The two most valuable ingredients in ghost stories, the author MR James once wrote, are “atmosphere and a nicely managed crescendo”. Games often excel at the former, summoning a sense of foreboding through their environments, lighting and sound design, but satisfying payoffs are harder to come by. Two games released this month, however, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse and Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo, demonstrate the extent to which the medium can do both. Utilising entirely different genres — survival horror and visual novel — they exhume Japanese folklore to offer a compelling take on the macabre.
Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is the more straightforward horror experience, a remaster of the third-person game originally released for the Nintendo Wii in 2008. Set in the 1980s, it has you initially play as Ruka Minazuki, who arrives at a sanatorium-turned-hotel in the dead of night looking for her friends. The atmosphere is striking: each squalid, wood-panelled room is illuminated only by the torch with which Ruka swivels around deliberately. Strange noises follow her around as spectres occasionally flicker in the distance. Some are harmless but others have a malevolent streak. This is where the “fatal frame” of the series’ title comes in: your only weapon against the ghosts is an antique and unwieldy camera obscura.
There’s a pleasing discordance between the game’s arcade combat encounters — each snap of the camera delivers a flurry of hit points — and the rest of the action that, to modern audiences, may feel painfully slow. Ruka’s default is to walk, and her run barely picks up the pace. This, though, is part of the game’s beauty, a means of building dread as you venture down each stricken corridor. You also scour rooms for important objects — a pleasure in itself that is heightened by the game’s novel mechanic of picking objects up. Holding the “interact” button extends Ruka’s hand while letting go retracts it. Since each item is obscured by a blue light until the very last moment, you’re never quite sure what she will unearth. Thus the game deftly captures the unease of venturing a hand into the unknown.
Compared with other titans of Japanese horror, this is subtle stuff. The Resident Evil franchise has grown ever-more bombastic while Silent Hill’s psychological drama can now feel cartoonish. By contrast, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is interactive horror of notable restraint.
Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo is less terror-filled, but no less atmospheric — an anime-indebted visual novel set in a single Tokyo neighbourhood during Japan’s 1980s economic boom. Over the course of a single evening, a series of gruesome events take place: the result, you quickly find out, of supernatural phenomena that involve communing with the dead. Taking control of a handful of characters, including a veteran cop and a melancholic teenager, you must unravel the mystery, primarily through conversing with other characters with detours into light point-and-click-style logic puzzles.
Like Fatal Frame, Paranormasight evokes a powerful sense of place, not through 3D environments but in gorgeous hand-drawn backdrops of residential and industrial Tokyo and reams of site-specific folklore. At times, the sheer density of information can make the game feel like an interactive history lesson, but these details mostly enrich the experience. Where blockbuster open-world games aim for a panoramic rendering of space, Paranormasight digs deep into specifics, and is all the more satisfying for it.
With its compressed time frame, multiple perspectives and at times unflinchingly grizzly events, Paranormasight recalls Akira Kurosawa’s great 1950 film of subjective narratives, Rashomon. The motivations of various characters remain enjoyably contradictory. One wants to resurrect the Japanese artist Hokusai; another simply wants to see her deceased son again. Paranormasight might present itself as breezy interactive anime but, like the most effective ghost stories, it is ultimately a meditation on grief, one that crescendoes in a way that MR James would surely appreciate.
‘Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse’ is available now on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. ‘Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo’ is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch