the arcade-like combat required to defeat them feels constantly at odds with the otherwise impressive sense of dread felt as you explore the environment, but since this is a core aspect of the series at large, you might be able to overlook this. We definitely recommend checking it out if you're into survival horror, but just know that it comes with a number of quirks that we wish had been ironed out.