Diving back into the world of PS2 Japanese exclusive horror games reveals quite a few hidden gems, which were understandably but disappointingly never localized. One such game, the 2001 FMV horror game The Fear, is a name that shows up a lot but is still quite hard to get a hold of.
FMVs (full motion videos) were commonplace in old school horror games, from the games built around it such as Harvester (1996), The 7th Guest (1992), and Night Trap (1992), to those who used it for cutscenes or trailers such as Resident Evil (1996). They allowed for a more movie-like atmosphere, even crossing into campy b-movie fun at times, and formed as an effectively playable horror film in titles like Night Trap. Japan was definitely into this trend, and continued into the Playstation eras with a few horror FMV games. By the PS2 era these sorts of games become a lot more scarce, and one of the last released for the platform came in the form of The Fear. Going back and playing through it shows that it’s still a capable and quite enjoyable experience within an interesting but certainly dated genre.
The Fear, released for the PS2 on the 26th of July, 2001 exclusively in Japan, was the last of the series of FMV games the familiar name Enix published. Enix, prior to their merger with Square in 2003, released quite a few FMV titles spanning several genres for Playstation systems. Whilst not the best received of this specific form of games, it may be the most well realized in its genre and I would consider it a personal favorite of these ‘interactive movies.’
The Fear was developed by Digital Frontier, a surprising name looking back. Digital Frontier Inc. is a film production company located in, obviously enough, Japan, that has a focus on their large scale CG production department. They have gone on to work on some big projects, from games such as the Yakuza series from 4 onwards (2010-) and Metal Gear Rising Revengeance (2013), to live action films Death Note (2006) and both GANTZ films (2011), even on some animation in Summer Wars (2009) and two Resident Evil films Degeneration (2008) and Damnation (2012).
The rather simple setup to the game puts you in the role of a cameraman, who must find a way to guide a group of actresses out of a large mansion safely. Whilst you do things go seriously wrong, with supernatural occurrences threatening the lives of you and the actresses. This first person adventure game combines puzzle solving and interaction with the various actresses in order to progress and get them out alive. With an impressive selection of over 1200 FMV clips the game has a surprising amount of variance and content for what could be seen as an interactive DVD.
The starting cinematic gives us a brief introduction to the characters that will be featured, from the actresses to the managers and the driver. The girls, who give off an idol or talent group vibe similar to something like AKB48, are well aware of the mansion’s reputation and apparent haunting but most of them pass it off as just superstition. One of the girls, Yukari, is feeling sick, which leads to the viewer finding out just what sort of person Matsumura-san, their manager, is as he tries his best to shrug off her illness, and tells the girls to just take care of her themselves. It’s not long before the group arrives at the imposing mansion, outside of cell reception, and ventures inside for the shoot.
The mansion was originally built as a Russian diplomatic office prior to the Russo-Japanese War, before a series of vicious murders left four dead in the location, just to pile on the ‘haunted.’ Even more to that point, the general statement of the place seeing many owners and many horrible events relating to ghosts and horrifying monstrous things is placed upon it as well, just in case the foreboding nature of the mansion wasn’t enough already. As we find out this, so do the actresses, and it sufficiently puts them on edge as they go and get ready for the shoot. This is when the player is put into the position of the cameraman, and the gameplay begins with the rather awkward decision of either installing a camera in the girls’ bedroom, or the make-up room. We also find out around this time of the spiritual powers that Yukari, the girl who felt ill as they approached the mansion and who is brought upstairs to rest when they arrive, possesses.
Gameplay is split into two distinct parts, one being the exploration with some nicely sewn together camera swings as you look around rooms and move about. You can only move and look in four directions, but the ability to look about and search, even in its simplicity, is a rather nice feature. When looking at certain things you also have the ability to zoom in and focus on specific items or people. This leads to both dialogue and also to finding important or hidden items and clues. The other gameplay aspect is the dialogue options when talking with other characters, from that first decision on where to place the camera, to how you interact with the girls as they talk about the creepy nature of the place. Different responses lead down different routes, not always ending up all that different but with the amount of shots in the game there’s a decent amount of variability. Depending on how you respond your trip through the mansion will be changed. Occasionally the choices aren’t super clear, however a good rule of thumb for dialogue choices when they’re simply O or X, is circle is agree, X is disagree.
On top of the exploration and dialogue aspects there’s also a ‘Flashback’ system which shows a glimpse into the past or present in order to give you hints on what’s happening or where to go. This power is given to you by Yukari, who has the strange ability to project herself and view events through time, but who is unfortunately confined by an evil presence in the mansion. Her ‘spirit’ goes with you to help you, and she acts as a sort of guide when it comes to the supernatural events going on. It all feels a bit campy here and the game doesn’t ever really hit genuinely scary, but the game does find a way to be genuinely unsettling at times between the gruesome murders and the darkness of the mansion as you explore. Immediately after leaving the room with Yukari, you can turn one way to find a terrifyingly well placed painting of a woman with an eye bulging out, or the other way and find what appears to be a disembodied ear pinned to the wall.
