Following the relative success of the fifth Project Zero (aka Fatal Frame) remaster, Koei Tecmo brings the fourth entry; Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, to modern PC and consoles. The first time it’s appeared in the West since its release 15 years ago, and the first time it has been on anything outside of a Nintendo console. Does it have what it takes to compete with an impressive modern horror game slate? Find out in Gamewatcher’s review.
In an age of horror game remakes, there’s something rather refreshing about getting a ‘new’ Project Zero game that understandably plays like it’s a step back from Maiden of Black Water. For many Project Zero fans old and new, this will be the first time they’ll have got their hands on the elusive Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, and it’s certainly got plenty to please fans with. At times, it’s like stepping into the series in its prime, but that comes with its own drawbacks. When we took on the preview build a while back, there was plenty of promise on display, and some natural doubts.
The story is an intriguing improvement. After a prologue that sets up the story and controls, we are introduced to a young girl, Ruka Minazuki. She heads to the island of Rougestu off the coast of Japan with her mother’s warning playing in her head:
‘Don’t go back to that place’.
A rather unwelcoming ghost
It is evident that Ruka has a significant connection to the island. She was one of the five girls who were kidnapped by a suspected serial killer a decade ago. Their recollection of the event is blurry, and they are still searching for answers to the questions of what happened and why they were abducted. Naturally, there is something unsettling about Rougestu, and Ruka may uncover more disturbing secrets than just encountering ghosts. It’s a variant of what we’ve seen in the series before and since, but there’s something genuinely haunting and oppressive about the location that goes beyond the spirits inhabiting.
Once again, the Camera Obscura mechanics set these games apart in the horror game genre. By taking the best shot and holding it for a sufficient amount of time, players can inflict the most damage to spirits. While missed shots can still cause harm, it is significantly less effective. However, taking the perfect shot is easier said than done when malevolent spirits are closing in on you. The sense of panic induced by photography in Project Zero is likely comparable to the unease felt by a stranger asked to take a group photo with someone else’s phone.
Despite the game’s age, Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is a visually arresting game. This is mostly down to how focused the art style is, but fittingly, the way everything is framed is the real star. Project Zero games have naturally always been about framing the terrors you witness in the best way possible in order to get the best attack in, but I’m talking about Mask of the Lunar Eclipse as a whole. Every shot of a ghost appearing. Every room that lays out in front of the player. A humble yet striking style to the game’s presentation evokes the J-Horror boom the series was born from. I felt some of that was lost in the glossier Maiden of Black Water, which is somewhat understandable given it was originally a six-year gap between the two games releases and how horror was changing in the medium. Here, there’s a lot to love about Mask of the Lunar Eclipse’s relatively restrained direction and style.
One thing that was less than bewitching about Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is the controls. Ruka and company move at an incredibly slow pace, with a ‘run’ that would see you get outpaced by speed walkers and people who wander aimlessly in supermarket aisles. Running is rarely the point in Project Zero games, I know, but the game throws up moments where quick readjustment is needed in tight spaces, and it just isn’t there.
What is the connection between these girls and the island?
During an early ghost encounter, Ruka is confined to a fairly snug corridor, and it makes targeting the ghost difficult because it, of course, has the ability to shift through walls and reappear somewhere else. So the first time I went through this part, I found myself getting jumped constantly before I could collect myself and take aim again. Part of this is a quirk of learning the controls (which do tend to be a bit too busy for their own good), but it derailed my growing enthusiasm.
As the game progresses, it becomes clear that it’s a recurrent issue, albeit one that isn’t present in every situation. Tight spaces make for suffocating horror, however, such environments do not lend themselves well to Mask of the Lunar Eclipse’s mechanics. Nonetheless, this is more of a continuing annoyance than a game-breaking issue.
What it does do is pull a cloud over so much potential and promise in Mask of the Lunar Eclipse. The atmosphere is fantastic and the slow-cooked supernatural horror is a tonic for the relentless nature of many modern prominent horror games, but still, the controls jab at you with a knitting needle every now and again to remind you of their shortcomings. Context tells you this is simply a remaster of a game from an entirely different landscape in gaming. Fifteen years is an eternity in the world of video games, and naturally, not everything continues to shine as time marches on.
Therefore, I can largely forgive its issues, since a remake would be somewhat unfair to an already underserved game. Without fundamentally altering the underlying experience, there is not much that can be done to fix things. However, what Mask of the Lunar Eclipse has in its favor tips the balance towards the positive.
PROJECT ZERO: MASK OF THE LUNAR ECLIPSE VERDICT
For better or worse, Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse brings an underplayed fifteen-year-old horror game to Western audiences in a well-preserved state. There’s a fantastic atmosphere and the horror is well-framed and executed with impressive restraint, but control issues of the time carry through to this remaster.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Unraveling the mystery at the center of the story.
Still strong visually
Feels more like Project Zero than the previous release
Story is intriguing
Purposefully slow, but can frustrate
Doesn't play well in tight spaces