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Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir review: Behind you!


There's a very special, very terrified place in my heart for the Fatal Frame series. While Silent Hill encourages (and occasionally forces) me to run away from its horrors, Fatal Frame has always required me to not only face my fears, but to do so for as long as my nerves can take it. With a ghost-killing camera as my only weapon, I learn that the best photographs deal the most damage – and the best photographs are always close-ups.

It may not say so on the box, but Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is indeed a Fatal Frame game, one that puts an augmented reality spin on the traditional, heart-taxing action. Unfortunately, in bringing Fatal Frame to the camera-equipped 3DS, Spirit Camera takes the series where it was never meant to go: your well-lit living room.

Gallery: Fun with Spirit Camera | 4 Photos

The meat of Spirit Camera takes place in a standalone single-player campaign entitled "Fatal Frame: Diary of Faces," and tells the story of the mysterious, titular diary. Legend has it that anyone who opens the book and sees writing appear will be spirited away by the Woman in Black, who will then steal their face. Here's the kicker: the Diary of Faces is a real book, as in a physical object included with Spirit Camera. In other words, that face she's about to steal just happens to be yours.

The diary serves as the window into the game world. Through it, you will meet Maya, a girl who somehow managed to escape the diary, though the memories of her imprisonment are foggy at best. Together, they must discover who the Woman in Black is and what she ultimately wants (and just what her deal is with the face-stealing).

While the diary acts as a gateway to a haunted Japanese mansion, domain of the Woman in Black, the 3DS serves as Spirit Camera's window into your reality. The 3DS stands in as the Camera Obscura, a magical camera capable of photographing spirits, a staple of the Fatal Frame series. The 3DS essentially acts as the Camera Obscura's viewfinder, introducing you to the spirits haunting your personal space. With my own eyes, I see my empty dining room. Through the 3DS screen, I see Maya standing next to me, begging for help.

It's a brilliant conceit in that it not only makes good use of augmented reality but it also makes fictional sense. Should I lower my 3DS, it's not that Maya disappears, it's just that I can't see her. That's the illusion anyway, and it works very well.

This is doubly true as Maya and I start to unearth other spirits trapped in the diary and it becomes a matter of life or death. As in other Fatal Frame entries, all combat takes place from a first-person perspective, which is to say the your perspective while peering through the 3DS. The Camera Obscura is capable of exorcizing ghosts, but it's most effective when ghosts are as close as possible and, ideally, just about to strike. I felt a real sense of urgency when I realized a ghost wasn't just creeping up behind some fictional character – it was creeping up behind me. Suffice it to say that busting ghosts in my own house was thrilling – at least, it was at first.

Before too long, a few things become apparent about Spirit Camera. First, the story starts out slow, graduates to boring and eventually wraps up on nonsensical. There are a few bits of recognizable lore for Fatal Frame fans, but by the end I'd had about all the paradoxical logic I could stomach.

Second, the requirements of Spirit Camera's augmented reality features are somewhat antithetical to fear. While the idea of exorcising spirits in your own living room sounds spooky on paper, it loses a considerable amount of luster when you realize it has to a very well-lit living room. Short of a direct light source or strong overhead lighting, my 3DS frequently had trouble recognizing the Diary of Faces. As you can imagine, it's a bit of a buzz-kill to have a genuinely frightening moment ruined by an on-screen message telling you that the AR book can't be recognized. My Camera Obscura was immediately transformed into an ordinary 3DS, and it happened often enough that I could never comfortably settle into Maya's world.

The flip side to all this is that, once you bathe your play space in light, any hope of a moody atmosphere is destroyed. Not that I tried too hard to create the perfect setting, of course. I don't know, maybe a dark room and a bright desk lamp would make things more unnerving. If you know of a local, traditional Japanese home with understanding owners, I'd suggest playing Spirit Camera there.

Beyond your personal confines, Spirit Camera does occasionally transport you to the haunted mansion, where they automatically wander the dark, dilapidated hallways and are free to look in any direction with the 3DS camera. These sections had a great deal more atmosphere than my bright dining room, offering a feeling akin to a theme park attraction, and it's something I wish was explored a little more.

Apart from the central story, Spirit Camera also throws in a handful of mini-games, allowing you to replay certain battles or remixed versions of events from the story. Finishing the campaign also unlocks an extended story mode with higher difficulty and more information, should you be willing to sit through it again. More fun than any of these extras, however, is the ability to dabble in amateur spirit photography. Observe.

If taking haunted photos of household pets gets boring (unlikely) you can also snap twisted portraits à la The Ring. Perfect if you happen to have gullible family members!

Spirit Camera is a very interesting experiment in the Fatal Frame series. When it works, the walls between reality and the Diary of Faces melt away, exposing an adventure truly suited to the 3DS. Unfortunately, the hokey story and technological limitations do the opposite, reaffirming the reality that you're just standing in your living room, spinning in place.

This review is based on a retail copy of Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir for 3DS, provided by Nintendo.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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