Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water review

Koei Tecmo’s Fatal Frame (or Project Zero as it’s known in my part of the world) is a rare franchise, for the last few instalments the games have been mostly exclusive to Japan and when this happens fans look forward to seeing the franchise make a glorious return. We had a seen a small spin off game a couple of years back for the 3DS but Spirit Camera was not the same, fans needed a true new game and Koei Tecmo delivered. It was a moment of excitement when Maiden of Black Water was announced, and even more so when it was revealed the game was headed our way as a Wii U exclusive and I must say that was a very smart move.

It isn’t often that a game can grab my attention at the very moment it begins, usually a slow start holds me back from truly immersing myself in the experience. I will admit to feeling Maiden of Black Water had a slow start, after an excellent opening the game seemed to slow down entirely for the following chapter as I dealt with me tutorials explaining game mechanics. However, this never meant the game wasn’t gripping in fact from the very moment I began playing I was already interested, in a way the game drops us in the deep end at the beginning with a mystery that is immediately noticeable and driven this pulled me right to want to know more. This feeling never died off, every time I thought I was starting to understand something a new mystery would pop up which would leave me more confused, but also more driven to uncover the secrets, and for the entire game this stood as my singular focus, in fact this was the games strongest point.

The story of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water centers around a place known as Mt. Hikami, for unknown reasons (which you need to discover) people are drawn to the mountain as a place to end their lives. To say the least it is a very convoluted plot line but the mystery surrounding it is very strong and really drives the game. In fact, one of the key things that pulls the story is the use of the notes and books, rather than just tell us information much of the games plot is told through notes as we get to explore the history of Mt. Hikami which goes quite deep as well as certain characters thoughts. The further the game goes the deeper things get and this really drove me to want to know even more, the one point I think I would have liked more here is slightly less information handed through notes and more story pulled through characters.

But speaking of characters, there is a fine line that separate’s hating these characters and well respecting them. Most the characters we meet in the game have some tragic backstory, this one’s mother vanished, this one felt alone, this character holds deep seeded regrets, and as such most characters seem distant half the time. This was something I spent half the game trying to work out, were these characters almost lifeless and void of personality for the story in order to reflect inner turmoil, or were the voice actors just bored and lacked motivation to put the effort in. If it’s the second one it is a real shame as deep down are truly interesting, but I personally lean towards the first option, the characters express depression and there darker minds and this is something the location plays on. This makes the characters truly interesting and actually exciting, the expertise to play most of these characters as almost bored as a reflection of their mindset makes it easier to understand them and sympathize with what’s going through their heads.

Where I did get annoyed by the characters however was in reflection to how levels end, at the closing of each chapter (or drop as they are called here) a story summary comes up with some insight into the characters. At one point I recall it saying that two of the characters grew closer but this is where the problem exists, outside of this summary I never encountered anything that would suggest that these characters had a close relationship. Likewise none of the characters ever seemed to grow, for the course of the story characters seem pretty stuck in there singular mindset, and this is true for all characters. They all felt pretty one dimensional in the long term and showed no growth as a character, to accept their problems, to accept new friendships, to accept events, I actually wish I could say I hated these characters but the sad truth is I actually liked them, if only they could have shown that much needed growth.

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Fatal Frame is a genuinely scary game, it isn’t easy to do horror without resulting to many tried and tested routines and while Fatal Frame never reinvents the wheel of horror it is still genuinely masterful. More so then anything else Fatal Frame is all about the ambiance created by the environment, each journey you pretty much face alone and wandering through forests and abandoned buildings are very unnerving experiences. I might not have been paying full attention but the game never seemed to rely on music to cement the locations, instead focusing on the general atmosphere of each location including the dark and sinister feeling found within old buildings. There are many moments that stuck with me during the game one of which was the feeling I got while exploring an old shrine, the place was home to many creepy looking dolls which lined most of the rooms and this set me on edge, this place just didn’t feel right to me.

For the first half of the game everything was genuinely frightening, while ghost appearance’s still seemed random I was always on edge about when I would next be attacked. For the second half of the game most of the times ghosts appeared I was expecting them as I learned the patterns, a few surprise appearance’s still actually got to me and this is where the game was at its finest. The biggest problem for the ghosts though is that they lose their impact on a few occasions because of the games persistent use of repetition, namely the biggest problem is in the environments which for most of them we visit on several occasions. Ghosts don’t have the same impact when you can get a feeling for the area and know about when to expect them, it also never helped that the game only features a handful of different ghost types which grow tired really quickly.

