Project Zero 4: Touched by the Moon

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And so it is that we come to the fourth installment in the Project Zero series: a game that never came West in an official capacity.

Known as Zero: Tsukihame no Kamen in its native Japan and Mask of the Lunar Eclipse in the West following an ambitious (and successful) fan-translation project, this fourth game represented a number of “firsts” for the series.

It was the first installment to not be exclusively developed by Tecmo. It was the first installment to leave the series’ original host platforms of PlayStation 2 and Xbox. And it was the first installment to make a number of mechanical shakeups to the basic Project Zero formula, which would become fixtures in subsequent releases. Let’s take a closer look.

Tecmo was pretty up-front about the fact that the fourth installment in the series was going to be a Nintendo Wii exclusive. Series director Makoto Shibata had been inspired to create the new game when he saw the new possibilities that the Wii hardware and its unique control scheme offered, and was keen to reevaluate the series with this in mind.

To this end, the project would ultimately become a collaborative effort between Tecmo, Nintendo — to whom Shibata had pitched the initial idea — and Grasshopper Manufacture, who contributed the considerable talents of Goichi “Suda51” Suda to the project as co-director, co-writer and designer. Speaking with Destructoid ahead of 2016’s HD remaster of his debut title The Silver Case, Suda revealed that he doesn’t like horror games and even rejected Tecmo’s initial invitation to work on Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, but ultimately decided to participate in the project. It’s not entirely clear what made him reconsider, but despite a dislike for the horror genre he had some previous experience thanks to his work as producer and designer on 2004 cult classic Michigan: Report From Hell… and a background as an undertaker prior to joining the games industry.

“Though I took it for granted when making the games before, working with two other companies let me completely review things in a big way and see what could make the game even better,” noted Shibata in conversation with the writers of the game’s official guidebook. “If we had worked on the same hardware, I don’t think I would have been able to do that. As for further improving quality, I don’t think we could have done that without working with Nintendo and Grasshopper, and I think that those companies cooperating with Tecmo raised this game up a notch to another level.”

“All three companies involved in the collaboration have their own unique styles,” added producer Keisuke Kikuchi, “so when we put together everyone’s opinions it was a complete and utter mess, but I think it went really well. The Nintendo development staff were really reliable with pointing out parts in the series up until now where we’d been vague or seemed to have made light of something, which I think increased the game’s quality. Also, Grasshopper is a company with great technological strength when it comes to characters’ expressions and actions, which I think added a livelier feeling to the game. Us at Tecmo, of course, concentrated on the fear for this entry in the Zero series, going to the very heart of a traditional horror game and tackling it head-on.”

Given the possibilities the Wii hardware offered, Shibata and Kikuchi decided that a core concept in the game’s development should be the idea of “feeling fear with your body”. They wanted to make use of the Wii’s unique control scheme to provide a feel of realistic, physical interaction with the game world, but also to make creative use of the Wii Remote’s speaker to add a new dimension to the presentation by playing ghostly phone calls and other effects through it.

“Previously in the series, playing the games while using headphones allowed you to reach the climax of fear by turning up the sound,” explained Shibata. “But this time we had a new challenge, and thinking of the Wii Remote speaker as a single speaker, we produced lots of things for it. Naturally, you can of course hear sounds coming from your hand, and there’s also the vibration function, and we also incorporated many different ideas, so if you can, for this game it’s better to put your headphones to one side and play it with your TV volume up high.”

The Wii’s control scheme also prompted Kikuchi and Shibata to reconsider how the game would control. Previous games had unfolded from fixed camera angles and a direct, “3D” control method where players simply pushed the analogue stick in the direction they wanted to move relative to the camera, but the Nunchuk-and-Wii Remote combo the team opted for — a setup all Wii owners had access to rather than requiring the separate purchase of a more conventional controller — fit better with an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective.

“It’s evolved to allow you to feel like you, yourself, are there,” explained Shibata. “Since you move the torch around with the Wii Remote, and at the same time look around, it feels natural when you look up and to the side of you and illuminate the area as you walk around. When you’re going into a scary place, as you’re walking inside, you can keep an eye out for the area around you. It allows you to do that. Because of that, when you’re going around corners in the hallways, you might also feel like ‘oh, I just saw something…'”

The change in perspective brought a new concern: the fact that basing the game around traditional Japanese buildings, where furniture tends to be on or close to the floor, was no longer quite so practical. Fixed camera angles often look down on a room from a corner or wall, making low objects clearly visible, but placing the camera behind the character’s back means that there needed to be a much stronger emphasis on putting things closer to the natural eye-line.

“We thought that placing things a little higher, in a building with both Japanese and Western influences, would be more fitting for this system,” explained Kikuchi. “The game is set in a Meiji-era [1868-1912] ryokan/hotel-type building influenced by Western architecture, but of course there are also traditional Japanese-type mansions in the game, and this game has a higher number of buildings appearing in it than any other game in the series so far.”

