Mansion of the hidden keys

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A little note before we get on with this one: Yes, The Fear really is a single game spread across four DVDs housed within two standard PlayStation 2 game cases featuring slightly different covers. Everything I’ve seen and read so far about this unusual arrangement points towards there never being any sort of outer slipcase or similar packaging to keep these two halves together so if you are going to grab a copy do take the time to make sure you’re getting the whole game. With that out of the way it’s on to the next problem: At the time of writing this isn’t playable on the latest stable version of PCSX2 – not properly anyway – so just this once screenshots are limited to the earliest pre-emulator-crash sections of the game. The good news is a certain blogger you might know has an ancient but shockingly reliable Japanese PlayStation 3 – the magical unicorn launch day version that will play any PlayStation 2 disc that’s offered to its noisy motorised slot – permanently plugged in and ready to play so in spite of this unexpected issue I can still pass on thoughts and experiences based on my own start-to-finish run through The Fear, I just can’t share as many images as I’d like to.

The setup for this 2001 Enix-published live action FMV adventure is a simple one: A gaggle of popular idols (appearing under their real names – Yukari, Eri, Mika, Natsuki, and Mayumi) are sent to a creepy old mansion that nobody else dares enter due to all the spooky rumours surrounding it with a film crew in tow to shoot a TV show – how could something like that possibly go wrong? Before Yukari’s even got inside she’s collapsed due to all the evilness she can sense in the air and not too long after that shutters suddenly bar all the windows, the heavy wooden front door won’t open, people start screaming, and a deadly monster’s roaming the halls…

You play the role of the sole cameraman on this doomed TV shoot, someone only ever referred to as either “Camera-san” or “Camera-chan”, face permanently obscured by the gigantic video camera resting on their shoulder at all times. It’s a slightly awkward way of doing things – the camera remains on Camera-san’s shoulder no matter how dangerous things get – but it’s a practical way of giving the character a physical and participatory presence while still remaining enough of a blank slate for you to project yourself upon so that when those adorable idols stare straight down the lens and say thank you for saving them you can almost pretend they’re thanking you directly.

All of your interaction with the game is done through the camera’s viewfinder, with everything bar one brief duct-crawling segment towards the end and a few special effects created using live-action filming on a real set. Knowing the genre and the game’s presentation this might bring to mind earlier releases such as Warp’s D or R?MJ (maybe that’s just me), FMV dramas that tend to have you float from one designated hot spot in a room to another, but it’s actually even more impressive than that – you traverse the mansion in the same way as Shin Megami Tensei and Dungeon Master, able to walk and turn as if you’re standing on a grid – the only other FMV adventure I can remember using a system like this is Kurokishi no Kamen on the 3DO (don’t rush to try that one out). It’s a technically impressive effect, the FMV fluidly moving you around using (mostly) seamless prerecorded footage – and knowing it’s being “filmed” by you as you walk helps you forgive the odd wobble. The video itself is very nearly full screen and of a consistently high quality, with some deliberately introduced noise and fake scanlines doing an excellent job of disguising any minor PlayStation 2-related playback problems – it may even hitch, warp, or show static at unexpected times just to keep you on your toes. The less interesting but equally important practical aspects of dealing with extensive quantities of FMV haven’t been neglected either: You can pause any cutscene at any point and resume from that exact moment, you can save anywhere as often as you like, previously viewed investigation clips (for example, zooming in on a candle or opening a small dish) can be cut short, and holding X will allow you to “run” around (i.e.: speed up movement sequences) – the only real issue is the complete absence of subtitles.

On the gameplay side of things assistance comes in the form of what The Fear refers to as “flashbacks” (even though they’re only used to see into the future), those optional little visual hints some adventure games give you when you’re not sure where you need to go. You can summon these vague images as often as you like without penalty, although they are more helpful (for example, showing an additional distinctive image of the room in question) if you have more battery power in your camera – a resource easily replenished by walking (rather than running) around the mansion. In a sneaky move certain points in the story may bring up one of two possible hints – and one of them may lead to a fatal encounter. I quite liked this infrequent little sting in the tail as it stops you obediently following these psychic visions around without thinking about what you’re actually seeing – why would I blindly barge into a room when the vision showed me nothing but moving shapes and burred images instead of a key, or a small statue, or any of the other more specific objects they had revealed before?

Puzzling in The Fear is mostly a case of finding objects hidden around the mansion, your progress largely hindered by many, many, keys – some of which are found on the still-warm bodies of less lucky members of the production team. Anyone hoping to spend a month stumped by a puzzle involving three clocks, a potion, and a bird skull that spins clockwise but only if you’re facing east is going to be left feeling disappointed by the game’s simplicity (made even easier by the thoroughly annotated map you find early on) but on the other hand it does mean The Fear’s manageable for anyone without outside help or a notebook filled with diagrams. Searches are performed by pressing the circle button at suspicious location, which will then bring up a focusing ring in the center of the screen if there’s something to check out. A second press will then zoom in on and automatically interact with whatever’s ahead – looking inside a box, talking to someone, picking up a note, etc. If there are multiple interactive targets in the same area an indicator showing their direction will appear, so you’ll now have to press down+interact to check out the chess set, or left+interact to speak to the person sitting in a chair next to the table. It’s a lovely and straightforward way of poking around the often busy environments, and saves you the worry of missing something small but significant at the back of a half-closed drawer. The downside is The Fear seems to have tried to balance out the time saved by this ease of use by giving you lots of pointless things to look at – a dripping tap in a sink, an assortment of cosmetics on a counter, a pair of boots, a couple of pool balls – that do nothing to enlighten you or enhance the mood.

