Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
Genre: Survival Horror
While I’m still catching up with my batch of games from the Halloween season last year, it’s been a goal of mine to play through some of the major series of the horror genre since I started up the blog. Fatal Frame’s been among the goals since the beginning since I’ve only played through the first two despite owning the rest of the series. Given my recent look into the original Fatal Frame, I was excited to check out the second game again. Full honesty: I haven’t played it since high school and my memory of it was fuzzy but positive.
Now, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is one of the heralded possessions for horror collectors on the Playstation 2, though it hasn’t quite hit the heights of Rule of Rose or Kuon. It falls squarely into the crosshairs of “relatively affordable” and “rare enough to require hunting for a genuine copy”. It has a strong reputation as one of the scariest horror video games available- period. The few vivid memories I had of the game before my replay were of some choice scares so I couldn’t really fight that reputation myself. Again, though- it had been a while.
Since October felt like the perfect time to make some headway into the Fatal Frame games, I figured I’d dig out my copy of the fabled Crimson Butterfly and see if I could dust off some of the cobwebs on my memories from years ago.
There’s an urban legend about a village in the forests of Minakami. It’s said that if someone gets lost in the forests of Minakami, they are doomed to be trapped in the lost village within for eternity. Stories of the village are met with skepticism by most with plenty of the region’s inhabitants coming to wander the woods and explore the shrouded greenery within.
Growing up, twins Mio and Mayu Akamura were two of those people who enjoyed the trails and rivers hidden within the Minakami Forest. After some time away from their favorite area to relax in the woods, the sisters decide to revisit Minakami and play like they used to. Legends about the Lost Village far from their minds, they make their way into the shadows of the forest’s canopy to while away the day together- until Mayu notices a strange red butterfly and begins to follow it.
As Mio chases her sister, trying to stop her from wandering further and further into the heart of Minakami, she finds herself at her sister’s side, face-to-face with the mythological All Gods’ Village. Finding that the legends are all too real, the girls realize that night has fallen and strange figures are moving amongst the dilapidated buildings there. The deeper they dig into the village to find their way out, however, the more they unravel about the village and the unending tragedy that has befallen it and its people. Now, Mio must do what she can to save her sister from the supernatural influences trying to overtake her and escape All Gods’ Village before they become a part of the legend themselves.
The mechanics between Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame II aren’t much different. This time around, you control Mio as she and her twin sister navigate the houses and roads of Minakami Village. While the majority of the game is Mio running around solo, the focus shifts to Mayu on occasion or involves Mio with Mayu in tow. When Mayu is traveling with Mio, she is a bit slower, meaning the player has to keep close or Mayu will crouch in terror until Mio returns. She can also be targeted by spirits. This is a boon because if they are after Mayu, the player can focus on lining up the perfect shot. Of course, Mayu can take damage so using this tactic is something to be wary of. Mayu seems to have a good amount of health, though, so it won’t be deadly for her to take a hit or two.
Of course, once the Camera Obscura comes into play, everything becomes familiar and Mio can defend herself and her sister a bit better. Pressing a button raises the camera and makes it possible to aim at incoming spirits. By holding focus on the target, the reticle ring “charges”, making it so that pulling the trigger on the camera will do more damage. Catch the spirit during a particular point in their advance and the ring will glow, signaling a shot that will do maximum damage and make the spirit flinch in most cases.
As the story advances, Mio will find a number of add-ons for the camera that will inflict various effects on the spirits she shoots with the camera including the ability to slow them down or do more damage. Since only one or two of these add-ons can be active at a time, there is some strategy involved when it comes to figuring out which may be best for the situation at hand. While there are items and charms to help keep Mio’s health up, if she gets caught too many times, it’s game over so it’s best to try the combinations that will fit a style you’re comfortable with to keep her safe.
The Good, The Bad, And…
I’ll say it upfront: it’s tough to find ways that Crimson Butterfly could improve. Aside from showing a few signs of the fact that the came is just over fifteen years old, the game’s reputation as a fantastic and terrifying game still holds up. In interviews about the game’s development, the team drew inspiration from a number of places to reinforce the idea that the spirits in the game were persistent, changing positions and randomly appearing at times but always present. That was a major source of the horror they were aiming for, and there is a constant feeling that Mio- and therefore the player- is always being watched or stalked by something. The atmosphere in the game is hard to shake and hits the perfect cadence of sudden scares and underlying uneasiness.
Crimson Butterfly also paces itself well. While it only clocks in at about seven to ten hours, the story of the village is interlaced with stories about others who found themselves in the village and people involved with the horrors who lived there. Add that to the headlining story of Mio and Mayu being wrapped up in what’s happening and trying to escape, and most players will find it hard to be bored with the tales the game has to tell. Another goal the development team had was to create a more engrossing story than the original game told. In part, this was meant to make an engaging sequel to live up to Fatal Frame’s flagship game and it was also meant to engage players more as surveys on the first game reported that a number of players were too scared to finish the game, thereby abandoning the narrative.
The entire game taking place in the same area also makes the game more enjoyable. From the moment the player takes over as Mio and finds the Camera Obscura, the village has quite a few things to explore- and exploration is usually well rewarded. While there are plenty of nooks and crannies to check out, though, it takes place throughout the same five or six major buildings in the area so it never feels overwhelming. It also makes getting lost a difficult task- and even the map is improved from the first game.
Crimson Butterfly is a beautiful game and could easily hold up against today’s games fifteen years later. The character models are peak for the era. The environments are dark and menacing but feel natural. The cutscenes are well-directed and feel just as cinematic as the previous entry. As hinted by the name, as well, the use of vivid red against the commonplace wood, dirt, and stone structures and paths makes for some striking imagery.
As a stellar example of voice acting and sound design against some of its better-known brethren, Crimson Butterfly keeps up the standard well. The soundtrack is amazing with a special nod to the ending song that was stuck in my head for a while after the game was done, and voice talents like Kari Wahlgren and Kim Mai Guest head up the spot-on voice cast. All around, the game is as pleasant for the ears as it is on the eyes.
Everything that is said about Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is absolutely earned and true. While it didn’t exactly keep me up at night, anyone looking to try out the horror genre or people who know they scare easily will probably find themselves having trouble getting over the thick atmosphere and jump scares- or being appropriately terrified. The game serves up the right amount of dread and stingers and it doesn’t let up once it gets going.
It’s not satisfied stopping there, though. The lore surrounding the village and those unfortunate enough to happen into it one way or another is engaging, which was the goal when the folks at Tecmo decided the direction they wanted to take Fatal Frame in. If you’re at all interested in this game after reading this or based on the buzz you’ve heard about it, you owe it to yourself to buy, borrow, or otherwise snag a copy to experience it for yourself, even if you haven’t gotten to the first game of the series. It works fine as a standalone story and almost perfectly as a horror game.