Console Yourself: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse
“…whydoyoukillwhydoyoukillwhydoyoukillwhydoyoukill…” -Possessed Doll
Format: Wii • Developer: Team Tachyon • Released: July 2008
In 1980, five young girls were kidnapped on the small island of Rougetsu, during the Festival of the Moon hosted at the start of each decade. Detective Choushiro Kirishima, who had just arrived on the island in pursuit of murder suspect Akira Haibara, took charge of the search. Thanks to his prompt action, the girls were quickly located in a cavern underneath the island’s sanatorium, but each was suffering total amnesia. Frightened by what had occurred, the girls’ families moved away from the island, trying to put the events behind them. Ten years later, however, two of the girls were found dead in mysterious circumstances, clutching at their faces. A pair of the survivors, Misaki and Madoka, decided to return to Rougetsu, certain that the cause of the deaths could be found there. During the intervening years, however, Rougetsu has been abandoned by the community who once called it home, and nothing has been heard from either of the girls after their arrival. Now Ruka Minazuki, the last of the kidnapper’s victims, has also decided to journey to Rougetsu. Although her mother has implored her not to go, Ruka’s nightmares have convinced her that merely remaining on the mainland would not be enough to avoid sharing her friends’ fate.
Fighting ghosts using a magic camera innitally sounds a rather comical concept for a videogame, but the Rei/ Fatal Frame/ Project Zero series is one of the most adult pieces of storytelling the medium has been witness to. The concepts used in the games are strongly tied to both Shintoism and Japanese mythology. The source of the suffering shown in the titles is a corrosive energy known as Malice, which clouds the minds of those it touches, driving them to kill themselves or others. Even the deaths of the sufferers do not bring them relief, and their souls are unable to pass on to the next world, being compelled to share their pain with the living. Malice is not normally found on Earth, and threatens to leak out into our world through a number of fault lines know as Abysses. These potential gateways are kept closed through a variety of rituals, often involving human sacrifice, in order that the Malice remains sealed. In the late nineteenth century, folklorist Dr Kunihiko Asou made a study of these rituals, and the cameras used to temporally trap malice-soaked spirits are his invention. The games often concern themselves with the fallout from the failure of a ritual, with leaked Malice having destroyed the soul of the intended sacrificial victim or “Shrine Maiden” (despite the name, an equal opportunity position). In the original game, the Cursed Maiden or Kusarbi had run amok, slaughtering the ritualists present and any others foolish enough to place themselves in her power.
Tecmo’s announcement earlier this year of a fourth game came as a pleasant surprise, after the third title in the series tied up all existing plot threads and brought the trilogy to a conclusion. The series’ schizophrenic identity in the west, caused by difficulties in translating the pun of its title, means that fans usually refer to the games by their subtitles. Project Zero chartered the misadventures of Miku, who entered a notorious haunted mansion in search of her brother, only to become embroiled in a race against time as the curse of the malevolent spirit inside tightened its grip upon her. Although set in the same world, follow-up Crimson Butterfly has no direct story links, featuring twin sisters Mio and Mayu as they became trapped in the spectre-infested All Gods’ Village. While the previous game had featured a moving and bittersweet ending, with Miku’s brother volunteering to remain with shine maiden Kirie to comfort her in her eternal vigil over the Abyss gateway, Butterfly took this to the next level, with arguably the most shocking storyline seen in a commercially released game. Plot elements from both games were combined in the third title, The Tormented, released in 2005. Concerned with dreams and the creatures that live inside them, The Tormented took the series out of its mouldering abandoned houses, and into modern day dwellings. Although the games were originally released for the Playstation 2, Tecmo’s close ties to Microsoft saw Xbox conversions of the series being created for the western market, although sales were not high enough to justify this for the third title.
The announcement of the series’ continuation and its subsequent reporting in the western games media gave the impression that the new title would be handled by Killer7 creators Grasshopper Manufacture and their figurehead director, Suda 51. In reality, development duties have remained firmly with series creators Team Tachyon, with the original director and producer retaining their roles. Suda 51’s role in the project has been writing the story, previously handled by the team themselves. The nature of the series means that this is an unexpectedly critical position, with previous titles being elevated by the compelling drama of their plots. In addition, Grasshopper’s resident composer has handled much of the sound for the title, although thankfully folk-rock artist Tsukiko Amano once again has composed and sung closing theme, as one of the last projects before retiring from her solo career. In a move that further complicated matters, after the announcement Nintendo began to take an active interest in the title, sensing that the innovative and distinctly adult series could further broaden the Wii’s appeal. There’s a tradition of summer horror in Japan, and the console manufacturer opted to publish the title themselves in the country. It’s still unconfirmed when a translated version of the game will be released elsewhere in the world, but its sales success (in the first three weeks, copies sold exceeded the total for the previous episode in the series) suggests that it won’t be too long before the date is set. Like Crimson Butterfly, the game has no direct plot links to its predecessors, making it perfectly suited to capture a new audience on the Wii.
