Having recently completed Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen for Wii, or more accurately the unofficial English translation patch entitled Fatal Frame 4: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, I figure this would be a logical time to detail my thoughts on the game.
The latest in Tecmo's excellent Zero horror series, also known as Fatal Frame in America and Project Zero in Europe (the latter being the result of PAL edition publisher Wanadoo mistaking the development team's name for the title, and the former being cheesy enough that they felt compelled to replace it in the first place), it is sadly the first to remain a (REGION LOCKED) Japanese-only release. Much like its predecessors, Zero 4 combines linear Adventure/Survival Horror exploration with RPG stat upgrading and an ingenius first-person photography combat system. The most obvious distinction between this and previous games is the presence of Co-director and Co-writer Suda Goichi (a.k.a. Suda51, who has long held the prestigious position of my hero) and other Grasshopper Manufacture staffers in the team.
Chief among the mechanical changes is the new and interesting twist to exploration. In the original trilogy critical items would be represented as glowing blue blobs that appear when certain conditions were met (Zero's equivalent to the classic Resident Evil glint) while health and ammunition resources would be hidden with no visual clue among examinable bits and pieces in the environment such as drawers, suits of armor, etc.; the idea being to reward players for exploring thoroughly, though in practise leading to the pragmatic (and so not especially atmospheric) technique of wallsurfing and mashing. Zero 4's solution is extremely elegant. The game has dispensed with the fixed-camera view, instead opting for an over-the-shoulder Resident Evil 4 camera system where the character's torchbeam is pointed at the centre of the screen, and view is controlled by tilting - not pointing - the wiimote for pitch or pivoting with the thumbstick (pivoting the view can also be achieved without turning your character by tilting the wiimote while stationary if desired - I dunno, maybe you want to see the character model from the front or something). When standing in the vacinity of items, a blue filament appears on the HUD that glows brighter when facing the correct direction, and should the torchbeam pass over any interactable item in the area it will appear as the old glowing blue ball for you to pick up. The system requires enough precision that waving around wildly for a few seconds when entering a new room will not be tremendously effective, but little enough that locating well-hidden items is not frustrating. Once an item has been located, you must examine it, the process of which is itself a new feature: while health and ammo is granted instantly, files, key items and upgrade resources (more on them later) are examined by slowly reaching out for them by holding A (where releasing A will retract the character's arm). Rather predictably every so often a ghostly hand will emerge to grab you as you reach out, requiring you to shake it off - literally, since this is the Wii, but at least the traditional wiimote waggling represents an action which is similarly wild and aimless - and preventing you from collecting the item (of course this only happens with the nonessential upgrade items - never with files or keys). My initial reaction to this system was rather cynical - I couldn't see any pragmatic value to retracting my hand as the ghostly grabbing hands cannot be dodged in this way, so it just seemed like an unnecessary time-padding barrier to progress - but when the concluding ghost battle of the second chapter was triggered by similarly reaching out to touch the shoulder of a character I had been searching for, I understood its worth. In Zero games, all the major story events - and crucially the most threatening ghost battles - are triggered by the player picking up an item, be it a file, an abstract key or a literal key. The combination of the knowledge that a critical item could spell serious danger to you and the uncertainty over whether the item is critical at all grants the reaching-out sequence a great deal of tension, and the opportunity to retract your hand becomes a means of changing your mind - perhaps this item looks to be in too important a location and you want to be more prepared for what it might throw at you. It's a beautiful new way of abstracting the question "Are you sure? Yes/No" which gamers naturally associate with extremely significant decisions. While I must say it's a shame to lose the gorgeous standard of fixed-camera cinematography from the old games, it's definitely worth it.
Playing on uncertainty in a similar manner to the above, nonaggressive ghosts are not distinguished from their aggressive counterparts when they appear. In the originals, filament colour would determine whether an apparition was a threat - blue for safe, red for danger - but here the blue filament is already in use for locating items. Instead, all ghosts are indicated with the red filament. Some ghosts are deliberately intended to function as a false alarm by appearing in threatening positions, while some lull you into a false sense of security by doing the opposite before beginning their attack routines.