Gore and the practical effects side of things is handled quite well, with some great imagery (the bloody ear on the wall, dead insects splattered on another). This imagery and the sounds are particular strong points in The Fear, with some solid visual effects, especially those on things such as the title splash at the start, and a generic but still fitting soundtrack behind the horror. There’s also general sounds around the mansion that give off a creepy vibe as they always seem to be coming from somewhere around you. The DVD quality of the FMV is also very welcome, as the visuals look great for the time and it allows for much more detail in the practical effects to shine through.
That being said, the special effects often look very dated and a bit too ‘off’ to be all that scary. Due to this, the fight sections late into the game look… well, awful, but it’s still enough fun, and looking back, campy enough to have a good time with. And whilst the visual quality is surprisingly good for the medium, the lighting is occasionally very dark (seemingly a stylistic choice), and though this adds to the atmosphere at times there are others where it needlessly obscures things. There’s also the small issue of the cameraman always looking through his viewfinder whether talking one on one with one of the girls or dealing with a demonic entity, and the others always looking straight into the lens as if it’s your face, but that’s all easy to overlook.
Despite a few moments of weakness, the acting is actually fairly solid throughout, nothing outstanding but still solid. Of course there are awkward moments where talking to someone brings them from standing still to moving into an action in a bit of a goofy looking way, but that sort of thing is common in FMV games. Matsumura is a consistent source of comedic relief early on, through his initial laid-back attitude when it comes to anything going wrong to his quick turn into self preservation, and each of the girls have their own personality that shines through when the troubles start. There are a few of them that don’t stand out much, and who seem to fill the same meek and scared boxes. But then there are those like Eri whose loud and fairly childish personality leads her to be a main voice between whining and being scared. The variety is nice to see, and your responses to certain characters can fill in the cameraman’s personality as well.
While most of the game is spent in first person, there are a few cuts here and there to a third person shot showing your character, the cameraman. It helps give a bit more context to your own character, and never feels too obtrusive to the almost ‘found footage’ style of the experience. There’s a clever filming tactic used whenever the cameraman is in a shot however, with the camera covering his face, effectively making him a camera on a body. This helps somewhat with immersion, being able to project yourself onto the protagonist. Cinematography is focused on in The Fear, making it feel more like a film experience during the somewhat well shot cutscenes. Even when talking with the various characters around the mansion the camera angles and the zoom changes. The camera always takes the place of your character but there’s a nice amount of movement as opposed to the static camera normally used for these sorts of things.
The feel of the narrative calls forward to idol based horror films. From AKB48’s Densen Uta (2007) in how the idols interact and react to the strange goings on, to much more closely Momoiro Clover Z’s Shirome (2010). Shirome (White Eyes) follows a similar setup to The Fear, in that a group of idols (though they never seem to be referred to as such in The Fear, they most certainly fit the bill) are brought by their manager to a purportedly haunted location in order to film them. They also both come as ‘found footage’ style media. Shirome has the focus of having the idols appear on a television show based around celebrities entering and exploring haunted areas, whereas The Fear has the goal of simply filming the girls being scared within the location.
There’s a total of 6 endings, ranging from good to bad, depending on which routes you took and how you interacted with the other characters. The different answers and exploration of the house is interesting enough to warrant a few runs through, and the atmosphere of the mansion is quite alluring. This is the sort of game that nowadays would fit so well into VR, even if it was still just as railed in to 4 directions of movement, the addition of being able to actively look about in 360 degrees would be phenomenal. It’s a fairly cliche haunted house story, but the effective imagery and the unique format lend something incredibly significant to it. The Fear has those elements of camp that most FMV games do, especially later on, but ends up finding a place serious enough to leave an impact. While it’s now a decade and a half old, a newer VR horror experience could learn a thing or two from this game. Even if the product wasn’t a game but simply a film experience you could walk through, things from the general sense of movement to the great imagery and use of the first person camera could be translated to the modern day easily enough.
In the world of old school FMV titles, The Fear could be one of the best, with its J-horror elements, themes ranging from demonic possession to astral projection, and the very well done and atmospheric mansion area the story takes place inside. Out of Enix’s selection of FMV games from the late 90’s/early 00’s, The Fear would definitely take the crown, in spite of being slightly less well received by critics than the 2000 title Love Story. These games never made it over to the West for a release, not really appealing to the international market at the time, but delving back into the world of FMV games in Japan is quite an interesting experience. The Fear is a fascinating piece of media, in both its format and quality, and also just a fun time overall.