Information about the game was extremely limited prior to release, and it was initially believed that Ruka was the only playable character. While this isn’t the case, she does receive more chapters devoted to her story than any other figure. She advances through the game in a generally calm manner, being aware of both the gravity of the situation and her slim chances of survival. While other characters become engrossed in one particular aspect of the situation, Ruka takes a broader view, even when discoveries about her early years cast an unexpected light on her family. Ruka’s lack of memory is more than just a hook to encourage her investigation, rapidly becoming integral to the plot. Loss of memory is one of the symptoms of Rougetsu Syndrome, the disease found amongst the inhabitants of the island, and it is soon revealed that all of the five girls were residents at the sanatorium prior to their kidnapping. But the implications run deeper, as it becomes clear that some sources of information cannot be depended upon. The conclusions to each character’s story are both fitting and shocking, as the identities and motivations of the deceivers are revealed. Not only is not everyone who they claim to be, but some of the figures in the game aren’t even who they think they are…
While Ruka has just arrived on the island, Misaki has been present for longer, and has fallen deeper in its thrall. Separated from Madoka, whose fate is disclosed in the prologue chapter, Misaki moves around Rougetsu in the dreamlike state that series veterans have leaned to dread. She has the greatest sensibility of the player characters, being caught up in the tragedies of the souls shredded by Malice. Misaki spends much of her time unravelling the complexes and fears of the patients at the sanatorium, although the ghosts in question would rather be left alone with their agony. Her activities on the island, however, take a more focussed turn as her memories start to return, and she becomes intrigued by two people who once lived in the sanatorium. She experiences visions of the patient on the top floor, who she befriended, and a mysterious figure in black, from whom she couldn’t bear to be separated as a child. Surely whatever happened to her couldn’t have made her forget her own sister?
Completing the trio of leads is Choushiro. Now working as a private investigator, he is contacted by Ruka’s critically ill mother, aghast at her daughter’s return to Rougetsu Island. She implores him to attempt to bring Ruka home, although the detective’s research over last the decade suggests to him that he will be just as helpless as the girls once he sets foot on the island. Choushiro reluctantly accepts the case, but his initial concerns soon prove ill-founded. While the flashlight he receives from Ruka’s mother lacks the ability to drive back ghosts, it proves considerably more powerful than Dr Asou’s other inventions. Not having to squint through a viewfinder dramatically improves the investigator’s ability to avoid attacks, and the secondary filament at the heart of the device does not have to be reloaded, making sustained offensives possible. His arrival on Rougetsu differs from the girls’- he blacks out, and awakens on the ground in front of the Sanatorium’s east entrance, with no idea how he got there. Rising to his feet, he spots the fleeing figure of his old adversary, Akira, running into the building.
Once inside, Choushiro acts in a noticeably different way from the other leads in the series. Aware that the only way to truly free Ruka would be to seal away the Malice that has drenched the island, he begins a rigorous investigation into the events of a decade before, following the leads automatically noted in his journal. It soon becomes clear that the sanatorium is not as innocent as it looks, with several of the staff perusing secret research into the strange disease endemic to the island. Choushiro is convinced that the matter is of relevance, but were the macabre experimental operations the cause of the catastrophe, or a mere symptom of a deeper problem? Appearances by Akira occasionally interrupt his work, but the player is left guessing until the end of the story as to whether the murderer is still alive, one of the islands’ victims or something more sinister. In the latter stages of the detective’s enquiries, once crystals have been used to upgrade the torch, he initially appears to be too powerful. However, while the Kusarbi herself has drawn Ruka and Misaki to the island, Choushiro is an unwelcome irritation, and she has no hesitation in deploying against him the full array of cursed souls in her arsenal. The mass attack on the detective during his brief excursion into Rougetsu Island’s graveyard is a highlight of the game, but Sakuya is eventually able to devise a more cunning way to rid herself of Choushiro’s presence…
Confrontations with a vengeful Kusarbi have provided some of the series’ most memorable moments, and Eclipse’s Sakuya proves every bit the equal of her predecessors. Unlike the other Shrine Maidens, who quickly revealed their presence, Sakuya is absent from the game until a third of the chapters have passed, when Ruka unwittingly awakens her. Even then, she still appears to only make limited attempts to end the player characters’ lives, cutting a strangely lost figure as she wonders the corridors of the sanatorium. However, this appearance is deceiving, and the subtle nature of her manipulations becomes apparent towards the story’s close. Sakuya’s expression during the conclusion of Misaki’s last chapter is a masterpiece of facial modelling, and makes clear just how closely she has been controlling events.
