Project Zero or Fatal Frame as it’s known in some regions has always felt like Koei Tecmo’s best-kept secret, with a cult following. A scant release schedule up until the fantastic re-release of Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water has helped to keep it that way. Since then, it seems Koei Tecmo have decided to get their horror franchise another lease of life by giving another title in the series a remaster, releasing it outside of Japan, and freeing it from Wii-Jail. Grab some fresh underwear and your Camera Obscura; it’s time to solve the mystery of Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse.
Down with the Sickness
Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is the fourth title in the Project Zero franchise, predating the previous re-release. Mask of the Lunar Eclipse was somewhat of a new start for the series. At this point, the previous trilogy had come to an end, with this launching as a new start, with a new cast, and a completely new mystery, but familiar aspects such as the Camera Obscura. This refresh of the series was also handed over to quirky developer team Grasshopper and their enigmatic leader Suda51.
Mask of the Lunar Eclipse features a tale told from the perspective of four different playable characters presented over twelve chapters. These cover a timeline that jumps around from the 1970s to the present day. The mystery revolves around five girls who were kidnapped from a sanitarium on Rogetsu island by a serial killer and eventually found “safe and well” by a detective who acts as one of the 4 playable characters.
Two years after the girls are found in a cavern under the sanitarium, the island is hit by a mysterious curse killing off all the inhabitants and suspending the island in a state of ruin. After two of the girls who were saved die under strange circumstances, the remaining three come back to Rogetsu Island to try and solve the mystery of their past and are promptly followed by the Detective who initially freed them from their nightmare.
As you get further and further into the sanitarium and surrounding areas of the island, you’ll learn more about the serial killer, the purpose of the five girls, and an illness affecting them all called Moonlight Syndrome. Of course, being a Project Zero title there are ample mentions of rituals and spirits which tie into the overarching narrative.
The story presented here is easily one of the strongest in the entire franchise, presenting players with a multi-pronged mystery from the get-go. Seeing it through the eyes of not only the girls affected, but also the detective who doesn’t have as much involvement helps to build a sense of connection to the game as you slowly uncover the mystery through the story and the plethora of in-game files and environmental storytelling.
Rogetsu Island from the get-go has a mysterious pull to it. You can’t help but want to explore every aspect of it to try and uncover what happened to the inhabitants of this once-thriving island. The sanitarium is an absolute textbook horror locale and the slow rate it opens up leaves you chomping at the bit to see more of its macabre halls. The mystery of Moonlight Syndrome is also something that gripped me and gave me the incentive to read all the files I came across; this isn’t something that is mentioned much in the cutscenes or with character dialogue but was quite essential to the mystery.
Despite having Grasshopper and Suda51 attached to the project, there is a distinct lack of their particular quirk on display throughout the story. While I’m not 100% sure, I would say that the Moonlight Syndrome and detective sections of the games are where they may have had the most narrative input. It is worth noting that the game was led by original trilogy co-creators, so don’t go in expecting something along the lines of Shadows of the Damned when you see Suda’s name attached.
Alone in the Dark
Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is part of the “old guard” when it comes to third-person. It’s slow-paced, uses tank controls, and comes with puzzles to solve and plenty of backtracking. This is all held together with Project Zero’s famous Camera based combat. If you’ve played Maiden of Black Water, you’ll know exactly what to expect here – if not, more on that further in the review.
The controls in Mask of the Lunar Eclipse feel weirdly sluggish and heavy, even for tank controls in a horror game. This is likely a side effect of the game coming off of the Nintendo Wii, but even the camera swing has some real heft behind it. This makes finding hidden items with your torch quite the chore. Character movement also really suffers in this department. Every character has the total run speed of a leisurely stroll even when you hold down the run button, so combat and backtracking (or getting lost) can be a real chore due to the much slower pace.
While the pace works amazingly at building the tension and by the co-directors own admission this is done intentionally to “put players into the fear” it can be a nightmare if you forget where places are. Despite objectives flashing up on the screen regularly, they can be quite obscure at points and result in you making your way through the game’s areas very slowly looking for a painting or other item to progress the story. This can be a real pace killer.
Puzzles in this title aren’t Silent Hill levels of obscure even though several of them involve playing piano, fortunately in a QTE style rather than figuring out which key to press! Most of the puzzles in the game usually involve you figuring out a number puzzle or sliding picture puzzle. There are a few tougher ones, but usually, you’ll have the solution quite quickly and be progressing onto your next objective without really having to put much brain power into it.
Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse doesn’t really offer anything new to the series and initially feels a little like a step back from the previous title. The core mystery is one of the main pulls here but it’s worth noting the first few hours of the game are quite rough due to the reuse of the same area and even the same ghost fights. despite the initial feet-dragging of the gameplay in location and fights. The game does pick up eventually and manages to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other titles in the series.
While exploring the game, you’ll be using your flashlight to find hidden items. Conveniently, these show up to you with a handy filament that appears in the corner of the screen if you are near an item or place of interest. When picking up these items, you’ll be holding the action button down while your character slowly reaches out to pick the item up. This is done intentionally as randomly a ghostly arm will reach out and try and grab you. Don’t release the button quickly enough? The spirit grabs you. While it doesn’t damage you, it does make the item disappear, which can do damage in the long term by reducing your supplies.
