How do you follow an impressively creepy horror game about ghosts in the Japanese tradition? With more of the same, but different and/or better, of course.
Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly began development shortly after its predecessor was completed, and eventually released for Japanese and North American PlayStation 2 players in late 2003, and for Europe the following April. This was then followed by an enhanced Xbox port, which released in Japan and North America in late 2004, with Europe once again bringing up the rear in February of 2005.
Interestingly, the game then got a complete remake for the Nintendo Wii in the summer of 2012; this released simultaneously in Japan, Australia and Europe, but skipped a North American release. It’s this latter version that we’re primarily concerned with today. But first, a bit of history…
Writing on the PlayStation Blog in 2015 shortly before the rerelease of Project Zero 2’s PlayStation 2 incarnation as a downloadable game on the PlayStation Network, director Makoto Shibata noted that part of the way the new project was designed was down to feedback from players of the first game.
“Players got too scared to complete the game,” he recalls. “[So] we shifted our attention to making the storyline more interesting, to encourage such players to overcome the scariness in wanting to see the end of the story.”
In true Shibata tradition, he notes that the storyline he and his team developed for Project Zero 2 was based on a dream he had.
“Thinking back about it, I recall it being a complete dream in many ways,” he says. “The dream was scary, magical and traumatic, and it had a perfect plot — even with a title and a structured ending. Thus, it was simply a case of how to interpret the dream and recreate it as a game.”
He describes Project Zero 2 as “psychic horror” which, to him, is based around what he describes as “never-ending loops of thoughts”. This was a concept inspired by the perpetual nature of ghosts: in most fiction, it is extremely difficult or even impossible to truly “kill” a restless spirit, and thus Shibata and his team reflected this idea through the fact a number of different spirits in the game make recurring appearances, sometimes in unexpected locations — and sometimes they disappear from an encounter unexpectedly, too.
Speaking with Team Xbox in 2005, producer Keisuke Kikuchi was keen to distance the new game from the concept of “action”. He noted that despite Team Xbox writer César A. Berardini’s claims that the press had regarded the first Project Zero as “too easy”, the team had no intention to “make it difficult, because this is absolutely ‘horror’, not an ‘action game’. We added some elements that players who like action games can try.” He also said that rather than drawing inspiration from contemporary survival horror games such as the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series, he and his team instead used them to “reaffirm what we aim for and where we stand by looking at them.”
The original PlayStation 2 release of Project Zero 2 unfolded in a similar fashion to the original game. It used fixed camera angles combined with a first-person mode for fighting ghosts using the Camera Obscura much as before — though attack power was based on proximity to ghosts rather than simply keeping your sights trained on them. It distinguished itself from its predecessor by making use of a setting much broader than the single house of the first game, incorporating outdoor areas and more “natural” environments such as caves.
The Xbox version of the game, which Kikuchi described as “Fatal Frame 2.5” in conversation with GameSpy in 2004, incorporated a mode where the entire game could be played in first-person mode. Kikuchi claimed that this was an attempt to “make the game scarier”, but also noted it was a bit of an experiment; at the time, first-person horror games were relatively rare, as were first-person adventure games. We take both for granted now, but it’s highly likely that Project Zero 2’s Xbox incarnation was rather influential in this regard.
As for the Wii remake, it followed the Japan-only release of Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen (Mask of the Lunar Eclipse), the fourth game in the series. It abandons the fixed camera angles of the PlayStation original and the option for first-person play from the Xbox version, instead incorporating the same over-the-shoulder third-person view from Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, along with its slightly awkward but by no means game-breaking motion controls and occasional ghostly “grabby hands” when you’re trying to pick up an object. It also fleshes out the setting and plot somewhat more with a variety of additional content and cutscenes, and features an unusual “Haunted House” extra mode unrelated to the main game in which players proceed through a spooky environment on rails, and have their “fear” level rated according to how steady they held their hands on the Wii Remote and Nunchuk during the experience.
The rest of this piece is based on my experience with the Wii version of the game.