Another new feature is the shop available at save points. Points earned from combat and nonaggressive ghost photographs can be spent on healing items and film (that is, ammunition). Points are plentiful enough that cautious players could easily reguarly arm themselves to the teeth and equip more healing items than there are ghosts to harm them, but endgame ratings are awarded based heavily on the amount of points that remain on completion. It makes a lot of sense to do it this way - presumably the players who actually care where they fall on the D/C/B/A/S scale will be the same players who want the game to offer some degree of challenge, so everybody wins. While it doesn't make much sense from a narrative perspective to have old stone lanterns function as herbal medicine vending machines, it provides a nice means of ensuring players are equipped in a way that makes them comfortable to play on and prevents sticking points from emerging.
While levelling up your camera's capabilities used to be done with that score currency, now it costs two other resources - blue and red crystals - found as reach-outable items in the environment. Blue crystals upgrade your camera itself, while red ones upgrade the special ability lenses (which are, incidentally, also found in the same way). There isn't much to say about this beyond the fact it works.
Camera combat remains largely unchanged from previous games, aside from the extremely forgiving lock-on function, presumably there to prevent the wiimote tilting pitch control's inherent instability from interfering too much, though it still can be problematic when locked ghosts vanish and the view suddenly snaps back to full player control. The camera users can also dodge ghost grapple attacks (once a certain item has been found) by waggling at the right moment, which is rather reminiscent of Resident Evil 3's evade system. Much faster paced than the second game's extremely slow building combat tension but nowhere near as bastard hard as the first game, the third game's combat makes for a fair comparison. New to the combat aspect is character Choushiro's "Spirit Stone Flashlight" - a device which seems utterly absurd until you remember that it's not really any sillier than the series' trademark magical excorcismal camera - which doesn't allow fatal frames or shutter chances (for those unfamiliar, these are brief moments during enemy attack routines at which they can be hit for extra damage). The flashlight deals damage determined by how long the fire button is held down, drawing from a limited power resource which must be recharged every so often by switching back to third person for a while. Choushiro can't lock on, and has by far the most group fights, turning his game into one of gradually backing away while dealing as much damage as possible, and interrupting incoming attacks with stronger shots. It certainly keeps things interesting, as even when fighting the same ghosts - with the same AI no less - Choushiro's system offers a completely different experience.
The story has all the basics of a classic Zero plot - someone goes to an old haunted place in Japan in search of someone else who went missing there, and finds the aftermath of an ancient Shinto ritual gone wrong, relating in some way to a gate to hell - but plays with the formula in inventive and satisfying ways which I shall try not to spoil too much. Rather than seeking a lost loved one as were Miku, Mio and Rei, the protagonists of Zero 4 are searching for their lost memories relating to a mysterious kidnapping ten years prior, that occurred during an old festival popular among tourists on an obscure Japanese island. The setting - an abandoned psychiatric hospital specialising in treating a local illness known (in the translation) as "Luna Sedata Syndrome" - combines the classic Zero traditional wood, paper and stone Japanese architecture with early-mid 20th Century modernity, granting it a creepily familiar quality reminiscent of Silent Hill.
If I was to criticise anything (aside from the occasionally problematic wiimote pitch controls in combat and ghost hunting), it would be the anticlimactic nature of many of the boss fights, notably the final one. I would approach significant fights expecting them to be a serious challenge, and would appropriately equip powerful film I had saved in the same manner as one would a Resident Evil grenade launcher. But nearly every time this occurred, including the final battle, I completely crushed my opponent in two or three easy shots. Where bosses are large group fights they provide the necessary challenge (if not perhaps too much challenge), but solo opponents rarely take any time let alone draining the resources you have collected and retained for them.
I'm currently replaying on Hard mode to see if it provides the kind of game I was expecting. So far the primary differences appear to be the frequency with with grabbing hands interrupt your item examinations, the damage that enemies deal and take, and the cost of items in the shop. The HP changes might have granted significant fights appropriate longevity if not for the fact that I am equipped with almost fully upgraded cameras and a huge stockpile of film and health supplements from my previous playthrough - Hard mode is only available as a New Game Plus.
But all together an excellent entry into the series. I still call the extraordinary second game Crimson Butterfly my favourite, but Zero 4 takes a more than respectable second place, and with the region-lock bypassing English patch now available, comes as a highly recommended import.