For as solid a console Nintendo‘s Wii U ended up being in retrospect, the commonly held narrative is that any game released solely for it was sent there to die. An unfortunate side effect of only selling 13 million units worldwide. Slowly but surely, however, select exclusives have started to make the jump to modern platforms in the hopes of finding a new audience.
The latest title rising from this metaphorical grave is Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water, the last official entry into Koei Tecmo’s photography-driven survival horror series Fatal Frame. It still scares 7 years on, despite showing its age in certain areas.
Mostly set amongst the incredibly unsettling fictional location of Mt. Hikami, you play as a cast of three individuals – Yuri, Ren and Mui – all called there for different reasons after learning of a terrible tragedy. This once-thriving mountain has a reputation for being a hotspot for suicide, you see, and only by exploring its many routes, pathways, and underground caverns can you hope to discover the details behind these terrible circumstances. Ghosts are absolutely everywhere, and the war against them won’t be fought with gun or blade, but rather a camera.
The camera obscura device is what has always separated Fatal Frame from other horror franchises. Fortunately, Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water is no different. Keeping the ghoulish enemies at bay is where much of the fun and scares derive, as you’re constantly forced to manage how long it takes to load film between shots, as well as several other factors that require a quick reaction. While your goal is ultimately to survive, you’re also snapping away while trying to score as many points as possible. Dodging well, targeting certain points of focus using your lens, and capturing terrors at a good angle all contribute to your status as master photographer/ghost slayer.
It’s not just as simple as point and shoot, then, but these extra layers of consideration all add up to make Maiden Of Black Water as fun as it is frightening. There are multiple types of film you collect while exploring that all feature different perks, such as fast loading or the ability to stun ghosts for longer. Then you have additional lenses that are much harder to come by. Using them requires you to build up a certain amount of spirit energy, which when deployed smartly can impact your current protagonist’s ability in other ways. Gaining back an extra bit of health moments before being pulled underwater, for instance, comes in useful more than once.
If there’s one drawback to this “combat” system, it’s that fending off even the lowliest apparition takes an incredible number of well-placed shots at first – almost to the point of tedium. Upgrade your camera’s parts and spend enough points in between chapters, though, and this becomes less of an issue. It all falls in line with this idea that you – as Yuri, Ren or Mui – have no idea what you’re doing when you initially visit Mt. Hikami, until you eventually find your bearings and learn new skills.
The story told in Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water isn’t particularly Hollywood-worthy or even original. If anything, the performances featured here tend to be a tad melodramatic in true J-horror fashion. It won’t be to every player’s tastes. On the other hand, it’s much more successful in setting an unbelievably bleak mood at almost every turn. This is the kind of game where you never see daylight, aside from in cutscenes. At times this can be a bit much in terms of never letting you rest, but it does well to keep the spook level high. Knowing you’re always equipped to deal with any grisly upcoming challenge helps offset some tension ever so slightly.
Unfortunately, for as atmospheric as this adventure can be, it can also feel relatively old-school in its design in some aspects. Sure, venturing to a shack filled with creepy china dolls is scary the first time, but not when you find yourself backtracking through the same areas within it numerous times. Or worse: visiting the same location entirely as a new character just two chapters later, and not all that much has changed. In no instance are these problems more evident than in Maiden Of Black Water’s favourite objective type, which has you fetch a key item needed to progress from somewhere you’ve previously passed through. It comes across as a little rote by today’s standards.
This being an enhanced version of a Wii U game, you’d expect to a see a significant step up in visuals, right? It’s definitely the case during cutscenes or light moments of exploration when you’re away from Mt. Hikami. However, in the effort to be cinematic, Maiden Of Black Water constantly frames most gameplay sequences through a grainy film-like filter, which may expertly tie into the whole photography theme but doesn’t present the new character models and improved environments in the best possible light. Don’t get me wrong, this re-release was never going to fool you into thinking it’s a 2021 game, yet it’s a shame a better middle-ground couldn’t be found.
Also here to entice series newcomers and long-time fans looking to double dip is Maiden Of Black Water’s all-new Snap Mode. It’s here where the horror action can be paused at any time, letting you change the position of characters, alter their poses and facial expressions, and even swap through different filters in order to set up perfect shots. Such an extra mode makes sense in a game like this, of course, and a nice extra touch is the chance to populate scenes not just with ghosts from Maiden Of Black Water, but previous series entries too. Fatal Frame veterans should get a kick out of this.
Despite too often relying on some archaic design sensibilities like backtracking and simplistic objectives, in addition to not showing off its new visual flourishes fully, Maiden Of Black Water just about pulls off being a worthwhile photography trip for horror fiends. Reasons to return may be minor, but the Fatal Frame franchise’s charming camera-driven gameplay continues to be a great framing device to provide scares all these years later.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water stumbles a bit in fully capitalising on the enhanced edition concept, yet it’s saved by a unique central hook that keeps the fright rate high and by the set of chilling environments to explore. Both of these elements were present in the 2014 original, but now can at least be enjoyed by a wider crowd.
- Thoughtful upgrade system that plays into camera combat
- A scarily dark atmosphere always keeps you on edge
- Snap mode is a cool touch for long-time fans
- Emphasis on backtracking
- Never offers a rest from tension
- Limited visual enhancement due to filters