DROWNING IN FEAR
Fatal Frame is not a series that I’m overly familiar with. In fact, other than a brief mention from a friend about seven years ago about how “scary” the PlayStation 2 entries were, I hadn’t even heard of them. All that changed recently when I finally tried it out for myself.
Koei Tecmo’s Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is the horror game I’ve been waiting for ever since the genre took a distressing turn following Resident Evil 4’s release. What we have here is a slow-paced, high-tension game with an incredibly haunting and moody atmosphere, sowed with a sense of dread which stays with you at all times.
This Wii U exclusive fifth entry in the Fatal Frame series is great for newcomers, requiring no prior knowledge of the entries before it. Throughout its 13 chapters, you will take control of three sullen protagonists: Yuri Kozukata, Ren Hojo and Miu Hinasaki, the last of whom has only minimal ties to previous games.
The environments they explore are based on real-world suicide hotspots in Japan, such as the Aokigahara forest, and are perfectly accented by the ghosts which litter every environment. Many of these poor souls are docile and locked into one location, eternally forced to replay the moment when they took their own lives.
Walking down a peaceful forest path will suddenly take a chilling turn as terrible screams call out, and eagle-eyed players may spot an ethereal young woman leaping from an overhead cliff, splattering onto the ground below. Moments like this are memorable in a powerful, sobering sort of way.
However, not every ghost is so tragic. Some of these people are just bastards after death, attacking the living or tricking them into killing themselves, thus adding to the location’s undead population. In times like this, you would want to be Dean Winchester, armed with his rock salt shotgun or protective charm — not a seventeen year-old girl with a camera. You’d be wrong, though.
The camera obscura is the focal point of this series: an invention capable of exorcising these ruthless spirits. This is where the fun comes in, as Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water features the most brilliant use of the Wii U’s gamepad to date. You literally hold the power of the camera obscura in your hands!
Raising the gamepad and pressing a button allows you to look upon its smaller screen like a camera’s viewfinder, showing you the weak points and spirits fragments of the foe currently attacking. Every ghost has different weak points, and many of them require you to rotate the gamepad in a specific way to fit them all into your sights if you wish to score the ultimate shot.
Additionally, each of the three protagonists feature their own special ability with the camera. Ren can take a rapid-fire series of shots with the press of a button, Miu can paralyze opponents, and Yuri can deal extra damage. New lenses, each with a different power, are scattered around the game or unlocked by defeating specific enemies. Their usefulness varies, and though they can offer such benefits as health regeneration, I saw little point in using anything besides the lens with boosted damage.
As the camera obscura was invented in a time before digital formats, you’ll find yourself seeking boxes of film with differing damage ratings to battle the restless souls who torment you. The weakest film is infinite, which may seem like a cheat until you realize just how little damage it deals per shot. Even so, my inner hoarder instincts kicked in early and I rarely relied on any of the heavier-hitting types.
One aspect of gameplay I find puzzling is the much-touted focus on water. Its importance in the story makes perfect sense, but the game features a Wetness Meter that increases as you wade through waist-high water or walk under drizzling waterfalls. During my playtime this Wetness Meter amounted to very little: so far as I can tell, the biggest drawback to a full meter is that spectral hands are more likely to grab you while reaching out for items, and you otherwise only take a little bit of extra damage. You may also find and use candles to dry yourself off, though it’s hardly worth the effort except in extreme cases.
Defeating ghosts efficiently will increase your rank for the current chapter and give you a chance to run up to the wailing, fading ghost to “glimpse” his or her past. These black-and-white visions are often brutal and horrifying, which I suppose is why Nintendo tried to hide this game away. One such vision sees a homicidal maniac chasing down a group of innocent shrine maidens, slaying them before gouging out their eyes and cutting Glasgow smiles across their faces. This is heavy subject matter, Doc.
Still not sold? What, you’re not a fan of horror games? Then just think of this thing as a whacked-out, demented new iteration of Pokémon Snap. Remember those poor suicidal ghosts from earlier? Snapping their picture, usually as they splat themselves or slit their own throats, will add them to your album and net you points which can be used to upgrade your camera obscura. This task ain’t easy, either. Many of these suckers are gone in the blink of an eye, requiring lightning-quick reflexes and pinpoint precision which would make even Frank West from Dead Rising jealous. And he’s covered wars, you know!
In case you can’t tell, I’m singing this game’s praises as loudly as I can — but that’s not to say that it’s perfect. There are several varied locations, each with a different feel, but you visit them often and as different characters while you progress through the story. Sometimes you take different paths (the forest is surprisingly massive and labyrinthine) but you ultimately find yourself with a sense of déjà vu, which may turn off some people. The movement controls also feel a little stiff and take about 20 minutes to adjust to.
The graphics are perfectly serviceable, and certainly some of the best I’ve seen on Wii U, though a lot of textures don’t quite hold up when viewed up close. Other small graphical oddities, like the minimal lip movements of speaking characters, may bother you, though this is a pretty well-presented package nonetheless.
To the game’s credit the water looks great, and as the Wetness Meter fills, you’ll find your character’s clothing sticking convincingly to the wearer. Touches like this really draw you into the experience, making everything seem more credible somehow.
The sound design is also top-notch, with perfectly atmospheric music which really sets the mood for every chapter. My personal favorite touch is the disturbing cries of the spirits you battle, with their voices erupting from the gamepad’s speaker.
Players expecting a great off-tv experience may be disappointed, as it doesn’t seem fully implemented. Most cutscenes don’t seem to play audio on the gamepad, though with much of the game taking place in dense wooded areas the smaller screen was never going to be ideal anyway.
Although I dug the story as a whole, the manner in which these characters are drawn back to Mount Hikami, where some serious rituals have gone horribly wrong, seems clunky. I promise you that it makes sense in the end, but until you get to that point you’ll be screaming “JUST SKIP TOWN, DUMBASS!!!” every time this trio treks back to the mountain while taking turns rescuing each other.
This game tackles some serious themes though, with the aforementioned suicide, demonic entities, incest, creepy underaged sidekicks, love after death, friend-zoning, human sacrifice and other terribly ill-advised rituals. I can certainly see why the marketing was non-existent, but Maiden of Black Water is truly a gem in the Nintendo library of games.
The mechanics of the battles are simple yet thrillingly fun, and I never grew tired of these encounters — and there are plenty of them! In fact, this game in general has lots of meat to it. Precariously-placed items and hidden journals will have you exploring every area, and hunting for the more elusive ghosts for your album provide added replay value as well. Each character also boasts secret costumes and accessories, such as Samus’ Zero Suit or Princess Zelda’s dress, giving you reason enough to begin another playthrough. Want an extra challenge? Tackle the game’s hardest difficulty, which is sure to make the most seasoned gamer cry.
The Verdict: 8.5 out of 10
With a lengthy story mode featuring multiple endings, fun gameplay, memorable environments, haunting scenery and plenty of fun unlockables… this thing is definitely worth the $50. Fans of Dead Or Alive and Ninja Gaiden may also take particular interest in the additional unlockable story and its recognizable protagonist. Still on the fence? Give Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water a try for yourself, as the first two chapters are available for free on the Nintendo eShop.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Chris Cobb is an Associate Writer at MONG and a bit of a sad clown with far too much time on his hands. When he’s not lost in a sandbox world or chasing keys around mansions, you can find him on Twitter.