Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse review | frighteningly dull

Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse

Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, once a Wii exclusive, finally gets a wider release. But don’t expect a long-lost classic, Alan writes…


 

A Japanese game finally getting a long overdue international release should usually be cause for celebration, something Yakuza and Trails fans are already appreciating this year. So it would also seem to be the case for Project Zero (also better known by its North American title, Fatal Frame). The fourth entry in the Project Zero series, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse spent the last 15 years as a Wii exclusive, and was never officially released outside of Japan. Unfortunately, this once obscure game – co-directed by none other than cult developer Suda51, no less – is by no means a lost classic.

There’s at least an intriguing premise, with some of the No More Heroes creator’s recurring motifs also present, in particular the masks and the Moon referenced in the subtitle. The game’s set on the isolated Rogetsu Isle, where five schoolgirls were kidnapped during a strange ritual and later found in the basement of a sanatorium with no recollection of what happened to them. Ten years later, these traumas resurface; two of the girls suddenly die in unusual circumstances, while the other three return to the isle to find out the truth.

While the two most popular survival horror franchises to come out of Japan, Resident Evil and Silent Hill, have western settings, the Project Zero series takes its cues from the spine-chilling supernatural that can be found in both Shintoism and J-horror: the way flashbacks are presented in scratchy monochrome as if from an old VHS cassette being a clear nod to the Ring series. That psychological terror is ramped up by the decrepit abandoned locales, as well as the unnerving sound design, from creaky floorboards to the shriek of an intercom, and otherworldly noises.

Genre: Survival horror | Format: Switch [tested], PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One | Developer: Koei Tecmo | Publisher: Koei Tecmo | Price: £39.99 | Release date: Out now
Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse

Think of it as a spookier Pokemon Snap. Credit: Koei Tecmo/Grasshopper Manufacture.

The true vulnerability, however, lies in your playable female characters, who besides having a habit of being rather underdressed for the occasion, also move at a crawl, with a run option that feels somehow dainty and tank-like. The characters aren’t even armed in the traditional sense, since bullets can’t do anything against vengeful ghosts; instead, you take pictures of the spooks with a special camera, both its lenses and film having a unique power of being able to exorcise spirits. There’s a special tension to this, since it takes time to load up a roll of film; alternatively, you can gamble and wait for a ghost to attack before snapping them at the last second. Getting the latter is what’s referred to as a Fatal Frame – it allows you to briefly take multiple consecutive shots with no film loading time, which causes more spirit damage.

Sadly, these encounters are less frightening than they are frustrating in execution, and often happen in areas where you have little room to manoeuvre. Meanwhile, the pesky wraiths teleport or lurch out of shot, wasting the charge you had for them. Sometimes I’d find that a shot didn’t register even though a ghost was clearly in the frame. Even without the glitches, the game never really evolves beyond taking a shot of a ghost, waiting for them to teleport then reappear while you get in another position to snap them again.

Sometimes, the narrative switches to a former detective who also finds himself back on the isle. Instead of a camera, this character has a flashlight with similar exorcising properties, which feels like an improvement as it’s used from a third-person viewpoint and has a larger area of effect, making it easier to catch multiple ghosts in frame. Yet even here, the combat is seldom more than dull. (The assorted lenses and upgrades you can acquire for your camera don’t help much in this regard, either.)

Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse has some decent jump scares, but it’s mostly let down by its glacial pace. Credit: Koei Tecmo/Grasshopper Manufacture.

If anything, it’s the non-violent spectres that actually elicit some scares, partly because of the shifting camera angles and jumpy sound effects that signal their arrival. These ghosts often serve as hints for where to go next, too, while you also get bonus points for being able to snap a picture of them. Again, though, the camera can be annoyingly inconsistent as to whether or not your shot registered, and because these spirits only appear for a fleeting few seconds, if you mess it up once, they’re often long gone by the time your next film’s loaded up.

Where Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse really tests my patience is its absurdly glacial pacing. I can just about overlook the slow, tanky movement if other aspects of the game moved more briskly. Instead, everything is agonisingly slow, be it the long pause before you open a door (sometimes to find it locked anyway) or the wait as you reach out to pick up an item. You can generously say this is supposed to raise some suspense, especially as a ghost’s arm might sometimes reach out to grab you during the latter These moments are so comically telegraphed, however, that they’re easy to avoid, and soon become repetitive.

That you’re playing as multiple characters having to continuously traipse back and forth between the same locations, albeit with sometimes different arbitrary levels of access, only drags out proceedings. It’s rather damning that a hidden room that initially filled me with dread would evoke little more than tedium by my third visit.

Had this been a tighter, more focused story, I might have still found myself invested in its chilling atmosphere and haunting imagery. Sadly, the most frightening thing about this belated remaster is the spectre of boredom.

Highlight

Given this was a Wii game, the remaster certainly improves the character models who’ve had an HD makeover so that they look almost on par with the more recent title Maiden of Black Water. The same however can’t be said for some environmental textures, so you’re probably better off playing this in handheld mode on Switch.

 

Verdict

Creepy atmosphere isn’t enough to save this long overdue survival horror remaster from being a tedious slog.

48

Read more: Suda 51 on 20 years of  Grasshopper Manufacture

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