Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly
This game isn't scary. No, council tax bills and Monday mornings are scary. No, this is unsettling, disturbing and more than a little bit creepy. Rather than rely on gore and surprises to influence the player's fear, Project Zero 2 uses haunting music and sounds to enhance the decidedly spectral gameworld and accentuate the superbly crafted story, thereby putting the player in a location that is exquisitely designed to make flesh crawl and hairs stand on end. Rather than a horde of shuffling zombies which need to be laid to rest with a shotgun, Project Zero 2 is filled with ephemeral, ghostly denizens who float gently towards the player, moaning incessantly. The richness of the world and the range of subtle effects used to manipulate the player's emotions create a distinct sense of unease that settles like a yellow stained sheet over the back of an antique chair. The sound and graphics work in conjunction with the evolving story to create a world, which although frequently terrifying, lures you deeper into its morass like sirens on a Greek island shore.
Project Zero 2 starts off with a hauntingly serene FMV of two little girls out playing in the forest. One of them, Mayu, has a limp which works against the pair's favour by helping to direct the one sister to take a wrong turn somewhere amongst the trees. Mio follows. The two girls find themselves at the edge of a fabled lost village. This village was said to have been the location of an event so terrible and traumatic that the entire place, buildings, people and all, vanished from the face of the earth. It is said to reappear to swallow up the occasional careless wanderer, never to be seen nor heard from again. The distinctly fragile Mio and Mayu now find themselves in the unenviable position of being trapped in this village of the damned, with their only possible means of escape lying in working out what happened in the past to make this spectral village such a place of horror and foreboding. If they are fortunate, they may escape the same fate as those unlucky souls who now haunt the ancient wood and paper buildings of this forsaken hamlet. Unfortunately, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that the village's troubles started out because of the actions of two little girls, one of whom carried a limp...
The girls must work their way through the village, tackling the horrible history of the various buildings and houses all while trying to find a way out to freedom. Play is usually restricted to one character that must pick up objects and work out solutions from the clues dotted around the house. You quickly come across the notes of an explorer who visited the village sometime in the past. From him you begin to learn the true nature of the village and how to defend yourself against the horrors that reside within. The proton accelerator in Project Zero 2 is the camera obscura, a curious device which can capture the souls of the dead, thereby rendering them harmless to any of the living that they are seeking to consume. The camera can be steadily upgraded with the points you win from exorcising the ghosts. However, even as it becomes more powerful the camera can never dispel the constant sense of unease and dread that hangs around the player whenever they are immersed in the world of Project Zero 2.
Project Zero 2 owes more to H.P Lovecraft and Edgar Alan Poe than Clive Barker or Wes Craven. Obviously much of its aesthetic comes from modern Japanese horror entertainment, so small floating girls with faces obscured by a shield of black hair and other young girls trying to outwit the deepening sense of doom are all present. Project Zero 2 expertly crafts a game out of material that could easily have been a film or turned into anime. It gains a lot of extra power over its passive cousins in that it is down to the player to face their own fears and defeat the game's many well designed and immersive puzzles. The challenge of Project Zero comes from the way that the sense of unease that the game engenders in players can become so strong that you have to force yourself to continue playing. The story unwinds and reveals itself through the puzzle process and manages to ensure the player has a strong indication of what their current goal is, even if the path is obscured and devilishly guarded. As the girls venture deeper into the village the extent of the horrors that the hamlet has witnessed is steadily revealed, with the wickedness of the place reaching levels that can seriously put you ill at ease.
Fortunately the depravity doesn't become the whole story. Rather it enhances the sense of unease and dread that so characterises Project Zero 2. The story definitely becomes more and more unsettling yet the player's focus remains with the two sisters and their destiny in a world which reveals it has a nasty fate in store for them. Suffice to say things are certainly even worse then they originally seem and the revelations that come in the game tie in very nicely with the events that the player has witnessed and influenced up until that point.
The controls in Project Zero 2 are perfectly adequate. All the various functions are well laid out over the controller and although there may be preponderance towards too many screens for this reviewers taste I never felt there was an extra layer of challenge in getting the girls to do what I wanted. Saying this, the camera can be a fickle beast at times with the viewfinder having a tendency to bob and weave too much at critical moments, with that all important viewfinder occasionally accelerating away from the target before they can be despatched. The camera deserves special mention, for while it is almost universally fixed the angles do their best to be as unconfusing as possible and navigation round the village is a fairly simple process.
The animation deserves special mention as it is wonderfully evocative. Mayu has a limp so convincing you can almost feel her discomfort and in general the animation of the two girls recreates young people's movement so well that you may wonder if there's someone with an unhealthy interest in young ladies on the animation team. Joking aside, there's a layer of artistry over the realistic animations which helps to identify the characters with their unsettling surroundings. The ghosts move in a variety of ways, most of which seem to have been specifically designed to give the player the willies. While some of them will jump across rooms at you or appear unannounced directly behind you, most prefer to steadily advance on the player in the most threatening manner.
Perhaps even more suggestive than the graphics are the sounds in Project Zero 2. The ambient music is understated and restrained yet does a good enough job of making its presence know. But it's the sound effects that really freak you out. Chief among these is the camera proximity sound. Whenever a ghost approaches the camera begins to make an electronic buzzing sound. The closer they get to being in the right range for a fatal frame the higher the pitch of the noise becomes, until it reaches its climax in sharp burst of increased volume and angst. At this point you are meant to take a snap as the damage and score will be at their greatest but the noise is so downright scary that it's sudden appearance can be enough to slow reactions down just long enough for the spectre to get an attack in. Of course there are the obligatory moaning, wailing and clanking of mysterious objects that you expect from a survival horror game. The creepy audio recordings you find which reveal a little more of the story drop the temperature in the room, as do the occasional whisperings that snake out from behind walls. The thing about the sounds in Project Zero 2, like much else, is that they are not only of the highest calibre but are craftily integrated into the entire package. This makes for a game that is relentless in its aim of trying to disturb you enough that you can't take it anymore.
Project Zero 2 is to my mind the finest example yet of the survival horror genre. Even if you are not a fan of these types of games Project Zero has enough core gameplay to entertain and is devoid of the many idiosyncrasies which so often blight other examples of the genre. It is a great interactive story, in the sense that the player is dropped into this very convincing story and world and left to figure a way out to safety. If such a thing exists...