Nintendo of America got on a lot of gamers' shit lists a few years ago when they all but refused to localize Fatal Frame 4: Mask of Lunar Eclipse for the Wii, depriving Western gamers of the glorious experience of a Grasshopper Manufacture-developed Fatal Frame while still allowing a diarrheic dribble of digital dung like Imagine Party Babyz.
This travesty has since been semi-corrected with Nintendo's publishing of Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, a 3DS-exclusive title that seems to take inspiration from Fatal Frame in the fact that you become an Ansel Adams of the ethereal, snapping pictures of ghosts with the titular Spirit Camera.
Except Spirit Camera isn't just inspired by Fatal Frame…it is a Fatal Frame title, a hand which is tipped in the main menu. Selecting the game's story mode reveals the campaign to be titled Fatal Frame: The Diary of Faces, a fact which left me both ecstatic and a little confused. Is Nintendo of America so family friendly that they refuse to publish a game with the word "fatal" in the title? Strange…
Stranger still is the game's unexpected but novel use of the 3DS' cameras to bring the game into augmented reality territory. The plot of the main story mode centers on the Diary of Faces, an accursed tome that provides a gateway to the spirit world. The Diary of Faces is very much a real book included with the game, a disturbing little square pamphlet that is pretty disturbing even outside of the context of the game (and also pretty stinky…what the hell did they print this thing with?), but becomes even more horrific when you use the 3DS to unlock its secrets. The effect is pretty uncanny, turning still images into swirling portals and bringing ghosts into the real world around you. The effect is not dissimilar from last year's The Hidden, except Spirit Camera isn't a terrible heap. With the 3D slider pushed up to the top and the right mindset, the 3DS pretty effectively smashes the fourth wall, teleporting ghosts and wraiths into your home in a surprisingly seamless fashion.
There's a threadbare story behind all of this, involving a Woman in Black who snatches faces from her victims and an escaped ghost named Maya, but it's your typical J-horror pap. No, the real meat and joy of Spirit Camera comes from its sense of moodiness. There's some unbearable tension to dealing with these various spirits in your world, trying to keep your camera steady enough to eliminate the ghosts by keeping them in-frame in order to dispel them (just like Fatal Frame, natch), and the designs are pretty creepy overall. There's also the occasional travel to the realm of the Woman in Black, an appropriately haunted mansion, which relies on your own movements to navigate through its virtual corridors. Every step of the game is about blurring the line between the game's fiction and our reality, and it's a novel, well-executed trip.
However, there is one major sticking point: the 3DS requires a decent amount of light in order for the cameras to properly capture the pages of the AR book, so your slow spiral into the unknown has to take place in the glow of a 75 watt bulb. Supernatural horror rarely works well in a well-lit environment, and that's a sad fact that holds true for Spirit Camera. Even with a good pair of headphones pumping the appropriately spooky sound design directly into your ears, you're still interacting with the augmented world in a decidedly non-frightening lighting scheme.
Outside of the game's slender story mode, there are a few extra diversions to flesh out the experiences. The most notable is the ability to take pictures of the world around you and add Fatal Frame-style distortions to the world around you. It's little more than an amusing novelty, but there's an undeniable charm to making your girlfriend's face swirled around like a portrait from The Ring and antagonizing her with the whisper of "seven days…"
While Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir may not quite soothe the vicious burn of Nintendo not bringing over Fatal Frame 4, but it's a well-executed, creepy experiment in augmented reality that proves to be an unexpected, pleasant salve.