The diary looks like a serial killer's scrapbook. One page contains a photo of a boy with the face scratched out. Another has a piece of sheet music clipped to it, its disconcerting notes drawn backward and smeared by black stains.
As I gaze at a page covered in strange symbols, an ornate brooch begins to skitter across it like a gilded cockroach. It's not a part of the page but rather a three-dimensional object, moving slowly from one glyph to the next. It seems to be spelling out a word. Be...hi...nd....
I spin around in my chair and see the spectre of a young woman lunging forward.
Welcome to Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, an augmented reality horror video game that relies on the Nintendo 3DS's cameras and motion sensors to provide an altered perspective of the real world. The game places the player in the shoes of an unnamed protagonist who has just discovered a supernatural camera (your 3DS) and a spooky diary (a 16-page paper booklet that comes with the game). We're told of an urban legend that suggests that anyone who can see words on the diary's first page will become cursed: fated to lose his or her face.
I can see the words.
Compelled to undo the curse, I begin pointing the magic camera at pages in the diary. Viewed through the 3DS screen, they contain hidden messages and drawings that come to life. Virtual objects are often superimposed upon them, including masks, dolls and hands. They often serve as riddles which, once solved, provide clues concerning the curse's origin.
Sometimes a malevolent soul will escape the diary. When this happens, we're forced to move the 3DS around (it helps if you play on a spinny chair) and search the room for them. Snapping a picture at the right time causes evil spirits damage; failing to do so provides them an opening to attack.
But these battles feel forced. It's as though the designers wedged them in simply because this is a video game, and, well, video games need fights. But that's not true. Spirit Camera would have been much more immersive had it relied solely on the eerie puzzles and sinister imagery sourced from its creepy diary.
Indeed, the effort spent creating combat scenarios would have been better used to expand the story, which lasts only a handful of hours, and to delve more deeply into its characters, which are as thin as the paper from which they spawn. Tales of horror tend to be much more compelling when we actually care about the souls being terrorized.
Spirit Camera has moments that foretell a fascinating future for augmented reality games, but it leaves the fledgling genre still waiting for a breakout hit.
Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release: April 13, 2012
Special to The Globe and Mail