Mask of the Lunar Eclipse’s setting is a fictitious island named Rougetsu Island. According to Shibata, it is situated south of Japan’s largest, most populous island, Honshu, and consequently it is heavily steeped in Japanese (or at least Japanese-style) traditions. While there are less explicit references to religion in this installment than previous Project Zero titles, the core ritual around which much of the narrative revolves is a kagura. This is a distinctly Shinto affair, inspired by the legend of Ame-no-Uzume whipping up the other gods into a saucy dancing frenzy in an attempt to get a despondent Amaterasu to come out of the cave she was sulking in after her brother Susanoo proved to be a bit of a sore loser, to say the least. (This may be something of a simplification of this legend, but we’ve discussed it and related matters a couple of other times — here and here — if you’d like to know a bit more.)

The game begins with three girls, Madoka, Misaki and Ruka, all returning to Rougetsu Island many years after an incident in which they were kidnapped and lost their memories. In true Project Zero tradition, it seems that something went wrong with the Rougetsu Kagura ritual, apparently obliterating all life on the island and leaving nothing but a dusty trail of clues for the various protagonists to piece together and attempt to figure out what the hell happened and why.

Much like The TormentedMask of the Lunar Eclipse doesn’t fully spell out its story to the player over the course of its 13 chapters. Rather, it presents you with a variety of information over the course of its duration — some of which is more reliable than others — and expects you to piece things together for yourself. In this way, it reflects and explores what Kikuchi describes as a core theme for this installment: “the waxing and waning of human memory”. By keeping its narrative relatively understated, the player is left in the same position as its protagonists: they know that something happened here some time ago, but they’re not sure what, why it’s important to them and what, if anything, they can do about it.

Project Zero has always incorporated non-hostile ghosts into its exploration gameplay — partly as a “collectible” to challenge players, but also to occasionally provide hints as to where to go next or provide glimpses of narrative events that occurred a long time before the protagonists arrived. There’s a particularly strong emphasis on this aspect of design in Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, with each of the main narrative chapters often seeing the protagonist of the hour retracing the steps of a character who has become a ghost, discovering the things they had become involved with along the way. The brief ghost sightings are complemented by the obligatory survival horror memos and notebooks scattered around the place, along with various objects that can be photographed to obtain (often horrifying) images of the past.

Like previous Project Zero installments, the spirit-capturing Camera Obscura and the history of its designer Kunihiko Asou form an important part of the overall background lore. And, following Mio and Mayu in Crimson Butterfly and Yuu in The TormentedMask of the Lunar Eclipse features another of his descendents in the form of Misaki — though this time around she’s not the one who can be argued to be the main protagonist, and indeed her fate is left rather ambiguous in the game’s default normal ending. Again like the previous installments, the involvement of the Asou line isn’t the main point of the narrative, however; it’s simply a rather pleasing common thread that ties the various games together if you’re paying attention to such things.

An interesting twist on the usual Project Zero formula — and perhaps a reflection of the increased Western influences in the game’s architecture and design — is the fact that the story you gradually uncover is as much about psychological, medical horror as it is about pure spiritualism. Much of the game’s early hours concern the protagonists uncovering memories of being treated for a condition known as “Luna Sedata Syndrome”, an apparently incurable mental illness — and a take on the enduring popular belief that the moon affects one’s mental state. This begins with patients exhibiting a fear of anything that shows their reflection (a state known as “Budding”) and gradually escalates to “Blooming”, where they are completely unable to recognise their own face, believing it to be blurred. Someone who died having Bloomed has an unrecognisable face as a ghost, and the islanders were apparently so terrified of this that it became tradition for all dead bodies to have their faces cut off.

Luna Sedata Syndrome adds an interesting additional layer of fear to that which already stems from the oppressive atmosphere of the game and its setting. Medical conditions — particularly psychological conditions — that aren’t fully understood are scary, and it becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the protagonists’ investigations that the attempts to deal with the disease grew increasingly desperate over time. The patients were subjected to more and more invasive and horrifying “treatments” in an attempt to prevent them from Blooming — and potentially “infecting” others through a process known as Resonance — and, through the various fragments of story we uncover, we witness the gradual decline of numerous different patients, each of whom suffered a complete mental collapse in their own unique way. Ultimately, bereft of all other ideas, the medical staff started looking to metaphysical, spiritual, traditional means of potentially staving off the condition.

This leads us to a recurring theme in the Project Zero series as a whole: morally grey areas, and the feeling that it’s hard to think of the people who are technically “the bad guys” as being truly evil. While the staff of the Haibara Hospital and Rougetsu Hall are depicted as performing some truly unconscionable acts throughout the game, you can never really get the fact that they were trying to defeat a horrifying illness out of your mind. Even the kidnapping of Madoka, Misaki and Ruka was arguably done “with good intentions” — they were recruited to perform a ritual which was believed to have an impact on Luna Sedata Syndrome. Things, of course, did not quite go according to plan.

