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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Project Zero


Project Zero.



The title 'Project Zero' does not bring to mind young women with magical cameras fighting ghost crime with their photography skills - if anything, it's the title I would expect to see on something to do with giant robots, which is a fair ways from this particular video game.

A survival horror set in an old and haunted mansion/shrine, Project Zero (titled Fatal Frame in America and zero in Japan) follows Miku, a young woman who has come looking for her missing brother, armed only with a mysterious camera that can capture ghosts inside it. As Miku traverses the mansion over four nights, she learns more about the violent and tragic events that led to its being haunted.

(Obviously, as is always the case with survival horror games that aren't Alan Wake, I didn't play this game, seeing as I am a tremendous coward. Instead, I enlisted a colleague to play it for me, while I watched and took notes, which is definitely almost as good.)

To be honest, while both I and my colleague loved Project Zero, singing the praises of its simple but unique gameplay concept; its elegant but layered and genuinely quite scary plot; the way it effectively built tension up towards major scares; its excellent use of 'found text' and 'found audio' in puzzles, worldbuilding, and storytelling; and its (admittedly dated but nevertheless) good graphics - I can understand why somebody would hate it.

There's a certain amount of awkwardness in the playing of it: The sections where you hunt around for clues are never impossible, but they can get somewhat frustrating, especially when the clues are well hidden, and you very frequently have to backtrack to find them; and the sections where you fight ghosts can become incredibly tense even when it's just a run-of-the-mill wandering ghost, since when you're attacking, you can hardly move and have almost no field of vision, putting you at a clear disadvantage against enemies which are often fast and/or can teleport.

That's not to everybody's taste, even in the survival horror genre. For a lot of people, that can push what would be a scary experience into 'just too frustrated to be scared of this at all' territory. It didn't for my colleague and I, though, not least because while certain sections would often be difficult, they never came across as impossible. In general, it never took more than three or four attempts to get past any ghost. 

It helps that the game has a great storyline. It's well-paced, a good length, often quite scary and shocking without ever having to be overtly gory or grimdark, and it has an intriguing slow-burn mystery that it builds up steadily over the course of the game. It keeps you guessing until nearly the end of the game, which is more than can be said for most mysteries.

Some of the voice-acting is bizarre: Miku, a woman at university, sounds like a six year old girl, for example, which makes for a jarring moment whenever she talks. The graphics, too, while generally pretty good, show their age when it comes to character models, and especially character animations. 

In many respects, Project Zero epitomises the early-2000s survival horror boom in video games, taking all of the features commonly found in those games and magnifying them to their logical extremes. A sense of helplessness against enemies? Here's Project Zero, where in order to attack you must become nearly stationary with a narrow field of vision. Isolation in a hostile environment? In Project Zero, you are the only living person around, with the possible exception of Miku's brother, who you can't interact with until almost the very end of the game. A compact environment with a distinct and coherent aesthetic? You're spending all your time in a single mansion/shrine, you can't get much more compact and coherent than that. 

All in all, a slightly odd but very competently made and fun to play survival horror game, and while it definitely shows its age, that's actually somewhat charming. I was actually expecting to find, when I went to look for information on sequels to the game, that the series had died a death along with the rest of the many, many survival horror franchises of the early 2000s, but apparently it hasn't: The fifth main series title was released worldwide on the Wii U just last year to mostly positive reviews. 

If you're a fan of survival horror games or you're just trying to collect all of the many Playstation 2 classics, then you should definitely pick this game up and check it out, if you haven't already. It's a fun and often gripping game that can be completed easily in a night or two. 

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