The problem with the ghosts losing some of their fear factor was annoying but the horror is still done really well. I think with Fatal Frame they wanted focus more on affecting the player and putting them on edge, if this is the case they did it well. Combined with the generally spooky atmosphere the game never shied away from disturbing imagery, while I won’t go into detail for reasons of spoilers and it is better to see then read, the game put on a strong reliance on unsettling the player with certain disturbing visions and actions. This combined with the environment of Mt. Hikami was truly gripping and commonly left me really nervous and on edge during my time with the game.

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A strong part of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water’s gameplay focuses on a camera, this device is a central part of defeating enemies and overall progression and has seen quite a good integration with the Wii U. I have thought for a while that a camera type game would be great for the Wii U and the gamepad, and while this isn’t what I hoped for (meaning Pokémon Snap) Fatal Frame does make use of the gamepad as a camera in a great way. The combination of the gamepad’s screen with its gyroscope controls mean you get what I considered to be a quite realistic approach to the gameplay of Fatal Frame, when you access the camera it all handled through the gamepad. The game switches itself over to the gamepad where you can move the controller which in turn moves the camera, the controls for this were actually quite responsive which I quite liked. The camera controls dis also allow for the use of the right stick to move the camera but I honestly never found this to be quite as good as the gyroscope controls. The camera is used in multiple ways across the game including combat as well as puzzle solving, it was unfortunate that I didn’t stumble across many puzzles during my play through but it was still one of my favorite uses. Puzzle solving was a simple matter of locking on to a hidden object then finding the right angle by turning the gamepad and taking the correct photo, this was an ingenious use and really made use of some of the controller’s key functionality.

One of my big problems with the photography focus is how combat is implemented, while I love the gamepad usage the actual fun side is something that I had trouble finding. At first when I encountered ghosts I was fine with the concept of weakening down their health and defeating them with photos, but the game jumps into the previously mentioned repetition territory really ruining any chance for fun. All enemies are handled in this fashion, you take a photo while factoring in several contributing points to help deal as much damage as possible and each photo slowly whittles down his health. On paper it doesn’t seem so bad but enemies grow tiresome as you attempt to dodge their attacks and constantly take a photo that barely seemed to do much. I think it was just how slow and overly repetitive this all was that really got to me, it wasn’t that the combat was bad in fact how the gamepad is used does help it grow more then it could have I just wish they could have done a little bit more with it.

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Things are made slightly better with the upgrades available, your camera can be given several lenses which each have different effects to help out in combat. Some of these were as simple as temporarily stunning your enemy, others increased damage output as many other effects, it still doesn’t help combat become fun but that’s not the point playing with the different lenses was enjoyable to at least offer new strategies and approaches. I also really liked how your camera receive upgrades, this is all handled by spending points earned by fighting ghosts where you can go and upgrade damage as well as film loading times among other things. I will admit it was nice having these upgrades here and I emphasized on making sure I had them but when it came to combat I rarely saw the difference which was disappointing.

Unfortunately combat didn’t just fall short just because of the camera, I often faced the problem of having trouble manoeuvring my character. The movement controls just felt clunky to me particularly where combat was concerned, while wondering around in general they were okay as soon as a ghost appeared I was often in trouble. It wasn’t uncommon that a ghost would appear right next to me and it is fine quickly pulling out the camera to get a quick shot, but trying to move out of its reach proved to be more of a challenge then it should have been. The big problem is that turning is not simple and takes more work than it should, the game never made it easy to turn and run when you needed to and this really wasn’t good, I couldn’t help but think that at the least from a quick turn button to allow me the opportunity to move out of harms with greater ease. This problem was highlighted further when I ended up surrounded by many ghosts, where I would have liked to quickly run and grab some ground I was stuck trying to fend myself the best I could while being attacked from all sides.

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I love how the gamepad was used for Fatal Frame and I respected it quite strongly but there is one thing I really noticed while playing this, while you can play on the TV screen the game seemed to be constantly trying to get me to play just on the gamepad. The game supports off-tv play and I felt like it was emphasizing this to me, whenever I used the camera I would get moved to the gamepad for my attention and I was fine with this. The problem was only noticeable when I fought ghosts, if I was attacked while holding the camera my character would be thrown to the ground and drop it meaning I had to quickly move my attention back to the TV which would really quickly follow with looking back at the gamepad. Having to quickly move between screens is more of a frustration based on how the game is handled which I was fine with, but it more seemed like the game was trying to push me to go and turn off the tv and play just on the gamepad which in this game I felt wouldn’t quite fit the atmosphere.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is actually a pretty good game that really must be played on the Wii U. The game may not thrive in its gameplay and have a few ideas that leave much to be desired, but this is one of those games where you come for the story and in that case this is truly brilliant. The very essence of the mystery and the excellent story found within Fatal Frame pulled me through and I feel better for playing this, forgive the shortcomings and there is a good game to be found here.

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