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. 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.
Suffice to say, the story is interesting and intricate enough to warrant your fascination throughout the entire game, but what makes this game special isn't the story, but the presentation of that story, and the way you interact with the game world. Crimson Butterfly veers away from survival-horror clichè by not having you fight zombies, but ghosts. As such, you don't get guns, you get a camera. You don't get ammunition, you get photographic film. This is a very special camera, however: The Camera Obscura. Also, there are several grades of film, ranging from Type-07, which never runs out and has a long reloading time and low exorcism power, through Type-61, which is fairly uncommon, but loads quickly and has a much higher power than the Type-07, right up to the Type-90 and Type-Zero films, which you will only find a handful of shots of, due to their potency. Whilst theoretically possible to play through the entire game with the Type-07 and Type-14 films, circumstances do occasionally challenge you to use the more powerful films, especially towards the end of the game, when you're required to take on multiple enemies with lots of hitpoints.
The Camera Obscura can also be upgraded throughout the game, increasing its sensitivity, range and capturing ability. It can also be fitted with a variety of lenses, which perform a range of functions, from slowing or stunning a ghost, to vastly increasing the damage a single shot will inflict. These upgrades require spirit orbs and experience points (gained from defeating ghosts) with three levels of upgrades available for each function.
Combat itself is out of the ordinary, to say the least. Whilst the Normal game mode employs a third-person view, combat is conducted via the viewfinder of the camera, switching to a much more restricted first-person perspective. As the camera gets upgraded throughout the game, additional functions reveal the health of enemies, allow you to more easily identify the Fatal Frame and gauge the closeness and damage you will inflict upon an apparition, making combat easier. Just as well, really, considering that the opponents gradually get tougher and employ smarter tactics and attack patterns. Towards the end of the game, you need to be well-practiced in stringing together combos and using the power-up lenses to deal damage to the ghosts quickly, because unlike the game's prequel, the majority of the ghost encounters involve more than a single enemy. Puzzles are kept refreshingly simple, and it's rare that you'll find yourself stumped to know what to do or where to go next.
There is a problem, however, and that's the game controls. Frankly, they're awkward and inconsistent. Like most console games, Crimson Butterfly suffers from erratic camera angles, and the imprecision of 8-way movement in a fully 3D environment. This is exacerbated by the complete change in the control set when you move from third-person to the first-person viewfinder. In normal movement mode, the left thumbstick changes Mio's direction. In viewfinder mode, however, the left thumbstick aims the camera and the right stick controls movement. Even worse, there's no facility to invert the Y-axis in the viewfinder mode, resulting in kack-handed aiming for those more used to flight simulator-style joysticks. It doesn't make the game impossible to play, but it can be intensely annoying when you demand fine control in the middle of a fight.
Thankfully, there is salvation, of a sort. In case you were wondering what that grandiose "Director's Cut" was for at the end of the game's title, it's there to tell you that Tecmo haven't just done a slapdash conversion from the PlayStation 2 and shoved the title out onto the market. Tecmo have re-engineered the game to be played entirely from the first-person, and what a difference it makes. There's no switching of thumbsticks for movement and aiming between the camera and movement modes, and the restricted perspective heightens tension and vastly improves the player's sense of immersion. Also, the aiming Y-axis is inverted, meaning that (provided inverted Y-axes are to your taste) combat is much more intuitive, it's easier to evade the ghosts, and there's a sensation that the pace of the game has picked up, because your viewpoint is more closely associated with the character's movement.
Had the FPS mode not been available, the game's score would have been significantly lower than the one at the bottom of this page. This isn't to say that the Normal game mode isn't worth playing, but more that the first-person perspective enhances every aspect that is good about the game, and makes the experience far more consistent.
Also worth a transitory mention is the Survival Mode, which is made available after you have completed the main story: Whilst a worthy addition that will extend the life of a relatively short game, I feel that its emphasis on action, rather than tension, misses the point of the main game. As a challenge of your reflexes, however, it certainly achieves everything it sets out to do.
Finally, a word on horror - before playing this game I was well aware of its reputation as one of the scariest titles on the Xbox. I have to warn you, however, that I didn't find the game that horrifying. Creepy, yes. Macabre, yes. Unsettling, even. But scary? An emphatic "No" from me: I found the horror, such as it is, is very abstract. As I noted at the start of this review, I'm not a teenage girl. Perhaps that leap of faith didn't go *quite* far enough after all...