Sometimes when you play games, you need to take a leap of faith. A leap that requires you to suspend your disbelief and your inability to see yourself in the role of the protagonist, in order to enter the game world presented to you. Looking at the game box, I could see a few chains around my metaphorical ankles. Firstly, I'm not Japanese. Secondly, I'm not a teenager, and finally, I'm not a girl. As you can see, Crimson Butterfly is one of these games. Thankfully, my leap of faith didn't result in me plummeting Wile E. Coyote-style into a canyon, ending up in a comical puff of dust.
The game starts sedately and serenely, with two twin sisters relaxing in a forest. The background of these two main characters, Mio and Mayu, is introduced through the use of dialogue intercut with flashbacks. For all intents and purposes, the twins are identical, save for one important difference. Mayu is less able than her sister, due to an accident she had earlier in her childhood - an accident Mio feels she caused, resulting in her protectiveness toward Mayu. Distracted by the sight of a handful of crimson butterflies, Mayu wanders deeper into the forest, pursued by Mio in a reversal of the flashback of Mayu's accident, leading the pair to The Lost Village.
'The Lost Village is a foreboding setting for the game - eerie and seemingly empty'
The Lost Village is a foreboding setting for the game - eerie and seemingly empty. This sensation is enhanced by the game's aesthetic design. The game has a curiously washed out feel - lacking in colour and texture. The ungenerous might say this is because of the game's conversion from the technically inferior PlayStation 2, but after a few hours of play, it becomes apparent that this simply isn't true. There has been an intentional design choice to make the game look bland and flat, purely to emphasize the dead feel of the village, and to make the few uses of vivid colour more symbolic and striking.
The whole aesthetic of the game is very cinematic, employing a multitude of techniques more commonly seen in films: colour filtering, fast-cutting, flashbacks, film graining, and other processes of image degradation. The developers restrict the use of these things so that each method becomes associated with a particular game element. Fast-cutting is employed with simultaneous controller vibration to provide the majority of the shocks - quick glimpses of spectres accompanied with a sharp vibration of the pad. Flashbacks are used to gradually reveal the history of the village, and foreshadow the fate of the twins. Black and white filtering, coupled with image graining (as if watching a very old piece of film though a projector) is used when you get to control Mayu beyond the sight of Mio, or to indicate situations where Mio is in mortal peril. It's all very clever and helps add precious millibars to the atmosphere of the game.
If you're starting to think that this sounds like a very strange game, well, you'd be right. Crimson Butterfly refuses to be pigeonholed into a neat little genre definition. It includes elements of survival-horror, puzzle game, interactive movie and adventure, but is somehow a lot better than that sounds. The pace of the game is very slow, and again, intentionally so. Mio (the sister you control throughout the majority of the game) walks so slowly she makes a three-toed sloth look positively speedy. Even the "run" button only makes her toddle along in a tortured jog. This may grate at first, but there is method behind this madness. It builds the sense of Mio's vulnerability, and generates tension, as she can only run marginally faster than the ghosts can move. The movement rate is also intentionally low because the village isn't really that large. If normal rates of character movement had been applied, you'd be from one end of the village to the other in a couple of minutes. This means that you're required to visit and re-visit locations throughout the game, which keeps you very much on a linear path. The game only makes locations or items within them available at the appropriate time. You can't visit a room and grab an object you'll need a chapter or two down the line. Whilst that jars against most player's conception of consistency, this is ghost village. Things don't need to conform to rational perceptions or make sense.
In fact, in terms of narrative, it's important they don't. I'm not going to delve into the storyline at all here - not purely from a desire to avoid spoilers, but because the gradual raising of the veil as you uncover more about the village's dark history is essential to your motivation to play the game. Don't expect things to start to make sense until you've reached the end of the third chapter, but bear with it, because the pay-off is worth it - especially when you find out the significance of what the Crimson Butterflies is, about mid-way through the game, and why the fact that Mio and Mayu are twins is of critical importance.