Although still effectively running on last-generation hardware, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse makes several gameplay improvements over the original trilogy of titles. While the previous games’ used of a variety of controls to overcome the limitations of a fixed camera perspective, Eclipse subtly adopts the approach pioneered in Resident Evil 4, placing the camera behind the player’s right shoulder. Unlike its inspiration, however, the goal is not to increase emphasis on combat but on exploration. The movement of the player character is controlled using the nunchuck, which allows the player to walk forwards and backwards, turn, run and strafe (although the latter is of limited use in the initially confined spaces hosting the action). The remote functions as the player’s torch, which can be panned up and down to play the light across various surfaces. A small indicator at the bottom right of the screen indicates when something of interest is within the player character’s field of view, and it soon becomes second nature to move closer to investigate, searching the area with the remote until it becomes clear what the target of attention is. The camera which traditionally serves as the protagonists’ weapon against marauding ghosts is controlled in the same manner, with the spirits of children and enemies who attack from the ceiling again requiring the lateral motion provided by the remote. It’s an extremely intuitive system, perfectly suited to the gameplay. Impressing further is the fact that Rougetsu Island is streamed without loading pauses, with only a slight frame rate drop marking the boundaries between sections.
Structurally, the game is similar to its predecessors, with the story broken in a number of chapters, moving from character to character as the big picture emerges. Although the conclusion of the game requires a trek across the island, the majority of the game is set within the confines of the Rougetsu Sanatorium. The atmosphere of unease within this derelict location is enough to draw in first time players, although series fans will be more intrigued by the “Dr Asou Museum” found on the ground floor of the sanatorium- were the Rougetsu residents arming themselves against a potential Malice outbreak? Although perfectly consistent with what has gone before, the fresh blood brought to the series has a noticeable impact. The sanatorium is a far more westernised location than previous games have provided, and there is a noticeably different tone in investigating a disaster with its roots in the early 1980s than having to research and uncover a catastrophe of over a century ago. In short, detective work has replaced archaeology. Although jump-shocks play still play a very small role in the title, they have more of a presence than previously, and bring to mind the instructions Team Tachyon received from Nintendo to “make it scarier”.
There has been an adjustment in how the upgrade system works, with the cameras’ power now increased through the use of crystals, which are uncovered through exploration. As with journals and other artefacts, the crystals are picked up using the new “snatch” mechanic, whereby the A button is held down as the character reaches out to collect the item. Every so often, an item will prove to be just a trick of the light, and a ghost will try to grab your outstretched arm, with a jolt of the remote required to shake yourself free. There traps are infrequent, but make enough random appearances amongst the game’s non-essential items to keep you on your toes. The points awarded through photographing ghosts, both in hostile encounters and snapshots of split-second passive apparitions, are now used to by more powerful film and healing items at save lanterns. A more major change to the mechanics is the abandonment of the random battles which occurred in the PS2 games, whereby a marauding ghost would stumble across you if you lingered for too long without making progress. While this slightly reduces the feeling of dread found in the earlier games, it removes the need for an army of generic ghosts to menace the player, increasing the quality of the story.
Despite the game’s low profile during development, the array of content is extremely generous. The title takes around thirteen hours to complete, making it the longest game in the series, and an array of special feature await the player after the story is concluded. The now-traditional Mission Mode returns in its more complete incarnation yet, with unlockable concept art, character summaries and other features awarded as prizes. A new inclusion is the concealing of 79 small dolls across the island, which contain parts of the soul of Asoka, one of the more malevolent patients at the sanatorium. Although both Ruka and Misaki manage to face down the ghost of the psychotic twelve-year-old during the main game, she will not be truly exorcised until these last ties to this world are cut, providing an in-game motivating factor for the collectable.
So, while Mask of the Lunar Eclipse has the best gameplay mechanics of the series, is the same true of the writing? Given how high the second title in the series has set the bar, the answer is less clear cut, but Eclipse just wins out. The game doesn’t quite reach the peak of emotional involvement found in Crimson Butterfly, but that title draws the vast majority of its storytelling weight from its punch-to-the-face, did-they-just-do-that ending. Everything in Butterfly is a lead-in to that moment. Eclipse, however, sustains a far more complex plot while adding a greater depth of personality to each of its characters. To borrow a metaphor from Noise To Signal’s more usual territory, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse is the Blink to Crimson Butterfly’s Utopia. What would otherwise be an acceptable trade off of complexity for emotion is rendered mute by the universal roundness of character amongst the residents of the island. In previous titles in the series, more three dimensional characters were supplemented by stock ghosts such as “Villager #3” or “Broken Neck”. The slightly wooden quality of the previous protagonists is just a memory, with the unfolding story superbly involving.
Even prior to this title, the Project Zero series towered above its competition, thanks to the vastly superior writing and atmosphere the series contained. The removal of legacy gameplay niggles while retaining its trademark superior storytelling means that Mask of the Lunar Eclipse will be an essential purchase on its western release.
Thanks to Beyond The Camera’s Lens, for name translations. (http://www.cameraslens.com/)