The narrative of Mask of the Lunar Eclipse as a whole is a great example of what Project Zero is all about. The story is complex, multi-layered and initially quite difficult to parse, understand and interpret, but a bit of reflection — and perhaps revisiting some of the game’s supplementary narrative information, such as the various documents and tapes you gather over the course of the game — allows you to reach a few conclusions. The game takes great care to not provide definitive answers, however; there are still plenty of questions to ponder after the credits roll.

So how about the gameplay? Well, as we’ve already seen, there have been a few fundamental changes to how things unfold thanks to the change in perspective, but one particularly interesting aspect that can perhaps be attributed to Grasshopper’s involvement in the game is the fact that the overall pacing of the gameplay — not the narrative, which is still a slow burn — is markedly increased from earlier installments.

Of particular note is the fact that the combat feels a lot “snappier” than in the earlier games. Ghosts move more quickly, but use more clearly recognisable attack patterns. The Camera Obscura charges its energy at a faster pace. Movement of your viewpoint feels markedly more rapid and responsive. Little tweaks like a Shutter Chance now occurring when your power is fully charged — and being clearly recognisable by your view zooming in on your target — make it a lot easier to get off a powerful shot. And of course, the “Fatal Frame” technique introduced in Crimson Butterfly, where you can rattle off a combo of up to three devastating shots by timing your shot to counter a ghost’s attack animation, is still present and correct, but it feels less essential to success than in earlier games. (It’s still extremely satisfying, however.)

A particularly striking change to the combat occurs when you play a chapter featuring male detective Choushiro Kirishima, who, from a narrative perspective, is the one who originally rescued the kidnapped girls, and who is now investigating the island for his own reasons. Rather than being in possession of a Camera Obscura, Kirishima instead has a Spirit Stone Flashlight, which operates by holding down the “fire” button to expand its beam, then “blasting” ghosts with it. It requires much less precision than the Camera Obscura and can be fired off much more quickly, leading Kirishima’s encounters to feel particularly frenetic and “actiony”; to complement this change in feel and pace for these chapters, Kirishima will often find himself facing multiple ghosts at once. It’s a fun variation on the series’ usual formula.

Elsewhere, the game tones down the typical survival horror element of scarcity by allowing you to purchase healing and “ammunition” items at any save point, meaning you’ll never get yourself into an “unwinnable” situation. The game counterbalances this considerably added convenience with the fact that save points are spread extremely thin across the game world as a whole, so you’d better prepare and plan effectively for any “expeditions” you plan to make.

The progression system is also now divorced from the score aspect; points are used purely for the aforementioned item purchases, as well as unlocking extras such as costumes and new equipment for the Camera Obscura once you’ve cleared the game. Instead, you now upgrade the Camera Obscura using blue crystals that you find scattered around the place, and upgrade the camera’s lenses (special abilities, in other words) using red crystals. However, since there are several playable characters, you need to make some careful decisions about how you’re going to expend those precious commodities, since a single playthrough doesn’t quite provide you enough to get everyone up to full strength.

Then there’s a completely optional but alarmingly addictive “scavenger hunt” sidequest to locate 79 dolls hidden throughout the game’s various rooms and corridors; these have no impact on the main game itself, but provide the main means of unlocking extra features and costumes for purchase upon clearing the game for the first time. Initially, you have to spot these dolls purely through your observational skills — there’s one per room, with a couple of exceptions — but later, the keenly observant are rewarded with an item that plays a subtle “chime” sound when you’re standing near one, making the later stages of the hunt much more straightforward. Even with this helping me out, though, I still missed a few out of the complete total by the end of my first playthrough!

And, of course, once you’re done you unlock the now obligatory new difficulty levels and Mission Mode, so there’s plenty of incentive to replay and continue exploring what the game has to offer once you’ve seen the credits roll for the first time. That first playthrough will probably take you about 12 hours — closer to 15 if you get as obsessive about those bloody dolls as I did — but subsequent runs will doubtless be much quicker as you know where to go and already have upgraded equipment with which to fend off the vengeful spirits.

Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is one of the most “complete”-feeling installments in the Project Zero series, and it’s absolutely criminal we never got it officially localised for the West. Thankfully, it’s surprisingly straightforward to get the extremely well-crafted fan translation running, and conveniently using this patch also skips over the Wii’s usual region locking, so anyone can play it. While the patch’s original website is no longer online, you can grab a complete package of the most up-to-date version of the patch via, including full instructions on precisely how to get it working under various circumstances such as whether your Wii is softmodded or not and which version of the system software you are running.

It may be a bit more work to get hold of a copy and get it working… but if you’re a horror game fan, you owe it to yourself to give Mask of the Lunar Eclipse a go. It’s a beautiful, emotionally engaging and downright frightening experience — and absolutely one of the best “unsung heroes” of the original Wii’s lineup.

More about the Project Zero series

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