- Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir
- CLR Rating:
Release Date: June 29, 2012
Developer: Tecmo Koei
Genre: Survival horror, augmented reality
Augmented Reality Bites
Horror films are a big deal to me. It was not long ago that I had an account with LoveFilm which was filled to the brim with the best and worst of the genre; from classics like The Shining to utter tat like The Ruins. While they’re generally classed as the lowest denominator of cinema – a bastion of crude jump scares and blood spatter effects – I find them more often than not to be genuinely entertaining, even if it’s not for all the right reasons. They’re good fun, especially enjoyed with the right company, when even the more sinister and insidious titles can be enjoyed without ramification (read: nightmares).
Horror games, on the other hand, are an entirely different story. You can cover your eyes during a horror film, you can distance yourself from the fear – but the best you can do when playing a game is throw the controller down and gibber uncontrollably while the Shibito swoop down upon you and ravage your soul. Letting yourself be overwhelmed while playing a horror game is a guaranteed death sentence, and the aim of the game tends to be keeping your head together long enough to reach the next checkpoint. Titles like Silent Hill, Forbidden Siren and Fatal Frame have been instilling a sense of unease that slowly escalates to pure terror for over a decade now. Spirit Camera, which is considered a spin-off from the acclaimed Fatal Frame series, has a whole lot of living up to do, which is pretty difficult considering everyone in it is dead.
This is the first 3DS title I’ve encountered which uses augmented reality (AR) as a key gameplay device rather than a mere gimmick or mini-game; vital to play is the mysterious purple memoir which contains a multitude of disturbing images that only become more gruesome when you hold the 3DS’s camera above it, the 3DS functioning as the game’s “Camera Obscura”. Once the camera has locked on to the page in front of it, with only specific pages responding at certain points throughout the story, the plot unfolds and enemies appear along with strange writing and bloodstains. Unfortunately, the camera is a tad fussy about where you hold it, and even the slightest shake of the hand can break the experience, leaving the player with only white noise and a “page not found” message. It’s like surfing the Internet circa the AOL years.
Reading the memoir through the lens of the Camera Obscura transports the player to a haunted house under the rule of a spectre known as the Woman in Black. This successfully pushed all of my heebie-jeebie buttons as the only supernatural phenomena that truly send shivers down my spine are the aforementioned woman in black and the headless horseman. Upon discovering who the game’s main antagonist was, I balked. Soldiering on, however, a second ghost is introduced – the amicable and entirely benign Maya, who has been trapped in the house and needs your help to break her free from the curse of the memoir. Unfortunately, reading the memoir has exposed you to the curse as well, evidenced by the strange black scrawl that appears on a previously blank page.
In order to discover the secret of the house and escape the curse, you encounter and battle ghosts from the memoir and the house using the Camera Obscura – taking photographs of the ghosts at crucial moments leads to their untimely demise. You do battle with all sorts of unsavoury types, from staggering, bloodstained long-haired young girls to bodiless hands which reach out from the memoir’s pages to grab and tear at you. Enemies wander the very room you are playing in, and you must hunt for them with your camera – there is something mildy unnerving about seeing a young man’s corpse dangling above your pillow. While inventive, this method of combat is blighted when enemies are dependent on the book pages; while some wander freely around the room, others (such as the hands) reach out from the memoir. Successfully angling the camera to keep the page in view whilst simultaneously battling a foe in motion is no easy task, and any difficulty comes from these flaws rather than gameplay design.
But the biggest flaw with Spirit Camera is more straightforward: it is only truly scary to the audience that is too young to play it. With a PEGI rating of 16, it’s too intense for the majority of younger players, but completely old hat for older ones. It uses your typical horror tropes in ways which could be successful, were the target audience not already intimately familiar with them. At one point the game asks you to take a photograph of yourself, and it later displays this picture with a “curse” upon it – the eyes and mouth scratched out. I last saw this technique used in the Jane Goldman adaptation of The Woman In Black, and the shiver that went down my spine was from the memory of that film, not from the experience I was holding in my hands.
While the premise of the game is be no means a bad one, the AR is still not quite advanced enough to produce the scares that could simply be conjured within the screen. As the 3DS requires a light source to be able to see the pages, the player must sit in broad daylight for the game to work – hardly the most stimulating environment to be playing a horror title in. Dogged by these issues, Spirit Camera falters when it comes to fear, and while the game has moments of fun and intrigue, it lacks the soul found in other titles in the Fatal Frame series. If you want an authentic horror experience, you’d be best looking to the older games. Sure, they may not be in 3D and the ghosts might not materialise in your bedroom, but they’ll scare you stupid – which is what what horror gamers want in the first place.