I’m almost all the way through Fatal Frame 2. The game’s been pretty easy, and after 9 hours I’ve reached what I believe to be the final save before the end boss.
Before I get into ranting about the design of the end boss, I need to briefly cover some Fatal Frame mechanics for those of you who didn’t play the game. In the Fatal Frame series your only weapon is a camera. To fight ghosts, you take pictures of them with the camera at a key time. Taking pictures any old time doesn’t do much damage, so the strategy is to wait for a special moment (the “fatal frame”) and take the picture then. You know when this moment occurs because the lens turns red and a sound starts playing. The moment is very brief for most ghosts (less than 1/2 a second), and it usually happens just before they hit you, so the game is all about timing these super shots right. In FF2, you can power your camera up by collecting points. You get points by doing super shots. Powering up your camera can make it more damaging, give it a larger range, etc. You can also add features to the camera that allow you to do special shots that do more damage or affect the enemy in some other way, but you need points to “buy” these features. Also, you can save yourself from death by carrying around a Stone Mirror, which will refill your life to 100% if you die, but it only works once. It’s sort of like the Aku Aku mask in Crash Bandicoot: it gives you the ability to survive a fatal hit one time. You can only carry one stone mirror around at a time.
So I’m not going to spoil the end boss battle for you, but I do want to talk about why the game designers had to make it so annoying. I think this is a case of the designers designing themselves into a corner. The boss doesn’t follow any of the regular rules of the game: she can kill you in a single hit, even if you have a stone mirror. What’s worse, you can’t damage her with regular shots; she’s only damageable during the fatal frame moment (which is approximately 0.001 seconds before she hits and kills you). Finally, her life regenerates as she moves around, so you have to keep hitting her over and over to kill her (a goal which I have not yet completed).
All of these changes would be acceptable, except that the designers have made a fatal error: they have failed to place a save point just before the boss battle. The last save point before the boss is pretty far away, and you are required to fight seven or eight spirits before you actually reach the boss. These spirits are easy to kill (they move in straight lines and have a predictable fatal frame moment), but they have a lot of life and are pretty annoying the sixth or seventh time you face them. It takes me a good 15 minutes to get from the save position to the boss, so it’s quite frustrating to miss the boss’s minuscule fatal frame moment and die instantly.
Why would the developers do something like that? The rest of the game doesn’t have similar balancing problems. In fact, the rest of the game has excellent pacing.
The reason is that it is possible to get to the boss without powering your camera up much. You could conceivably play through the entire game without every upgrading your camera, if you were good enough at hitting fatal frame moments and had some patience (in my case, I didn’t start upgrading the camera until about an hour before the end boss). It’s also possible that you may have upgraded your camera in ways that are not going to help you against the end boss (like, maybe you purchased the “See” powerup, which lets you see spirits that disappear, which is something the end boss doesn’t do).
So what the developers have been forced to do is give such players room for experimentation. They’ve made this long section with easily-killable-yet-high-points spirits so that you can power your camera up in different ways and try different combinations against the boss. They don’t let you save before the boss because they don’t want you to overwrite the previous save and lock in a single camera configuration. I suspect that the original did not contain the pre-boss spirits, and that they were added after they realized that play testers could get themselves locked into a useless camera scheme.
The problem with this “solution” is that it penalizes players who have powered up their camera correctly. The formula necessary to beat the boss is pretty clear and simple (most powerful lens + most powerful film, duh!), and you can easily max out the necessary attributes long before you reach the boss. The lack of save is a safeguard for players who haven’t done this, but players who are “following the rules” are at a disadvantage because they have to waste a lot of time killing superfluous enemies.
A better solution would have been to put a check point just before the boss. That way you could attempt a given camera configuration several times and simply reload if you wanted to go back to the setup you had when you saved (as it is the game has no checkpoints, and you must reload upon dying). Also, many games feature bosses that don’t follow the regular rules of the game, but giving the Fatal Frame 2 end boss have a one-hit-kill attack (and consequently breaking the earlier stone mirror mechanic) seems like a formula for frustration.