Fatal Frame/Project Zero is a cult classic survival horror franchise originally released on the PlayStation 2. Fans of the franchise often regard the second entry, Crimson Butterfly, as one of the greatest horror games of all time, and I have to agree with them. However, I never had a Wii U, so I missed out on the fifth entry in the series: Maiden of Black Water. Now with it finally making it’s way to modern platforms, I can finally play this so-called underrated gem. I also really hope there’s more on the way.
The story of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water takes place on Mount Hikami, a mysterious place holding a dark secret where people come to die. Yuri and Ren run a small café, but also have been investigating the mysterious disappearances on the mountain. Yuri has the special ability to see memories of ghosts; seeing their final moments as well as visions of the living. Ren is focused on researching the strange happenings in the area. Then there’s Miu, who has journeyed to Hikami to search for her mother, who also went missing in said place.
It’s an immediately enthralling premise that starts off with a tense encounter with the maidens and spans across three individual characters. Whilst not the most memorable characters in the genre, their personal stories are told throughout, which kept me engaged. I was constantly wanting to get to the bottom of the twisted mystery that explores themes of suicide and sacrifice in one of the darkest settings I’ve ever visited in a horror game. I did very much enjoy unravelling Maiden of Black Water‘s story, even though one particular plot point just didn’t stick the landing at all, coming off as weird even for an already weird franchise. Whilst this is a mostly standalone experience, there are some major ties to previous games.
The camera-based combat is definitely the franchise’s unique selling point, and here it’s taken to the next level. Think Phasmaphobia with a Devil May Cry style scoring system, and you are pretty much there. When a ghost starts to attack, you want to bring out the Camera Obscura and line it up in frame this will do some basic damage. Eventually, small spirits start floating around, and the more you have in frame, the more damage you will do. Time your photo to their attacks and you will trigger the fatal frame, which allows you to spam several photos for a couple of seconds to deal massive amounts of damage. Mix in the different film types and lenses, and you’ve got a combat system that is both complex and incredibly simple if a bit repetitive, rarely evolving beyond the first couple of hours.
Maiden of Black Water‘s trick is that, being a Wii U exclusive, it made use of the unique design of that system by using the gamepad to control the Camera Obsucra. Whilst this is gone on most newer systems for obvious reasons, the Switch does retain it, in a way. You can keep the mechanic while playing on Switch by tilting and moving around your system with the joycons attached. By doing this, you can move the Obscura’s frame to get more in the shot. This certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, having to basically wave your console around, but I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s always nice to see a clever use of a gimmick. Thankfully, this optional and I found myself switching between the two modes.
Upon picking up the game for the first time, I was told the controls were bad so I expected this going in, but goddamn they are really bad. Even an action as simple as turning around takes a bit more effort than one would imagine. It’s hard to describe what is going on, but the camera whilst moving around the game’s areas can be a bit finicky and in combat it falls apart completely. Movement and positioning are a huge part of this game, so I took a lot more damage than I really should have. It’s not unplayable though, and once you get used to the controls it gets easier to control the more you play.
The horror in Maiden of Black Water is much more restrained than before, using long stretches of nothing to often build up to nothing. It’s definitely an experience that won’t be to everyone’s liking. There are scenes of suicide and brutal murders that are often quite disturbing, with plenty of graphic cutscenes scattered throughout. It’s a grim experience that does a superb job of expanding on the themes the story presents. Then you’ve got the combat which keeps things tense by having the enemies move around a lot. Often you won’t know where they are, and if facing multiple enemies they’ll do a great job of trying to surround you. It’s not an utterly terrifying experience like Visage or even previous entries, but it’s more haunting and I love the slow burn approach.
Unfortunately, Maiden of Black Water eventually loses its steam, reusing the same locations with different enemies and items scattered throughout. It’s not bad per se, but I was expecting something a little bit more. It’s when you explore locations for the first time when the game is at its best. Sneaking through the dollhouse as Yuri was creepy, but then just one chapter later you are doing it again as Ren. Granted, he goes to a unique location after, but it just feels like unnecessary filler. The chapter system that takes characters back to the café can feel disjointed. Often times you will be exploring these areas back to back, which just makes the issue even more prevalent. This game could have been a lot better if it cut down a lot of the fat and focused on Yuri and Miu’s stories, with Ren being a side character.
Considering the game was originally running on the underpowered Wii U way back in 2014, this game actually looks pretty solid. Environments are detailed and there’s some creepy atmospheres scattered throughout. The lighting does an absolutely wonderful job of setting the mood. Exploring the forest area for the first time was a treat. There is a film grain effect that I would usually hate, but is fairly appropriate here. However, there’s no option to turn this off and it definitely won’t be to everyone’s liking. This is pretty standard as far as remasters go, but it does the job well enough.
There’s also some occasional performance issues; with somewhat frequent stutters when moving around the environment. Thankfully during the combat sequences things stay reasonably steady and don’t get too much in the way. They’re more of a minor annoyance. As for new features, there’s not much to see here; a handful of new costumes and a fun in-depth photo mode that allows you to grab some creative shots, if that’s the sort of thing you like playing around with.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water might be one of the weaker entries in the franchise, with flaws that can be really hard to ignore. The awkward controls, repetitive mission structure, and lack of variety somewhat bring down an otherwise engaging experience. However, if you can overlook these issues, give it a shot. The concept of Fatal Frame is still incredibly fresh in the genre, with its more restrained approach to horror and unique mechanics. Hopefully, this is the beginning of Fatal Frame/Project Zero’s return and I would love to see Mask of the Lunar Eclipse finally localized.
Despite being a Wii U game initially, this still looks surprisingly solid. Some great lighting and level design really sell the visuals.
Fatal Frame‘s camera based combat is a ton of fun, though repetition does set in after a while.
Haunting soundtrack with some solid voice acting when using the Japanese setting.
Fun Factor: 6.5
Despite a number of issues that can significantly bring down the experience, I still had a good time with Maiden of Black Water.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is available now on PC, Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water was provided by the publisher.