Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a genuinely creepy gaming experience that shows its age in places, but reminded me why I consider the Fatal Frame series the best horror franchise in gaming.
There has always been something about the Fatal Frame games that I have found rather unnerving. I think it’s a combination of things – outstanding audio design, creepy themes, clever camera cuts and the way combat puts you into a first-person perspective. In the end, it’s all about immersion. I’ve long lamented that a Fatal Frame trilogy remaster (or better yet remake) would be a day one purchase for me, but I have had my doubts that it will happen (and well, it hasn’t as of yet). But Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water gives me some hope, as this Wii U title from several years ago finds new life on modern consoles and it continues those themes I cited above.
First and foremost, there are some rough edges here. The downside to a glossier port of an older game means that without significant changes (which Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water doesn’t get), some of the mechanics and visuals were bound to feel slightly dated. Character models look okay, but stiff and a generation old. The controls are not as bad as the old tank ones of the earlier Fatal Frame / Silent Hill / Resident Evil days, but they are a bit unpolished in places. The pacing is deliberately slow, and this feeling is further increased by repetition in both combat and the areas you have to revisit multiple times.
Those caveats out of the way, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water had me on edge throughout much of the experience. While the visuals do feel a bit dated, they are still a huge improvement over the original Wii U title. The use of light and sound is often spectacularly creepy, and while I commented on the somewhat slow pace of gameplay – that’s not always a bad thing in my mind. I am sure some people might disagree, preferring a more action-based approach to things, but I actually think it helps to build tension. Often times there’s a bit of movement on the edges of your vision – opportunities to take pictures and gain experience as well – that if the game moved more quickly, you might miss them completely. The atmosphere here was regularly unsettling due to these teases along the periphery of your sight and hearing.
One place where pacing is a real issue, is how often you have to backtrack. Exploration is key because there are all kinds of items to find, puzzles to solve and ghosts to encounter. Not only does this add flavor to the game and context to events, but high scores give you improvements to make your camera stronger and earning you higher scores. Each chapter is scored, which combined with unlockables (mostly in the form of new costumes for our three protagonists), provide solid replay value.
Speaking of the protagonists, the story follows Miu, Ren and Yuri as they explore a remote location in Mt. Himaki where there have been a rash of disappearances. The further they dig, the more unsettling their discoveries as they range from ritual sacrifices, suicides and more. This plays into the camera mechanic that’s at the core of the Fatal Frame series. You use it in a few different ways. One of those utilities is puzzle solving as you find clues and take pictures of them, unlocking the next bit of story along the way. There are also environmental scares that can be caught on camera. It’s one thing to see a bit of movement in a nearby passage, but you don’t really understand what it is if you don’t quickly capture it with your camera. That’s when you can get a longer, less fleeting look at it and realize it’s someone who hung themselves for example.
Last but certainly not least, the camera is your main tool in combat. I have enjoyed plenty of action-based horror games over the years, but titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil keep things in a third-person perspective. Fatal Frame’s approach is to move around the environments in third-person, which then allows some of the clever glimpses of activity I mentioned a moment ago – but when combat shifts into first-person, it’s far more creepy. Ghosts move in and out of your view, or sometimes they move right up in front of you, displaying a ghastly, often tortured visage in a way that third-person doesn’t effectively convey. It can also make fighting multiple spirits at once far more stressful, because you are trying to focus on one while another is somewhere just out of sight. And since these are spirits, they can pass through walls and such, making things even more complicated. Paying attention to the audio is key in these moments. Admittedly, they can be a bit frustrating, but it makes sense as your character is putting their eye right up to a camera.
In terms of the combat mechanics, they’re not terribly complicated. There’s a lock-on function that helps, and some of the spirits are quicker and more creative in their movements than others. You can of course just click away once they’re in your view, and you can plink them for damage – but film is a precious resource (think of it as ammo here – you have an unlimited supply of the weakest stuff, but the most powerful film can be in short supply), and there are some key mechanics that can boost how powerful your shots are.
There’s a risk / reward in letting spirits get up close and personal, opening themselves up to the perfect shot as they fill your frame. Time it right and they will recoil and take extra damage. You can gather up orb energy during these fights to unleash stronger shots as well. Of course the risk is you are more likely to get hit by the spirits, especially if you mistime your shot. As you score more points, you can unlock upgrades such as vampire-ing off some of their health for your benefit, stunning them or firing off a series of rapid shots.
One new feature of this game is the snap mode, which lets you play around with your environment and characters a bit and take some really cool still shots. Which makes perfect thematic sense given that this is a game with a heavy focus on cameras. Not that most of the environments are what I would refer to as scenic. There are some nice ones, but they are like an oasis in a desert of creepy, rotting, dark, dank passages and rooms. With over a dozen missions, most of which are pretty lengthy, there is a lot to discover, even if there is a decent amount of backtracking.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water reminded me why I love this series so much. It has its flaws, but they are minor compared to what the title does really well. There is a genuine sense of creepiness that permeates almost all of the game, and those brief times of respite help to build up the interesting story at the heart of the game. Horror fans will want to give this a go. Meanwhile, I will impatiently await my remake of the original trilogy.Score 8.5 / 10