Two of the items this happens with quite frequently tend to be the gems that are strewn across the game. These can be used to upgrade your Camera and the various lenses you get throughout. Initially, I somewhat ignored this feature but as the game went on the difficulty ramped up quite a bit and clever use of these gems made it so I was able to stand toe-to-toe much easier than just going in without.
Shoot your Shot
Much like every title in the franchise, the combat is somewhat at odds with the pacing and feel of the exploration. While fighting off spirits using a camera seems like quite a restricting idea, the way it’s done is almost arcadey in execution, and especially notable in this title is the frequency in which you are put into combat scenarios.
The combat is done mostly from a first-person perspective while you look down the lens of your camera. Luckily, it has the handy ability to dispel aggressive spirits. You “shoot” the ghosts in mobile photo shoots trying to fill a meter which increases while the ghosts are in the middle of your lens. Do this, and you’ll do massive damage and disrupt the spirit causing them to disappear and start its attack cycle again until you eventually deplete its health meter enough to dispel them. The Fatal Frame name comes from a mechanic here: if you have enough meter filled and shoot a picture during an attack animation at the right time, not only do you stun the foe but you can also follow up with a quick succession of shots doing even more damage. It’s this feature that offers the combat’s risk vs reward feature.
The camera can equip different types of film which act as different types of weapons. Some film takes longer to charge, but does more damage whereas others act as more as a quick-fire weapon. Fortunately, the standard film you have is infinite, so it’s a balancing act of which film to use, coupled with the many different lenses you can find throughout the game which give you even more effects when you take a picture such as extended stun, quicker meter build with a damaging trade-off. There are plenty of combat options to see you through.
The detective character doesn’t have a camera and his combat is done in an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective instead. Rather than a camera, he comes equipped with a flashlight that requires moonlight to recharge. This means a more careful playstyle. You can’t just spam shots and have to flick between the flashlight lens and a camera lens that attaches to his flashlight. His sections tend to have the most combat and a larger amount of spirits to fight at one time and this is apparent from the get-go. Luckily, the change in camera angle, the slight agility increase, and the flashlight mechanic are a welcome change from the camera-based combat without completely deviating from what is on offer with the other characters.
Points Make Prizes
While walking around the halls and caverns of Rogestu Island you can see spirits going about their final actions. As you do this, you can find cursed dolls. Should you decide to take pictures of these with your Camera Obscura, you are rewarded points. The other way to collect these is through combat.
During combat, you are getting scored on how well you’ve timed your pictures, these scores plaster the side of the screen which eventually translate to points you can spend. This feels very at odds with the horror and slow pacing, as it has the opposite effect and gets you pumped to try and hit those high-score numbers. It feels much like the Shmup genre or other arcade-style games where the instant gratification of getting higher numbers just hits right.
These points can be used at the save locations to purchase healing items, different film for your camera, and unlockable extras and costumes for the playable characters. These are ideal for getting you out of tricky situations, but also make playing the game on higher difficulties for the additional ending much more manageable.
Wii Look Good?
Graphically Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse has seen quite a graphical jump from the original Nintendo Wii release. It now graphically falls more in line with Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water than the original trilogy. The character models are all of high quality, and the locations are all well-designed using a horror art direction, as fans of Project Zero would expect. The cast is mostly made up of young Japanese females, something that Koei Tecmo leans into quite a bit, and the detective character is a gruff middle-aged detective cliche. The ghosts you’ll fight throughout are a mix of long-haired women, bandaged men, or gothic-styled women. It doesn’t quite have the mix of urban legends that Black Maiden had.
Unfortunately, when you take a closer look, you’ll notice where this title came from. It’s riddled with low-resolution textures which are initially hidden by the cracking blurry filter that is consistent throughout the game. While this filter adds to the tension at points, it can be quite distracting in places. There is no option to turn this off, presumably as it’s done to mask the lower textures.
The ambient sound as you walk around Rogetsu Island is brilliantly fear-inducing and especially during combat almost essential to survival. You’ll need to scour the room, listening out for the moans and groans of vengeful spirits.
The game only has a Japanese dub so there are no cheesy B-Movie-style English dialogue situations here. While I’m not an expert on the Japanese language at all, the voice work seemed fine. Despite being a strictly subtitled affair, I still found myself invested in the story and of course got caught with more than a few jump scares as I slowly crept through the sanitarium.
Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse has always been seen as somewhat of a black sheep of the series as the only title that hadn’t seen an international release. Now that it has, when compared to the other main titles in titles it just feels a little uninspired in the gameplay aspect. That said, it is held together by one of the stronger narratives presented in the franchise.
It has some rough textures and an even rougher opening few hours but once you wade through them it’s a textbook Project Zero title almost to a fault. For series newcomers, I would suggest starting with this one and then going into Maiden of Blackwater due to the many gameplay improvements you’ll find there. But as a standalone title, it’s a slightly above-average game with a fantastic story.
PROJECT ZERO: MASK OF THE LUNAR ECLIPSE IS RECOMMENDED
If you would like to see horror games, you may be interested in our review of Dead Space (2022 Remake).
Many thanks go to Koei Tecmo for a PlayStation 5 review code for this title.
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