If one were looking for the gaming equivalent of Marmite, then the Survival-Horror genre would probably fit better than most. The genre has a couple of poster boys in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series, which have helped shape the minds of a generation of PlayStation owners. Loved for their involved storylines and oodles of atmosphere, yet equally hated for their often slow pace, awkward controls and an over-reliance on FMV sequences, they enjoy a feverish following in Japan and a smaller but no less fanatical fan base in the west.
The Project Zero series, better known by the more fitting moniker 'Fatal Frame' outside Europe, has combined traditional Survival-Horror elements with a unique focus on photography-based combat, and to great effect. Critically acclaimed across all of its releases, it has served up a fine example of the genre time and again. Oh, and yes, you did read that right, "photography-based combat."
Project Zero 3: The Tormented begins with an extended FMV in which it is established that you take the role of Rei Kurasawa, a photographer no less, who is tormented by guilt after her boyfriend is killed in a car crash caused by her bad driving. Soon you are dropped into one of her dreams with little more than a cheap modern camera, of no use whatsoever, and no idea what you're supposed to be doing. Eventually it dawns that you might as well allow yourself to be killed, since it makes no difference either way - not that you'll know that at the time.
'... the house is populated by a number of ghosts who don't share Rei's interest in fashion...'
Thankfully, this inauspicious beginning is not reflective of the game as a whole. On the next visit the game quickly builds up a more cohesive structure, allowing some freedom of exploration. You soon discover that the place in your dream, a hauntingly decadent house, is called 'The Manor of Sleep' and that some atrocity occurred there. As a result the house is populated by a number of ghosts who don't share Rei's interest in fashion and would rather destroy her will to love instead. Never fear though, because once you have obtained a more suitable camera you're ready for combat with a ghost.
Equipped with a decent camera and a good film, complete with the power of exorcism, you can defeat ghosts by taking their picture, causing them damage; allowing ghosts to come closer opens up the opportunity for a 'shutter chance' if captured in the act of attack. To do this you'll have to switch to the first-person or 'seeker' mode which provides you with a camera eye's view. Each successful photo gains you points and these can be used to upgrade your abilities as you progress. The better the photo, the more points you will receive, so, for example, a well executed 'shutter chance' will get you more points than a shot taken from long distance. Combos, where you capture more than one ghost in a shot, can further increase the points tally. Further upgrades to your camera give you new abilities which you'll have to choose how best to use.
To move during combat you'll have to switch back to the third-person view provided by the static camera and, rather predictably, most of the game's problems stem from this. The static camera simply doesn't give you the flexibility required to comfortably deal with all situations. It may be good for creating suspense but it's just a hindrance during battle and creates a needless and artificial layer of difficulty. Ghosts will use a combination of tactics, from teleporting right next to you to disappearing completely to reappear elsewhere, and there's nothing wrong with this; most of the enemies provide some good varied combat, but the camera makes it all the more difficult to keep track of and adapt to their tactics. Once a ghost teleports out of your immediate view you'll have to move to avoid their attack. But finding them is made much harder when the camera suddenly changes at the least convenient moment. Unfortunately, you'll spend just as much time fighting the camera as fighting the enemies.
Whilst Rei spends her sleeping hours dreaming sweet dreams, her waking hours, where it's always raining, are spent investigating what she has seen. You can develop photos taken during your dreams (better not to ask how this can happen) which will reveal more about 'The Manor'. Much of the plot development occurs during this time through research, conducted by your faithful assistant Miku Hinasaki (a former Project Zero protagonist), and FMV sequences; including the very informative Rei in the shower scene. You'll also come to meet Kei Amakura, an acquaintance of former boyfriend Yuu, and eventually you'll be able to control both Miku and Kei in their dreams. Each of them bring their own unique abilities to the party and are able to do things and go places Rei cannot.
As you progress further in the game another annoyance, symptomatic of the game's traditional foundations, is the sense of aimlessness. Early on this doesn't pose much of a problem, but as you unlock more of 'The Manor' it becomes increasingly hard to know what to do. Having come across a door locked by a 'mysterious force' for the umpteenth time you'll have a challenge to trip over whatever ghost you need to exorcise in order to open it. It's endlessly frustrating to see such a good game blighted by such an easily solvable problem. Much like the static camera angles, it adds an artificial level of difficulty, and longevity, which is not at all welcome.
Little criticism can be directed upon the production values, which never disappoint. The Tormented has visual flair and atmosphere to put many a rival to shame. The use of sound, always of importance in the Survival-Horror genre, is magnificent. Sometimes it will prove so disturbing you'll want to turn it down to give your overwhelmed senses a rest. It's worth keeping some aspirin handy in case of some post-session headaches. The only blemish in this regard are some rather stiff looking character animations, but this is mostly trivial and won't ruin your enjoyment of this great looking game.
It has been revealed that Marmite is soon to come in a new thinner and squeezable variety; Project Zero 3: The Tormented is every bit the traditional jar we have all come to love and hate. Genre fans will rejoice in its depth and should grab it straightaway. Despite being the third in a series of games, The Tormented still brings enough variety to the table to satisfy even the most discerning horror fan, its only letdown being the strict adherence to some archaic genre norms which only serve to restrict its appeal.