Project Zero 3: Sleep, Priestess, Lie in Peace

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For me, a good horror game is hard work.

I don’t mean that it’s a chore to play or anything like that; I mean that engaging with it to the fullest is a genuinely taxing experience from at the very least a mental perspective… and possibly a physical one too.

As I sit here typing this, still somewhat breathless after the genuinely exhausting finale of Project Zero 3: The Tormented, I can confirm that the third installment in this series is emphatically a good horror game.

The Tormented, released in 2005 in Japan and North America and early 2006 in Europe, represents the series as a whole evolving in a few ways. It’s a significantly longer game, clocking in at over twice the duration of the previous two games and, in contrast to the relationship between the first two installments, it’s an actual direct sequel.

Specifically, it follows up on the fate of Project Zero protagonist Miku in some detail, but it also makes reference to what happened to Crimson Butterfly’s protagonist Mio after the tragic events of that game. This isn’t to say that knowledge of the first two games is required to appreciate The Tormented, mind, but the experience is significantly enhanced if you play it while both of the previous games are fresh in your mind.

In Project Zero 3, you initially take on the role of Rei Kurosawa, a freelance photographer who recently suffered the loss of her fiancee Yuu in a car accident she believes was her fault. While researching and taking photographs of a mysterious old manor that is the subject of various urban legends, she sees a vision of Yuu and follows him; in doing so, she falls under a curse in which sole survivors of disaster or tragedy suffer recurring lucid nightmares of a “Manor of Sleep” in which they are tormented by the ghosts of the departed.

Rei isn’t the only person to be trapped in the Manor by her survivor’s guilt. In the canonical ending to the first Project Zero, protagonist Miku was the sole survivor of the curse of the mansion, with her brother Mafuyu voluntarily remaining behind — a decision implied to have fatal consequences — to calm the vengeful spirit of Kirie, the Rope Shrine Maiden. She was taken in by Yuu and Rei (yes, the combination of their names being the Japanese word for “ghost” is almost certainly deliberate) to fulfil a promise Yuu made to Mafuyu, but retains an enormous sense of guilt over leaving her brother behind. As such, shortly after Rei starts experiencing her dreams of the Manor of Sleep, Miku starts having them too — though, curiously, Rei finds herself able to experience them alongside her.

And then, as the game progresses, we learn of Kei Amakura, uncle of Crimson Butterfly leads Mio and Mayu, and friend of both Mafuyu and Yuu. Kei was working with Yuu to research the Kuze Shrine, the mansion Rei and Miku are seen investigating at the outset of the game and the real-world counterpart to the Manor of Sleep, but also found himself afflicted by the curse — perhaps because he, too, has suffered loss. Not only did he lose Yuu and Mafuyu as a result of their respective fates, he lost Mayu as a consequence of the tragic canonical ending to Crimson Butterfly, and is at risk of losing Mio, too, since she has also become trapped in the Manor of Sleep.

Complicated? Perhaps, but all this setup does a great job of tying the three games together with a strong sense of coherence. And, as we’ll explore more in a moment, the narrative aspects are not the only means through which The Tormented does this.

Speaking with the writers of the official guidebook for the game, series director Makoto Shibata noted that, once again, the concept for the third installment came to him not long after finishing work on Crimson Butterfly. This time around, it wasn’t a dream or a vision that provided inspiration, however; it was the atmosphere created by a distinct colour scheme.

“We had the image colour from the start,” said Shibata. “Not only falling snow, but also monochrome creating a cold feeling. And then the blue tattoo violating the skin. Something more simply frightening than [Crimson Butterfly]. A stronger kind of horror.”

Indeed, much as the two previous Project Zero games made sparing but effective use of colour, so too does The Tormented. This time around, the most prominent colour is a rather sombre blue, reflecting the game’s core themes of dreams, sleep, sadness and loss. Shibata and his team also wanted to experiment with the idea of moving between dreams and reality to provide a contrast between two different settings.

“We had the concept of the fear that arises through confronting things you don’t understand,” said series producer Keisuke Kikuchi. “We gave ourselves the task of making it confusing, thinking it would immerse the player even deeper into the world. While playing, you reason out various things, which I think is interesting.”

Structurally, the game alternates between sequences in the “real world” and the Manor of Sleep. While Rei is awake, you’re able to explore her house, talk to Miku, research things you might have learned in the Manor by making use of Yuu’s library of documents and books, develop photographs and even pet her cat Ruri.

Rei’s house is initially set up to feel like a “safe haven” from the horrors of the Manor, but as the game progresses, things seemingly start to bleed over from the dream world into reality. These incidents range from obviously strange happenings such as apparent ghost sightings to more subtle changes in the environment. My favourite example of the latter is an unexplained dark, damp stain on one of the walls of the house that gradually expands over the course of the game until, in its final chapters, it almost looks like there’s a screaming face “trapped” in it. Whether or not these things are actually happening in Rei’s house is left up to the player’s interpretation; they may simply be stress- or sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations.

