Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse Review

Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse by developer and publisher Koei Tecmo GamesXboxSeries X review written by Nick with a copy provided by the publisher.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes 

Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is not going to be for everyone, as this is an update to an older title that benefits from modern technology, but at the same time still shows its age. While games like Resident Evil are getting complete overhauls, the last two Fatal Frame releases are really just polishing up experiences that are quite a bit more dated, and this especially shows in the movement mechanics. That being said? This fourth installment in the series is finally getting the respect it deserves with a Western release, and I am thrilled about it. 

A lot of people might not at a glance realize the order of the Fatal Frame games, not that it generally matters. They have an interwoven DNA in gaming mechanics and presentation, but they aren’t neatly bound together in any sort of chronological order with recurring characters spanning the series. Each game tends to focus on unique characters and settings, even if the core gameplay is relatively the same. 

The first three titles got Western releases, and I played the snot out of them on PlayStation 2. Then I heard about this title, the fourth, getting released – but only in Japan. So keep in mind that this is an older title as it saw release for the Wii in 2008. For those familiar to the site, I reviewed Fatal Frame: Maiden of Blackwater a couple of years ago, which is the proper fifth main entry to the series (and originally came out in 2014). So for those who played that title and now move to this, know that the core game is several years older, and sometimes that older structure shows through in less flattering ways. Footnote for those curious about the series as a whole, there was a mobile release called Real Zero in 2004 and an interesting 3DS release called Spirit Camera that would be loosely considered spin-off games but not part of the series proper. 

In what has become a core mechanic in the Fatal Frame storytelling, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse follows multiple characters who visit a location called Rogestu Isle. As children, they had temporarily become missing on said Isle during a festival, but their memories have holes in them that they try to fill. The story takes these different characters, weaving their narrative together using a combination of cutscenes, dialog and found items (usually documents of some sort) to pull the mystery together. 

To say that the game is creepy would be a dramatic understatement. The team behind these games always seems to make outstanding use of shadow and sound, creating a creepy ambiance even when nothing is happening. That sense of isolation is often intense, and there are numerous times where there are blink-and-you-will-miss-it encounters that are in no way threatening to you, but it raises the specter that something could happen. It leaves you constantly wondering what could be around the next corner. The audio design really sells this, as sounds both subtle and startling can tip you off to threats or just simply cause the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end. 

When Fatal Frame first came out, it provided a third-person horror game with some forced camera angles similar to Resident Evil and Silent Hill. What always separated Fatal Frame from those games has been the Camera Obscura. This is used to take pictures of the environment, allowing you to capture some of those brief encounters and get a better look at the spook that dropped in to surprise you, but also as your primary weapon. There’s a lightweight RPG mechanic in leveling the camera up and finding better film for it that strengthens its abilities. And the idea is that you shift from third to first person perspective when you raise the camera to combat the ghosts. For my money, this has always made the Fatal Frame games far more immersive, seeing the spirits coming at you from this first-person view is a lot more frightening than shooting or stabbing at your enemies in a persistent third-person view. 

Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse has seen greatly improved visuals as the primary selling point in this update (aside from just finally getting to play the game). The lighting engine, textures and character models look considerably better than what I had seen from the game originally. There’s also a  lightweight fluff added in a new snapshot / photo mode where you can pose against the environment. It’s fun for a few minutes in a handful of particularly interesting environments, but that’s about it in terms of notable updates. 

However, with those being the only real upgrades, that is where Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse can start to show its age a bit. The infamous ‘tank controls’ as they’ve often been referred to in horror games over the years are still in full effect here. They are clunky and slow and more than probably any aspect of Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, reflect the age of the game. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how you solve that – so much of the atmosphere is created by making the player move slowly through the environments and I really don’t know how the camera combat would handle if it was greatly sped up with different controls. Smarter people than me could probably figure it out, but this is going to be the biggest gripe from most players. 

The slow pace of movement and frequency of retracing your steps through previously traversed environments (that become accessible after some event / item unlocks a prior barricade) pads the time a bit and helps to mask how small the game really is. There is a tendency to ‘go to the same well’ by having you visit a room that was previously creepy but harmless, then coming back to it and having it become dangerous, and then it is part of the bigger puzzles forcing you to pass through it a couple more times. About the third or fourth time you traverse certain rooms or areas, you start to realize that Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is not an overly expansive game. 

Despite these various nitpicks… boy Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is intense and fun. I love horror games, and I appreciate a wide variety of different series in the genre. That being said, I am willing to die on this hill: the Fatal Frame series is the best horror franchise in gaming, and it has been almost borderline underappreciated over the last couple of decades. The atmosphere as good as anything in the genre, and the stories are always compelling. With any luck, we’ll see new releases in the series going forward, fully updated for a modern audience to appreciate.

Score: 7.5 / 10