Spirit Camera is a spin-off title of the Fatal Frame series for the Nintendo 3DS. Unlike the actual Fatal Frame games themselves, Spirit Camera is an augmented reality game that is played primarily by moving your Nintendo 3DS around and observing people and spirits that are summoned into your room through its cameras. The game’s story explains this by saying that your 3DS is the series’ recurring Camera Obscura item, which has the ability to expose and exorcise spirits. Since the 3DS substitutes for the camera, it has a “creepy filter” applied to it, which makes everything you view through it look dark and foggy.
Spirit Camera functions similarly to some of the other augmented reality games on the 3DS. It comes with a booklet called the “Diary of Faces”. Each page of this diary contains obscure images and text, and viewing the appropriate page through the 3DS at the right time makes images, spirits and other events pop to life. In the game’s story, the booklet is a cursed diary. Anyone that reads it is cursed by the mysterious Woman in Black, who traps them and steals their face.
One of these people happens to be a girl called Maya. At the start of the game, the Diary of Faces is delivered to your character’s doorstep in an unmarked package, and when they opens it, the Camera Obscura—which is in their possession—reacts to it. Upon viewing the diary through the camera, you’re soon introduced to Maya, who has been trapped by the Woman in Black and is trying to escape. It’s up to you to help her and solve a few other mysteries along the way as well. As the story moves forward, the game tells you which page of the diary to turn to, in order to trigger the next event. This sounds really exciting in theory, but for a few simple reasons, it doesn’t function as well as intended.
For starters, there’s simply way too much explanatory text that breaks up the flow of the game. Early on, you’ll see a tutorial pop up every couple of minutes, trying to explain what to do next. This tends to leave no room for suspension of disbelief. I mean, I’m supposed to be talking to this ghostly apparition of a girl in my room. Why is there always a prompt over the Camera Obscura’s viewfinder telling me to press A to advance the text or explaining some other control function? Was there not some other, more subtle way to present these tutorials within the context of the story?
On a similar note, there’s also way too much dialogue text. Throughout Spirit Camera, you’ll have to interact with Maya’s spirit often, but unfortunately, most of her dialogue isn’t voiced. Instead, you have to hold the 3DS up so you can see her—she appears at a specific place in your room—and read what she’s saying (and then press A to advance the text). Again, this makes Spirit Camera seem incredibly “game-like” when that clearly isn’t the feel that the development team was going for. Perhaps giving Maya fully-voiced dialogue would have been a more effective way of making the game feel more convincing?
Beyond Maya, you also run into other characters, such as evil spirits that you need to exorcise. This is done by finding them using your 3DS, waiting for the viewfinder to “lock on” to them and then taking a picture to do damage. This is a fun way to battle spirits and would be enjoyable if it weren’t for the fact that spirits and other characters that you need to interact with love to frequently appear behind you. If you’re sitting down in a chair, tough luck—you’ll have to get up and turn around 180 degrees to see what’s behind you, then sit back down again after you’re done. And don’t even think about playing in bed.
The Diary of Faces poses a bit of a problem, too. To make this clear, I should explain that the 3DS requires a point of reference and to “see” certain shapes in order to trigger various augmented reality effects. This is why you get a pack of AR cards with the system. Without those, the augmented reality games wouldn’t work. In Spirit Camera, the booklet you get with the game substitutes for cards.
Unfortunately, it’s very easy to lose your 3DS’ AR connection with the diary while moving it around or performing other actions that are required of you. For instance, at one point, I was asked to literally push a door open by placing my hand on the diary. Trying to find the right way to do this was difficult, despite the bloody handprint on the page indicating where to place my own hand. If I covered too much of the diary with my hand, the connection with the 3D would break. However, if I didn’t place enough of my hand over it, the door wouldn’t open.
If your connection with the diary breaks, you need to re-focus on it with your 3DS. Re-establishing the connection is really easy and only takes a second, but it’s the fact that it breaks so often that can get in the way of your fun.
Another time, I was asked to keep this one floating hand spirit in view while also keeping the diary in view, and then moving my 3DS around until the Camera Obscura could lock onto my target. After numerous attempts to perform this action, I found I simply couldn’t. Either I would move too far from the diary and break my AR connection with it or I simply wouldn’t be able to lock onto the hand. At one point, in my confusion, I even did a 360-degree turn, just because I was plain out of options. (Naturally, this broke my connection with the diary, too)
Eventually, I turned to another of our staff members who also has the game, and she told me that this section only worked for her while she was playing in an exceptionally well-lit setting. In fact, it isn’t even possible to play most of Spirit Camera in a room that isn’t lit brightly enough, which is an unfortunate side effect of the 3DS’ limited AR capabilities.
I like the idea of a game like Spirit Camera being allowed to exist. It’s a wild experiment, and perhaps, with a less game-like approach, it could even have been an experiment that worked. Unfortunately, in its present state, it’s a little too volatile and there are a dozen ways for it to fail, which it does frequently. Sorry, Maya—you’re going to have to remain trapped by the diary’s curse.
Food for thought:
While Spirit Camera doesn’t have “Fatal Frame” in its title, the game’s story mode is called “Fatal Frame: The Diary of Faces”.