Project Zero 2 is a story that unfolds somewhat before the events in the first game. Kikuchi claimed in the Team Xbox interview that there was no connection whatsoever between the first and second games, and while this is true in terms of the main narrative, several characters mentioned in Project Zero 2 make appearances as ghosts in the first game having suffered some sort of tragic fate after the events depicted in the sequel. Meanwhile, third game Project Zero 3: The Tormented is a direct sequel to both of the first two games, bringing a number of elements and characters together “in person” for the first time. Despite these subtle connections — and they are pretty subtle since, I must confess, to my shame, I didn’t spot them until MoeGamer Patron Ken pointed them out — the game stands by itself, so if you’re unable to track down a copy of the original, it’s as good a place as any to get started.
The game is based on an urban legend that states people who get lost in a particular forest find themselves trapped in a “lost village”. While revisiting a favourite childhood play spot for the last time prior to the construction of a new dam, protagonist Mio and her twin sister Mayu discover that sometimes urban legends come true; after following a mysterious butterfly into the depths of the wood, the pair become trapped in the village of Minakami… and they’re not alone.
Much like in the first Project Zero, it doesn’t take long to realise that something is very, very wrong in this abandoned village. Something terrible obviously happened a long time ago, and the result was the ruination of the village, its apparent disappearance, and its infestation with restless, tortured spirits, doomed to forever relive the events that snuffed out their lives.
With no apparent means of escape, Mio and Mayu begin investigating the situation, and in a similar fashion to the first game discover that the village’s current state is down to some sort of religious ritual that went wrong. The exact circumstances of the ritual’s purpose and how it failed become clear over the course of the game’s whole narrative; suffice to say, much like the first Project Zero’s Strangling Ritual, this is a rather far cry from a coffee morning with your local Church of England vicar.
While the first Project Zero made something of an effort to position itself as being based on Shinto and Buddhist practices — despite Shibata and his team having no knowledge or experience of such things — Project Zero 2 plays things a little more subtly. While the religious iconography and buildings seen in the game are clearly inspired by traditional Japanese religion, the narrative seemingly makes a specific effort not to say the central ritual of the game is either a Shinto or a Buddhist one.
Those influences are clearly still there, however; much like Project Zero’s Calamity-averting Strangling Ritual, Project Zero 2’s Crimson Sacrifice Ritual, in which one twin must kill another to prevent a terrible occurrence known as The Repentance, is based on the concept of the underworld being connected to our physical realm at specific points around the world. One such point happens to be beneath the unfortunate Minakami village; known as the Abyss, it is considered so taboo to speak of in the village it is always referred to as simply an asterisk in all the game’s written material.
This raises an interesting point that concerns both the Project Zero games we’ve explored to date: while both games’ narratives focus on a horrible, violent ritual that is expected to end in an innocent person’s death, in both cases it’s a matter of sacrificing one person to save many.
As such, the situation is much more complex than you might initially expect. Those that you might consider to be “the bad guys” in a more simplistic narrative — those who want to carry out the ritual — are depicted in both games as tortured souls who don’t really want to have to perform their grisly duties, but do so out of both respect for tradition and a desire to keep everyone safe. There are several heartbreaking sequences in the game where you discover the traumatic effect losing a loved one has on many of the village’s former inhabitants.
Conversely, the spirit who ends up becoming the “antagonist” in the case of both games is actually someone that the story sets you up to regard as innocent and helpless prior to their death — someone doomed to a deadly, inescapable fate. In both instances, it’s the understandably selfish desire this individual has not to be strangled, decapitated, dismembered and/or cast into a hellish abyss that causes the whole “ghosts everywhere” mess. You can’t hate them for wanting to escape their fate, but you also can’t help recognising that all this is sort of their fault.
In the case of Project Zero 2 specifically, Kikuchi cites a core theme of the experience as being “symmetry”, as exemplified by the leading ladies Mio and Mayu, the twins Sae and Yae from the time of the failed ritual, the fact most of the other characters mentioned throughout the game tend to come in pairs, and the symbolic crimson butterflies frequently seen throughout the game. “Tragedies and fear are based on what happens when you tear things apart,” he notes.
