Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water review – How U will be spooked

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The most I’ve heard about Fatal Frame (Zero in Japan; Project Zero in Europe) was that it’s a universally appreciated Japanese horror game series that involves using a camera to fight ghosts. How awesome is that? The series started out on PS2 and made its way through the Xbox, Wii, and now Wii U with the fifth installment Maiden of Black Water.

The North American version of the game is only available through download from the eShop, which is unfortunate for Wii U owners like me who don’t have an external storage hooked up. I had to delete some games from my 32 GB model just to make room for the 13 GB install. I’m just grateful I don’t own the standard edition with a whopping 8 GB of storage (I love you, Nintendo, but you’re killing me)! Also, if you plan to play on the Gamepad itself, don’t expect the audio to work during cutscenes. I looked to see if there was anything in the settings I could change to make it work but alas, nothing.

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The story centers around a cursed mountain called Mt. Hikami where people go after sunset to commit suicide. Which begs the questions: Why do people continue to live close to this mountain, and what freaky, supernatural crap is going on there to make this happen? The answer is not as direct as it seems. You play as three different characters named Yuri, Ren, and Miu with their own personal objectives, but what they discover about Mt. Hikami’s dark past is more fascinating than their own stories. By progressing in the game, collecting journals and touching defeated ghosts, you’ll be able to discover events that took place at the mountain to get a better idea of how dark and twisted the place has truly become, and it’s insane. However, the stories of the characters themselves are the least interesting aided by poor voice acting and little explanation on their backstories. Unless the point of the characters was to continue watching them suffer, it’s amazing how little I cared for every single one of them.

Fatal Frame revolves heavily around a type of camera called the Camera Obscura and it’s used to fend off evil spirits that mean to harm you. This is where the Wii U Gamepad comes in perfectly acting as the camera itself, using the gyroscope to move around and aim. Thankfully the control sticks are an option to move you and the camera around in the space, because pulling a 180 is hard enough. The camera does more than just “press ZR to attack ghosts”, there are different lenses that give you different abilities, varieties of film with different strengths, and there’s a move called Fatal Frame which stuns the ghost during its attack, giving you the option to keep attacking free of reload times. For such a simple mechanic, the developers made the Camera Obscura as complicated as possible without overwhelming me. You can use the XP gained to level up your camera’s attack power, range, reload times, and power absorption. I have to admit though, since the amount of spirits per level is daunting, fighting them does get repetitive after a while. The Camera Obscura is not only used for defense, it is also used in puzzle solving. For example, a door needs a key, so you take a photo of the doorknob to get a picture of where the key is hiding, simple enough.

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Controlling your character outside of the Camera Obscura is a different beast itself. Since I haven’t played any previous Fatal Frame before this one, I would describe moving around in-game is like Resident Evil 4, if it was more clunky and a pain to turn around. I finally got the hang of it after the first two chapters or so, but it didn’t change the fact that I had to turn the camera sensitivity all the way up just so I could turn around slightly faster. Not only that, but they somehow made picking up items annoying: you hold ZR to reach your character’s hand down to pick up an item which takes about 3 seconds. Why is that? Well, one of their methods to “add tension” in the game is to have a ghost hand randomly come out of nowhere to grab you thus depleting your health. It’s not scary, it’s frustrating!

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While we’re on the topic of “scary”, I thought the game could simply do better at being that. It might be that I’m not a fan of Japanese horror, but I felt Maiden of Black Water was setting itself up for tense moments and didn’t deliver in the end. Since it takes about 5 seconds to open a door slowly in the game, I was hoping I would see something freaky appear on the other side, which did happen once and only once. Thankfully there are flashbacks in the game that not only serve as exposition but also bring out the extreme creep factor with their old, choppy film-grain aesthetic. The in-game engine doesn’t look fascinating even by Wii U standards, but it makes up for it with its eerie atmosphere aided by the loud moans of broken spirits and spooky music (I’m running out of horror adjectives, bear with me).

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Final Reaction

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water may be the Wii U’s best horror game, but that’s not saying much considering its lack of horror games to begin with. While I admire the game’s atmosphere and extremely well-designed Camera Obscura combat system, it falls short of glory with clunky controls, mediocre plot, and lack of tension that is a must for any game wishing to be placed in the horror genre. However, fans of the Fatal Frame franchise and Japanese horror in general may find something in here to appreciate that I didn’t.

Rating: 3.5/5 Atoms

NR 3_5 Atoms - B-

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Joey Ferris
Joey Ferris 260 posts

l love to play games and write stuff about them. I can't play something and not tell anyone how I feel about it. Call it a sickness, because it is.