Having such thorough movement and investigation systems causes another problem too (who’d have imagined an FMV game could have too much interactivity?): All giving you the ability to freely roam these “scary” rooms and closely inspect so many strange objects in relatively high detail does is make it clear that the budgets for special effects and set dressing just weren’t up to the task of maintaining that haunting atmosphere. Let’s use one of the second floor’s numerous weird paintings as an example: You’ll come across a large portrait of a woman with wildly staring eyes in the hall… and one of them’s sticking out of the canvas… but on closer inspection, the eyeball appears to be a fake. This is The Fear’s problem – does this eyeball look fake because the mansion’s original residents were into slightly disturbing artwork, or does it look fake because it’s a cheap special effect and I’m supposed to pretend that’s a real eye that’s been violently incorporated into a portrait? There’s a similar issue with the spiders and centipedes found adorning the walls in various bloodstained places too: This time you know they’re supposed to be writhing entities crawling all over the surface but it’s instantly clear from the well-lit halls (no doubt necessary to prevent the FMV from becoming a heavily artifacted black smudge) and your close proximity to them that they’re nothing more than plastic Halloween ornaments given a coat of paint and will never pose any threat at all. It’s all a bit “TV movie special” – The Fear’s trying it’s best, but you know it’ll never quite get there.

A lot of this effect-based confusion could be cleared up if Camera-san reacted more often to his surroundings, letting you know if you’re supposed to be reeling in shock or holding your breath at the stench of death, but instead he tends to remain unhelpfully unflapped by just about everything he sees no matter how bizarre. This lack of commentary really harm’s The Fear’s ability to scare: There’s a point where you open a cupboard and discover a shrivelled corpse inside, covered in cobwebs. Was this a silly scare set up by the in-game production crew for the idols to react to? Are you supposed to believe you’ve just uncovered the forgotten remains of a real person? You’ll never know, because Camera-san non-reacts to this any many other potentially horrific scenes like a man who’s just been reminded that water is wet. The unfortunate result of this is you end up viewing the most extreme of The Fear’s attempts to shock as if you’re walking around a haunted house at a local fair, even though the game’s made it very clear that in spite of the supremely twisty shenanigans going on this is also supposed to be a genuinely spiritually evil place.

Ah yes, the twist. The first disc is fairly restrained and spooky, assisted in no small part by an excellent ambient soundtrack that emphasises unnatural noises and breathless gaps of silence, so it’s something of a shock when the second switches gears and opens with someone nailed to the wall. From there it quickly spirals into people showing up dead in blood-filled bathtubs and decapitated in the attic so neatly their head is still resting on their shoulders. The octopus monster thing you’re led to believe is causing all of this (and will swiftly kill you in a few very rare “bad end” scenarios) is sensibly not seen often, clearly, or for long – because what you can see looks homemade and lifeless, as if it’s a leftover from the days when Doctor Who was a quirky semi-educational BBC TV show made for 10p an episode and not a slick international multimedia product currently starring the wonderful Jodie Whittaker. Now for once The Fear has a very good reason for this – this murderous tentacle really is a prop. The final disc reveals everything’s been faked – apart from the deaths that haven’t been faked (this is a very good time to disengage your brain) – and the remote control your crew’s sound guy is brandishing with menace as he explains all of this is mysteriously capable of making the entire building shake – and also turn those sweet teenage idols into monsters who can clamber up bookcases, slash with their claws, and may have giant centipedes growing out of their backs (sound frequencies, apparently). Oh and by the way the homeless guy you randomly met earlier is now a bloodthirsty werewolf… until he explodes and drops the key for the modern car sitting fuelled up and ready to go in this old abandoned mansion’s garage. Yes. It’s, uh… well I honestly didn’t see any of that coming, so that’s got to count for something.

As with all FMV-heavy tales The Fear’s not an especially long game, weighing in at around an hour per disc on a first run through with much of that time spent barking up the wrong tree and repeatedly poking my nose in places that didn’t need investigating in the first place. It is one that’s worth playing through more than once though – there’s a slight story split you can experience along the way and the ending alters depending on how many (or how few) of the idols you were able to save, meaning your own limited actions do have a real effect on the final outcome (unlike some…). By the end of The Fear I was as bewildered by one of the closest literal interpretations to the old digital dream of a true interactive movie I’ve ever played as I was thoroughly entertained by it’s intensely B-movie-tier plot – I don’t think it’d be fair to ask a cheesy horror game for much more than that.

[Thank you Ko-fi supporters for helping me keep this blog fresh and fun!]

3 thoughts on “Mansion of the hidden keys

  1. The best live action FMV adventures are still the ones that embrace the silly b-movie-nes of themselves… well, maybe not always willingly embrace it in the case of things like Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, I guess, but that doesn’t make it any less fun xD

    Like

  2. This sounds like a game for an evening with some friends and some alcohol involved. Conveniently no one will even notice the ending doesn’t make any sense at all.

    Like

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