Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir

Nintendo 3DS

Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir
Trading on the Fatal Frame pedigree, Spirit Camera uses the 3DS's camera and augmented reality features to turn your home into a haunted house.

The first warning sign is on page 2 of the manual. It reads: place the AR book on a flat, well-lit surface. The AR book, the "Cursed Memoir," is a collection of (marginally) creepy photos that the 3DS can photograph to produce augmented reality scenarios in the form of short puzzles, angry ghosts, or even doorways into other worlds... but it can only do so under extremely bright light: daylight or, barring that, ultra-bright bathroom fluorescents. Suffice it to say, fighting ghosts in your living room in the middle of the day with the blinds open kills a fair bit of the tension.

The story of Spirit Camera, a Fatal Frame sequel in evereything but name, should be immediately familiar. It's the plot of every Japanese horror movie: a seemingly innocuous artifact ensorcels people stupid enough to read it then kills them, gruesomely, several days later. Possessing an indefatigable curiosity, as protagonists in horror often do, you examine the contents of the book and fall under its curse. Your home is now host to a group of malevolent spirits who, making full use of the 3DS camera, crawl out of your walls and floors, in addition to the helpful spirit guide, Maya, who appears beside you during the mystery solving segments.

Fighting ghosts in your own apartment is a cool hook. With some light sleight of hand, the 3DS camera suggests a hidden world just slightly out of tune with the real one. Glancing at Maya on the screen and then over at your empty couch where she should be sitting makes the whole thing feel like magic. When a late game enemy forcibly moves your perspective, the disorientation is so subtle it becomes otherworldly. You've already been spinning in circles trying to track her down, so the indistinct camera drift a dizzying sensation that makes you feel, just for a second, like the handheld is being jerked away by a Spectral Force.

The visual trickery is probably more effective than it has any right to be be, given the extreme lighting conditions required, but it's always so fleeting that it's never actually exciting or scary. The augmented reality puzzles, which boil down to "point the camera at the next page in the book," all rely on the same technique: a 3D pop-out of some supposedly scary picture superimposed over the real-life book page, followed quickly by an attack from a not-very-convincingly-tortured spirit culled from a list of Japanese horror tropes that include "moaning girl," "confused man," and "creepy child."

While the coterie of ghosts in previous Fatal Frames (blind-eyed sacrifices, headless monks, and eternally grieving black-shawled women) inspired fear of a Game Over screen more often than they did actual terror, they were usually creepy enough to maintain a tense mood. Here you have to take their word for it that the doll-like ghost is actually doll-like because, honestly, she looks just like every stringy-haired spirit from every Japanese horror movie.

There has never been a more lugubrious group of ghosts. Usually content to limp in languid circles, these ghosts rarely attack, rarely even face you, and are seemingly resigned their fate. Presumably because the ghosts are so weak, the standard Fatal Frame upgrade system (where you add explosive or paralytic lenses to your spirit-hunting camera) never makes an appearance. Really, since there are only six or seven fights, there wouldn't be enough time do anything with it anyway.

That's the other rub: Spirit Camera is shockingly short. It breaks two hours only if you suffer a sizable number of retries during the last boss fight. There's some attempts at replay value through optional minigames, but none of these are particularly substantial nor particularly fun.

"Not substantial" and "not fun" pretty much sum the whole thing up. The limited physical requirements (having to turn to your left to speak with Maya or spinning in a circle to target ghosts behind you) bear some augmented reality-related mystique, but never enough to make you forget that the game you're playing is pretty crummy, the puzzles you're solving are puzzles in name only, and that the game breaks its own immersion constantly by requiring a third hand whenever you need to prop the stiff-paged AR booklet open while awkwardly aiming the camera to take a picture.

The enemies you're fighting have no chance at being terrifying in broad daylight, but probably wouldn't be all that scary in total darkness either. The charm of hunting ghosts in your own house wears off after the first or second battle, and if you simply must spin around in a circle and shoot things with your camera there are cheaper alternatives. Face Raiders is a mechanically similar game available for free, which makes Spirit Camera's $40 price tag all the more obnoxious.

It's frustrating to see a once-beloved franchise fail. Ten years ago Fatal Frame 2 produced, in a genre mostly known for crap voice acting, an emotional climax second only to Silent Hill 2. The series never reached that height again, but still maintained a persistently dour atmosphere and a handful of outstanding scares. The legacy of these games is now bound up with Spirit Camera: short, and finicky, and not all that engaging. Compared to decrepit mental hospital or a decaying mansion, the well-lit confines of your living room never stood a chance.

Overall : D+
Graphics : D+
Sound/Music : C
Gameplay : D-
Presentation : C+

+ Occasionally interesting visual trickery
Extremely short, yet a surprising amount of repetition

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