The gameplay in Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir revolves entirely around the titular camera and the titular cursed memoir. While we only had a brief time to demo the game, it's clear that its campaign is quite linear, with set-piece ghost battles and a lot more dialogue than action.
Players are required to make use of numerous features on the 3DS which have yet to be fully taken advantage of: its inward and outward facing cameras, its augmented reality abilities, and its gyroscope sensor. At first, we wanted to cry "Gimmick!", but as it turns out, Tecmo has threshed out and calibrated their game to make most of Spirit Camera's gameplay quite smooth--we'd even go so far as to call it intuitive.
The biggest problem that Spirit Camera will potentially have (and we can't be certain of this) is that its replay/resell value will likely suffer greatly following initial playthroughs, due to one of the most interesting aspects of the game: the Cursed Memoir.
Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir plays in much the same way as many adventure-based DS games of recent years: a brief, cryptic introduction sets the stage, and then the game asks the player to enter their name. Except in Spirit Camera, the player is instead asked to take a picture of their face, lining up outlines of human eyes, nose, and mouth. Upon completion, a seemingly innocent text box states that "your face has been taken."
The player is then thrust into a normal-enough looking environment; in fact, it's the environment around them. Spirit Camera uses the player's surrounding environment (for us, it was a bunch of happy gamers) as a home base of sorts; the real story is contained in the booklet that comes with the game and gives it its title.
The Cursed Memoir, the name for the game's included booklet, is a series of creepy but innocuous pages picturing stains, scribbled writing, and the occasional blurry photo. The booklet is the main source of storyline for Spirit Camera, and triggers the game's progression. The pages don't do much on their own, but combined with the proper scenes in-game come to life in 3D, copying the 3DS's signature AR cards in seeming to live on the surface of a real, tangible object.
Players will also use the camera to explore the environments made available upon entering the pages of the Cursed Memoir. We'd like to point out that it's pretty impossible to play this game while sitting still, as players are made to stand, turn, and look around through the system's camera in search of ghostly apparitions who look surprisingly like Rinoa Heartilly. During our demo, we walked slowly down a shadowy hallway replete with creaky floorboards and randomly falling objects, in search of the hopelessly atypical "Woman in Black."
The final element of Spirit Camera involves using the Camera Obscura (the major Fatal Frame holdover) to do combat with the occasional unfriendly spirit. Players must hold the spirit within the camera's lens until a series of surrounding orbs fill with power, and then take a snapshot last second to do a predetermined amount of damage to the spirit, based on how many orbs the player filled before taking the picture.
As stated earlier, we are concerned with Spirit Camera's replay value. Considering handheld titles are unlikely to get downloadable updates or DLC, we're not sure what's to keep gamers playing Spirit Camera once they've gone through the entire storyline. From what we saw, it doesn't look like it's possible to pause or backtrack in the campaign gameplay, meaning that presumably once a player has gone through the entire Cursed Memoir, there's not much surprise or availability of expansion left for them on a second playthrough. Likewise, if players lose their Cursed Memoir booklet, the game becomes more or less unplayable. Will consumers be able to trade in or sell their copy of Spirit Camera only if it's paired with a booklet? Will Nintendo be forced to print and ship extra copies of the booklet to keep the game relevant? We're curious about this little anomaly.
The controls in Spirit Camera revolve almost entirely around using the 3DS camera, and the shoulder R button and A face button. Players advance the game's persistently lengthy dialogue with the A button, take combat snapshots with the R button, and will likely play the entirety of the rest of the game looking through the camera and spinning to and fro. We like the simplicity, and the camera-like feeling of using a shoulder mounted button, but are concerned at how many people are going to get run into while players search for ghoulies.
We can only hope that, should demand be in place, supply of additional AR-related content for Spirit Camera will be released. Otherwise, it may be a very short-lived title.
Spirit Camera is single-player only, and will likely remain that way.
Spirit Camera's graphics were okay for a 3D-based title. By that, we mean that they're pretty old school looking (at least, during the exploration sections), with poorly rendered barrels and torches lined along PlayStation-era hallways. The presentation of the game outside of these sections is as crisp as your surrounding environment, and we can't really ask Earth to update its graphics card. The ghosts super-imposed on these backdrops look like they were taken from the pages of a hazy manga, so make of that what you will.
The story of Spirit Camera seems like a pretty standard horror tale; it directly involves the Cursed Memoir (supposedly the same book the players are using), involving an evil apparition called the Woman in Black who "takes people's faces" and traps them within the tome (makes you think twice about that innocent text box, hm?) Players are tasked with rescuing these confused, often violent spirits and solving the mystery of the--yeah, you know where this is going.
The overall atmosphere of the game is rather creepy, though depending on your environment may be bright and sunny or downright hilarious (for instance, if your ghost was standing in a bowl of soup). The exploration sections are dark, foreboding, and very quiet, leading to a sense of apprehension. This feeling is expanded rather nicely by the 3D effects, such as when a ghost is all up in your business.
The story behind Spirit Camera seems predictable if anything, though with all the 3DS related navigating you'll be doing, it's perhaps better than also having to navigate a complex storyline at the same time. This is a Japanese title, and thus the campaign's writing and character dialogues have been translated over. As usual, this leads to some cardboard voice acting and fairly boring-sounding writing. Oh, and lots of strained yelling. Fortunately, the story elements are peppered with combat and creepy exploration, and thus manage to stay interesting (though a second playthrough might be torturous).
The graphics in Spirit Camera are not good, though to be fair, a majority of the game takes place around the player in the real world. But the exploration sections are shoddily done, with poorly rendered torches and barrels dotting a shadowy hallway of mesh brown while the player slinks along at an atrociously slow pace. Outside of these sections, however, the camera content and 3D images look very nice, and manage to add to the game's presentation rather than detract. The characters both in and outside of the Cursed Memoir are graphically well done, and the art style, though it's standard anime faire, is miles ahead of live action.
There wasn't an awful lot of music to be heard during our demo of Spirit Camera; the dialogue sections often require the player to locate a ghost who is speaking off screen, and we imagine overt musical scores would obscure this element (and it's already a pain trying to locate the ghosts as is). The sound effects are well done, if a little cheesy, though the game seems to rely on jump scares too often to keep them fresh. Perhaps during the end credits we'll be treated to a heartfelt ballad about how super winner shine so bright we are.
Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is one of those rare titles that some gamers will love, and some wouldn't touch with a stick. If you're the kind of player who only digs hi-def graphics and blockbuster explosion sequences, Spirit Camera will likely come off as dull and cheesy. The voice acting is pretty poor, and the story is right out of a Goosebumps book. The game relies heavily on its use of AR cards, the 3DS camera, and the Cursed Memoir booklet that comes with the game; everything else gets pushed out of the frame.
Despite this, we feel that Spirit Camera is a decent title, and its strengths ultimately outweigh its weaknesses. It makes very good use of its collective "gimmicks," making regular pad-and-button based titles seem like they're a different media entirely. Unfortunately, the demo was not enough to confirm whether or not these strengths hold out for the majority of the game. After all, if the novelty wears off, Spirit Camera will fall on its face.
It's the kind of title that appeals to a niche crowd, but it's also more than that. Spirit Camera takes full advantage of all the 3DS offers, and could be a harbinger for yet more innovative games in the future. Whether the first of many or a standalone oddball, it's a winner for Fatal Frame vets, 3DS lovers, B-horror fans, and experimental gamers everywhere.
We'll see how memoirable it is after its release on April 13th.
Meet the testers
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
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