Once you choose to send Rei to sleep for the night, that chapter’s Manor of Sleep sequence begins. Here we’re into more conventional Project Zero territory: you’re in a dark mansion that you can gradually explore more and more of as the game and narrative progress, there are ghosts around the place and you are armed only with a ghost-blasting Camera Obscura… once you find it, of course.

What’s particularly interesting about the Manor of Sleep sequences is that Shibata and company made no attempt whatsoever to make the layout of the overall map make any sort of sense whatsoever. The place is full of multiple routes to get to the same place, parallel corridors that look identical but lead to different destinations and rooms that seemingly change their layout each time you visit them. Once Miku and Kei enter the picture, there are even sequences where you revisit locales from the first two Project Zero games — but even here the game messes with your head by making certain doors lead to completely different places to what you might expect if the original games’ maps are still fresh in your mind.

The reason for this is that the Manor of Sleep is supposed to feel like a nightmare — and it really does. The first time you visit the twisted version of the first game’s Himuro Mansion, it’s hard not to feel confused and disoriented by the way rooms are laid out completely differently to how you might expect them to be. But even outside of the explicit references to the previous two games’ locales, the mansion is designed to be deliberately confusing to navigate — at least initially.

One way in which the game reflects the sense of “recurring nightmares” is the means through which the Manor’s layout, as seemingly nonsensical as it is to begin with, becomes increasingly familiar as you progress through the narrative, much as a real recurring dream becomes almost comfortably predictable and familiar the more you experience it.

The further you go in the game, the more places you can access and the more “shortcuts” and alternative routes become unsealed and unlocked, allowing you to get around more efficiently. After a few chapters, you’ll start to notice that the monochrome “flashes” of various rooms and areas before the action proper starts are effectively giving you explicit instructions as to where you need to go to complete that chapter’s objectives, and the more familiar you are with the mansion’s layout, the more you’ll be able to take advantage of this. That said, the game also rewards taking the time to explore things a bit more thoroughly with items that respawn in the same places every “night” and optional sidequests that reward you with ghosts to defeat, documents to read, narrative sequences to discover and new parts for the Camera Obscura.

The three playable characters add an interesting twist onto the core gameplay, with each having their own unique mechanics when it comes to fighting ghosts using the Camera Obscura.

Rei handles the most “conventionally”, charging up power in the camera by pointing it at a ghost and dealing damage when she presses the shutter switch. Like in Crimson Butterfly, Shutter Chance and Fatal Frame shot opportunities present themselves during combat — usually during ghost attack animations — and firing off a shot while these are happening deals additional damage while interrupting the attack and knocking your opponent back. As you proceed through the game, you acquire new lenses for the camera, which each provide special abilities — though unlike Crimson Butterfly’s similar system, only one can be used at once — as well as a limited “Flash” resource that stuns ghosts and makes it more easy to score Shutter Chance or Fatal Frame shots.

Miku initially handles much like Rei, but without the Flash function. Later, she acquires the ability to make use of a Spirit Stone meter to temporarily “slow time” and make it easier to keep track of ghosts, as well as “double-charge” the camera’s power and deal additional damage. The trade-off for her fancy abilities is the fact that her maximum attack power with the camera is weaker, and her “capture circle” in the viewfinder is much smaller, requiring her to aim much more accurately.

Kei, meanwhile, is primarily intended as a stealth-based character, since his special ability is to duck down and hide behind scenery. When he does have to fight, his maximum attack power is extremely limited, necessitating “rapid fire” shooting — not always advisable given the limited amount of film you have — and, like Miku, his “capture circle” is quite small.

One interesting twist on the combat is that you can’t see how much health a ghost has. This is a contrast to the first Project Zero game and the Wii remake of Crimson Butterfly, in which there was always a ghost health meter in the corner of the screen while you were engaged in combat. Even in the original Crimson Butterfly, you could unlock this useful ability quite early on. In The Tormented, however, the ability to see a ghost’s HP bar is locked off behind an optional and easily missed sidequest quite late in the narrative. This means you have to spend a significant proportion of the game learning how much damage different ghosts take to defeat, and how much of which type of film it takes to inflict that damage. It adds a fun bit of tension to the combat without being frustrating — though I recommend you try and make sure you obtain this ability before challenging the final boss!

Besides their combat photography capabilities, the three characters differ a little in their exploration mechanics, too. Miku is able to fit through small gaps the others are too big to crawl into, for example, allowing her to access certain areas the others cannot, while Kei is the only one able to move heavy furniture items out of the way of doors and passageways, opening up a few alternative routes as well as an important part of the “true” ending from your second playthrough onwards. Rei, being the “main” character, has no particularly special characteristics in this regard — though she is able to take advantage of things the others have done, such as passing through doors Kei unblocked.

