There's something magical within Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir. Really, there is. You wouldn't know it by playing it, because the execution is downright terrible, but at heart, somewhere, deep inside this absolute mess is the germ of a great idea; that's the nicest thing we can say about it.
Spirit Camera is an entry in the popular Fatal Frame series, though you wouldn't know that from its title. This information shouldn't scare off any potential newcomers, however, as apart from a few winks and nods a lack of familiarity with that series won't interfere with any enjoyment you'd find here. No, Spirit Camera itself provides all the interference it needs on that end.
The plot involves you — yes, you, as you are the game's protagonist — coming into possession of the mysterious Diary of Faces. This is a tangible object that comes packaged with the game, therefore second-hand customers should beware. Without the Diary of Faces you won't be able to make any progress whatsoever in the game, so make sure you don't throw it out, or misplace it, or crease it, or spill something on it, or leave it within reach of a dog or a child. Perhaps you're starting to see why this might be a misguided concept.
The Diary of Faces is an important in-game object as well as having a physical representation in our world. This also applies to the 3DS itself, which is obviously what you use to control what's happening, and also functions in-game as the Camera Obscura, an equally mysterious device that allows you to see and interact with spirits. What's more, it takes place largely within your own home — or wherever you choose to play it — meaning that everything you view through the 3DS' outside camera becomes an element of the game as well...even if it's only as set dressing.
With all of this real-world bleed through, you'd expect this to be a pretty immersive experience. You would be wrong.
Unfortunately, just about everything that the game tries to do serves as an obstacle preventing true enjoyment of the experience. For starters, in order for the 3DS to recognise the Diary of Faces and other objects, you need to play in a consistently well-lit area. For a horror game, this is a pretty massive restriction. There's a reason very few scary movies take place during the daylight hours; when the lights are on, you can see that there's nothing to be afraid of. Spirit Camera seems to have forgotten this, or wishes that we'd forget it.
Whatever atmosphere Spirit Camera manages to conjure up — and the spooky old house to which the player is periodically transported is indeed atmospheric — dissipates the moment the game takes you back to your own home, where the lights are on and everything is clearly safe and secure. Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir wants to turn your own house into the scariest place of all, but in practice it just works against itself, and ends up depositing you regularly back in a safe haven. It can tell you that your house is infested with ghosts all it wants, but the more the game wishes to acknowledge the real world, the more hollow that possibility feels. Watching a ghost skulk about inside your couch as though it isn't there or stand humorously out of scale with the bookshelf beside it just further enhances the feeling of silliness.
The technological limitations only restrict the horror further from there. For starters, the 3DS camera isn't particularly good, and the bright lighting requirements make everything look fuzzy and washed out. You'll also need to set your 3DS down for several seconds at a time to recalibrate its gyroscopic sensor, and getting it to recognise the Diary of Faces — a regular necessity — is often an exercise in supreme frustration. Many puzzles will contain hints as to which page you need to turn to, which at least limits the trial and error of moving the 3DS towards and away from the book in the vague hope of eventual recognition, but not all of them do, and you'll find yourself trying all sorts of approaches to get it to find and recognise anything so that the game can advance.
Calling it a game is pretty generous as well, as Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is a passively interactive experience at best. The profoundly abysmal The Hidden erred in one direction by requiring you to be too engaged with the game, traveling around town with your 3DS and walking endlessly in circles until the plot decided to advance. Spirit Camera is guilty of the opposite crime: asking you to sit quietly while things happen around you. Movement is often on slow rails, as you're pulled around through a strange old house: you can look around, but that's it. Sometimes something will make a noise and the screen will indicate which direction you need to face to see what it was; when you do so, the game continues. It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure book that forgot to include the choices.
This misapplication of the word "game" applies to the included minigames as well, which range from pointless camera filters to fortune teller applications. There are one-off randomised battles with spirits, but they're hardly engaging and there's no incentive to complete them, making the whole thing feel like one barely glorified tech demo. If you saw the 3DS unveiled a year ago and couldn't wait to use it to take a picture of yourself with a ghost standing behind you, then this is the game of your dreams.
Battling spirits is the most interactive part of Spirit Camera, and even this consists only of spinning in circles and snapping their pictures until they die. The ghosts take more damage if you wait for them to attack first, so even these battles feel like boring quick time events, waiting patiently with your finger on a button for a prompt to appear.
The writing is bad, but acceptably so. After all, horror is rarely conducive to brilliant dialogue. But Spirit Camera makes the bizarre choice to voice some of its dialogue, and leave the rest text based. We wouldn't normally complain about this if it were consistent — for example, voicing one character but leaving another silent — but Spirit Camera changes its mind several times throughout any given monologue, having a character speak a few lines, displaying the next few lines as text, then back to a voice, and then to text again. It's bizarre, and it makes the game feel unfinished.
There's also the matter of the game spoiling what could have been its creepiest moment by signposting it far too clearly. When Spirit Camera begins it requires you to take a meticulously accurate picture of your face. Then, within one of the earliest sequences, it's revealed that there's a creepy woman going around stealing people's faces! We wonder what will happen!
The game is full of bizarre choices along these lines, which seem almost engineered to prevent you from experiencing the horror the game repeatedly claims you must be feeling. In reality, though, it's clearly the case of good intentions gone awry, with no attempt made to iron out the practical problems of a game that undercuts itself at every corner. Spirit Camera had every chance to integrate the world of horror with the place we call home, but instead all it does is keep it at bay.
While Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir has a genuinely interesting premise, it's let down early by its own technological limitations, and the disappointment is fairly consistent from there. For a game so proud of its heavy AR integration, it's somewhat ironic that this is also its major weakness. Repeated calls for calibration, dodgy camera recognition and the requirement that you play in a well-lit area all work against the moody and immersive atmosphere Spirit Camera wishes to create, and its short length makes it feel like more of a tech demo than a satisfying gaming experience. Players are likely to see everything the game has to offer well within five hours, and we can say confidently that there's not much incentive to stick with it even that long.