That idea of things being at risk of being torn apart is further emphasised by a number of subtle aspects of the game’s presentation. Mio and Mayu’s costumes are particularly noteworthy; they’re both highly feminine and delicate in different ways, emphasising the fragility of the two girls. Mayu’s vulnerability is further highlighted by the fact she has an injured leg and limps around most of the time; Mio, meanwhile, wears a frilly, delicate outfit that leaves her shoulders and back exposed — an outfit that leaves the impression it wouldn’t take much for it to literally be torn apart, though it manages to remain completely intact throughout the entirety of the unfolding chaos.
Mio and Mayu are torn apart from one another at several points throughout the narrative; as it becomes apparent that their efforts to escape the village are somewhat mirroring the events of the past, the more vulnerable Mayu frequently finds herself possessed by the vengeful spirit who acts as the game’s main antagonist. When this happens, the pair tend to become separated, with much of the game revolving around Mio attempting to track down her ever-absent sister.
The overall story unfolds in a somewhat more straightforward manner than the original Project Zero. Besides the “present day” action, there’s only one real “timeline” to concern yourself with — though there are several parallel narratives within that timeline, each of which is explored in its own chapter. The secrets of what happened in the past are revealed gradually over the course of the game, primarily through written documents, but it never feels like you’re getting an excessive “lore dump”. Interestingly, one of the game’s biggest revelations comes about purely through a piece of text rather than a dramatic cutscene; this understated delivery and the realisation of what it means for the conclusion of the story is oddly chilling.
In gameplay terms, Project Zero 2 follows a fair amount of cues from its predecessor, though its camera-based combat places a much stronger emphasis on the skilful timing of “Shutterbug Moments” than the first game. Basic damage from the camera is now rather low, so it’s in your interests to try and time your shots carefully to coincide with ghosts’ attacks, as these will knock back your opponent as well as proving more effective.
The major new mechanic the game adds to combat is the ability to perform a “Fatal Frame” shot, which is a perfectly timed shot during a specific animation, marked by a loud, piercing, chirping noise from the camera and a flashing light. Fatal Frames can, with the proper timing, be shot as a combo of up to three “hits” for devastating effect, and thus they’re an essential part of racking up high scores — something you’ll want to try and do since, like the previous game, points can be used to upgrade the camera.
Another addition to the game comes in the form of equippable add-ons to the camera. Besides the different types of film from the original — which all have their own “reload” time now as well as delivering varying amounts of damage — you can also equip up to three lenses on the camera, each of which provide various types of benefit when triggered using accumulated points in a gauge. Red lenses tend to focus on increasing damage, blue lenses on having a special effect on ghosts (such as stunning them, knocking them back or slowing them) and green lenses on something beneficial for you (such as increasing the points you earn, widening the timing window for Fatal Frame shots or temporarily making ghosts easier to see).
Here lies one of the interesting things about Project Zero 2 — and also about not just the series in general, but about Japanese horror games in particular. In short, they never forget that they are games. While in your first playthrough the game gently encourages you to “method act” the protagonist, take your time to explore and enjoy the narrative side of things without worrying too much about core mechanics — although I do encourage you to master dealing heavy damage as quickly as possible, as saving film for tough encounters is very important! — from that point on, you can enjoy it as you see fit.
You can dress the characters up in various outfits — though sadly the bikini outfits only appeared in the Japanese version — and apply various new effects to the camera. You can take on more challenging difficulty levels, attempt to see different endings or just see how quickly you can get through the game; you even get a letter-grade ranking at the conclusion based on how long you took and the total number of points you accumulated in that runthrough.
Contrast this with a Western-developed horror game like Outlast or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, in which once you’ve experienced the narrative once there’s really very little reason to return — it’s a world away. While Project Zero 2 will probably take you about ten hours or so to beat your first time through, that doesn’t have to be the end of your time with the game. Indeed, the total amount of enjoyment you can get out of the game can potentially be significantly more: between the multiple endings, the ranking system, the costumes, the unlockables and, hell, even the other platforms’ versions of the game if you’re feeling really adventurous and devoted… there’s a lot of game here to enjoy.
Project Zero 2 is a great experience, whichever of its various incarnations you decide to go for. It’s an underappreciated masterpiece of interactive horror — and remains well worth your time even so many years after its original PlayStation 2 release.
More about the Project Zero series
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