Narratively, much like the previous two games, The Tormented unfolds in several layers. There are the personal stories of the protagonists and how they are attempting to deal with their grief and the curse with which they find themselves afflicted, but as the narrative advances the focus shifts to the events which left the Manor of Sleep full of vengeful spirits.

Once again, this aspect of the core narrative is a Shinto-inspired and morally murky affair that concerns attempts to keep our visible world and the underworld apart from one another. In the case of The Tormented, the way in which this is achieved is through a “Tattooed Priestess”, a young woman engraved with a sacred tattoo that, according to tradition, is instilled with the pain and suffering of those who have offered it to the shrine. In doing so, the Priestess takes on the suffering of others quite literally, suffering agonising pain in the process; to prevent her spreading her pain to others, she is then impaled deep within the shrine, falling into an eternal slumber in the process and keeping the divide between worlds safe.

Much like the previous Project Zero games, the main problems presented in The Tormented stem from the fact that the last time this ritual was performed, it went wrong. And once again, the botched ritual was the result of someone at the centre of it falling in love with someone and being unable to let go of those feelings of love when attempting to fulfil her “divine” duties.

Although there’s a twist this time: in the case of The Tormented’s antagonist Reika, all she wished for was to dream of her loved one once she entered her eternal slumber; it was a young handmaiden bringing that lover to her in a misguided gesture of kindness that ultimately caused the disaster. Men are forbidden in the Chamber of Thorns where the priestesses are impaled, see, and thus the head of the shrine decided that an appropriate thing to do after the kindly handmaiden broke this taboo would be to murder loverboy in front of Reika while she lay impaled on the floor.

Apparently no-one told them that not only is this How You Get Ghosts, it would also almost certainly result in the Unleashing of the Rift — exactly the disaster the whole ritual had been attempting to prevent in the first place. And everything else depicted throughout the narrative builds from that initial starting point.

It’s an interesting story for sure, and a great example of how Shibata and company have become more confident and proficient at telling multifaceted, multilayered ghost stories as the series has progressed. The way the narrative is revealed over time is compelling and provides plenty of incentive to keep playing — and, pleasingly, not everything is made completely explicit throughout. In fact, there’s even some outright false information fed to the player over the course of the game.

“During the game, there are lots of documents,” explained Kikuchi, “but there are also incorrect documents. The books were written with mistakes. They were put in on purpose. They were written based on historical facts, but misinterpreted, and then left behind. They were an element added with the intention of causing confusion.

“In that sense, it’s not like games these days,” he continued. “It doesn’t show you things in great detail. Of course, though it would be nice if it was simple, I also wanted there to be things left over that you wouldn’t understand just by thinking about them yourself.”

Indeed, in order to fully interpret The Tormented’s narrative, you’ll have to put in a bit of work yourself — both through tracking down the information scattered through the Manor of Sleep and in Rei’s house, and in putting all that information together yourself to figure out your own version of events. There are some very interesting possible interpretations!

“That’s what we were aiming for,” explained Shibata. “Not which interpretation is correct, but finding the scattered bits of information about the house and picking up all the fragments. It was constructed in a premeditated way to make it so that it could expand without things coming to a resolution.”

As I said at the beginning, a good horror game is hard work… and The Tormented certainly fits the bill, both with its physically exhausting finale sequence and its mentally draining narrative. You’ll be pleased to know that, as the conclusion of a “trilogy”, there is at least a happy ending of sorts this time around.

[Project Zero] 1 and had horror-style endings in which you can’t save people,” explained Kikuchi, “but this one begins with the worst at the beginning, so the endings of and and the opening of [The Tormented] are the same situation. We did it so the start is as bad as it gets, and the end is where it becomes ‘zero’.”

A fitting conclusion to the series’ run on PlayStation 2, for sure.

More about the Project Zero series

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7 thoughts on “Project Zero 3: Sleep, Priestess, Lie in Peace”

  1. Thank you for this detailed explanation, Pete. All those years ago when I bought and played Project Zero 3, I couldn’t fathom out what it was about. I finished the game never to play it again thinking that I wasn’t clever enough to understand it. It was unlike PZ2 which I love and replay from time to time. If I find the time, (I hardly play anymore) I’ll try this game again on my old PS2, with your essay at hand. Thanks. Marc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was really surprised by the ending to III just because it WAS such a comparatively-upbeat ending. I was expecting a really bleak conclusion and to need to play through again on harder difficulties, like Crimson Butterfly, to get something even slightly positive.

    I have a hard time ranking the Zero games, other than “II is the best”. They all have some things I really loved and at least one thing that makes me want to slap the designer who put them in – 4 had the piano puzzles, 3 has all of the backtracking to find ghosts to break seals, that sort of thing.

    OK, wait. I can put II at the top and the 3DS game at the bottom and then the other four are just kind of in a tie for middle place. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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