The Augmented Reality features of the Nintendo 3DS are lots of fun to mess around with, but can they really sustain an entire game? That's what Tecmo Koei's Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir hoped to find out, with the latest installment in the popular Fatal Frame series (technically considered a spin-off, I believe). This time, you're using an actual camera to capture the ghosts... but does it work?
There are three modes to the game: Story Mode, Haunted Visions and Cursed Pages. The meat of the game is Story Mode, titled Fatal Frame: The Diary of Faces, where you come into possession of a cursed diary and use the 3DS cameras to unlock its secrets and interact with the ghosts in the world around you. The diary is an actual physical booklet included with the game, and has some nicely disturbing imagery within its pages. Each chapter has you investigating the diary for a bit and then using the Camera Obscura to defeat the unleashed ghosts by photographing them. There are multiple lenses you receive along the way, which are used to solve specific riddles. Most of them are not particularly difficult, although there are a couple that force you to really think outside the box. Meaning manipulating the 3DS and diary in reality and divorcing yourself from what's on-screen. That aspect, I found really intriguing, and I wish there was more of it.
Haunted Visions uses the 3DS cameras to take photos that can reveal the supernatural elements around you. Basically you take a picture of something or someone and the game "enhances" it with a ghost. There are three sections. In Spirit Photography, you take a photo of something and the game adds a ghost. Spirit Check, you take a photo of yourself or someone else, and the game adds a ghost. In Spirit Challenge, you take a photo of someone's face, and then it unleashes a ghost you must defeat with your camera. It's a cute novelty, and you can save any photos that come out well to your 3DS photo album, but usually they don't work that well.
Cursed Pages is a collection of four mini-games using the enclosed diary that are just extended versions of some of the tasks from the main game, including a hide-and-go-seek game where you track a ghostly boy through the pages of the diary. There's not much to them, and sadly, there's not much to the main game, either. It doesn't last long, and while finishing Story Mode does unlock a harder version (as well as stand-alone versions of the game's battles), it's still the same game with a bit of additional material. It's a shame, because the story is pretty decent, and some of the AR interactions in the diary are quite creepy. When they work, that is.
The main problem with Spirit Camera is that while the spinning around 360 degrees to photograph the ghosts attacking you works just fine, the diary is much more problematic. When you've locked onto a page and the image comes to life in a spooky tableau it can be very effective, but getting the camera to register the page can often be an exercise in frustration. You need enough light to make the page readable, but too much light and you'll create glare. And the slightest amount of glare on the page will throw the 3DS cameras off completely.
Graphics are good, although sometimes it seemed like the 3D effects were backwards, with a background mist appearing to be in front of Maya, the ghost that you're trying to help. There's minimal music, but the cues are effective enough. Oddly, only about half of Maya's dialogue with you is voice acted. The rest is just text. It's a little off-putting to begin a conversation with a spoken line and then read a few more lines, then have her speak the last line. Why not record the entire thing? That just feels lazy.
Seeing the diary come to life on your coffee table/lap/etc is a great effect, and looking around your own living space to interact with/defeat ghosts is a fun idea, but Spirit Camera is hampered by the limits of the overly-sensitive technology and the Story Mode's length. It's also not particularly portable for a handheld game, as you need to be able to rest the diary in front of you and spin around 360 degrees to see all the ghosts. Not something you can do on the train to work! But for fans of the Fatal Frame series, Spirit Camera might be worth picking up when the price drops (if you get it used, hopefully the diary is included, because it's required!), just for the novelty alone. It does have its charms...
A copy of Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir was purchased for the purposes of this review. Story Mode was played through to completion, and all mini-games were unlocked and tried.