When Fatal Frame originally came out on the Playstation 2, it was one of the best horror titles I’ve played up to that point. Its innovative gameplay, unique Japanese setting and creepy as hell ghosts all contributed to making it one of the most unforgettable experiences of my young adult life. I was honestly stoked as hell when Koei Tecmo announced a port of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.
While I did have a Wii U, I never did bother with it much. Nintendo games haven’t had much luck in drawing me in (which is why we rarely do Nintendo reviews) and I wasn’t about to make time just to play one game.
Well…now I don’t have a reason for skipping the game since it’s multiplatform.
The question remains though…is it worth it?
What is Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water?
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a third person (with first person combat) survival horror game developed and published by Koei Tecmo. It was originally released on the Wii U, before its current remaster for the PC, Playstation and Xbox consoles.
In Maiden of Black Water, as in all other Fatal Frame games, you’re going to be fending off evil spirits. It’s all done with the aid of an old camera, called the Camera Obscura. In the series lore, the Camera Obscura not only has the ability to see spirits, but also to banish them from the world by taking pictures of them. In lieu of bullets, you use rolls of film, with varying power of exorcism…yeah, don’t think too much about it.
What makes the series creepy is that combat is done in first person, through the viewfinder of the Camera Obscura. Unlike modern cameras, you can’t snap willy nilly too. One, you’ll run out of film (other than the weakest) pretty quickly and two, the camera needs to charge in-between shots.
There’s a rhythm and flow to battles in the game.
You aim at your target and wait for the right opening. Snap too early and you’re wide open as the camera recharges for another shot. Snap too late and you’re hurt. There’s also a very handy dodge mechanic (hit A while being attacked) that takes you out of harms way. It’s damn important to master because almost always, you’ll be fighting ghosts in cramped surroundings. More often than not, you’ll not be able to get good shots off before you’re swarmed. That’s where the dodge really comes in handy. It allows you to reposition yourself without HP damage.
You need know how spirits attack too because that’s the best time to counter them for massive damage. Do it right and you’ll trigger a Fatal Frame, which stuns the ghost and hits them with a ton of damage. In Maiden of Black Water, there’s also a technique called Shutter Chance. Similar to Fatal Frame, doing a Shutter Chance will also stun and damage ghosts.
The difference being Shutter Chances come around when you have 5 different points of attacks in the viewfinder while Fatal Frames are only available during certain frames of an enemy’s attack animation. You’ll want to vary your attacks so that you’re constantly stunning spirits via Fatal Frames or Shutter Chances to keep from getting hurt. It’s the only way to survive when you’re ganged up and forced to fight more than one ghost at once.
On top of that, the Camera Obscura (there are two different versions in the game) also comes with its own custom attacks (via different lenses) you can equip.
Like past games, you can also upgrade the lenses and the Camera Obscura (with the points you get from completing episodes and beating ghosts) to become more powerful as you play, though it’s the lenses that you’ll want to juice up first.
One can heal your HP, another can do more damage…that sort of thing. Unfortunately, the other Camera Obscura (which belongs to Ren) is crap. There’s no way to change its lens, which means you’re stuck with its sole skill, taking 4 pictures at a time. Sounds cool until you realize it’s a waste of film, and the cooldown time is nuts. It’s essentially useless and I never use it at all.
Speaking of useless, that’s pretty much describes the plot too.
It’s way too confusing and the disjointed way the game tells it (via books you find) means you’ll get confused right off the bat. It’s a shame too, as the story’s pretty interesting, involving rituals on a creepy mountain, marrying ghost brides and sacrifice.
Too bad it’s all convoluted as hell in its presentation.
Therein lies the main issue with Maiden of Black Water; it’s too complicated and broken apart for its own good.
It’s split up into bite sized chunks, each with one of the three protagonists taking the lead. You don’t get to choose who you play as, which means a story thread that involves one character might suddenly be left hanging as the game changes to another character to play in the next chapter.
That means the areas you can explore are limited to what episode you’re in. You rarely get to go exploring into other areas because they’re only unlocked in later chapters. That in turn makes each episode feel incredibly linear with no room for exploration.
The chapters also break up the game needlessly and contributes to the disjointed feeling you get.
It also doesn’t help matters that you’ll be retreading the same areas over and over and over again, even in different chapters. Even as the plot progresses, you’ll still be going through areas from the early going at times. It’s boring and artificially padding out the length and just reeks of laziness.
Due to the game being broken up into episodes, there’s barely any tension to it. I didn’t feel any suspense exploring the haunted mountain or its locations.
I do have to admit though, I love that some of the stages take place in modern locales. I’m honestly sick of the rural and traditional Japanese settings of the series and the modern settings (like a tram station and a stretch of road leading into a tunnel) breathe new life into the stagnating series.
Hopefully the next entry takes place completely in modern settings for a change of pace.
While the modern locales are a welcome change, the pacing for the episodes aren’t. Whatever suspense and dread the episodes manage to build evaporate as soon as the episode ends. It also doesn’t help that you can buy items to replenish your stocks. There’s no pressure to play safe because you can easily buy back what you use later.
I’d also like to highlight the game’s incredibly broken auto-save and checkpoint system. You can NOT save manually in the game. At least, I sure as hell didn’t find a way to. You have to depend on the game’s auto-save. Problem it is doesn’t save regularly at all. You might be 20 or 30 minutes in before you hit another checkpoint and it saves. If you die? Well, it’s back to the last autosave for you.
I’ve lost a lot of progress in this way because of the game’s stupid autosave system. It’s deliberately punishing…for no reason at all!
Also, I’d like to know which genius thought it’d be fun to randomly hurt you when you’re picking up items. I think this was also implemented in the Wii Fatal Frame II remake and brought over here as well. WHY?!
It’s tied to the wetness mechanic (wherein the wetter you are, the more susceptible to attacks you become) but it’s incredibly stupid and a major annoyance. Not only do you HAVE to hold RT EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. to pick up something, you can also get randomly grabbed by a ghost hand (which hurts your health) if you’re drenched.
Honestly? The mechanic sucks.
Sure, the see-thru clothing of the ladies as they get wet is awesome fan service and I love fighting extra ghosts (it just gives me more points to spend on upgrades!) but the random ghostly hand grabs are a massive pain in the ass.
I can’t emphasize how stupidly cheap, annoying and a lazy way to generate tepid scares it is.
It’s also a sign that barely any effort went in to the remaster judging by how the game looks.
Despite being on vastly more powerful hardware (even taking into account the Xbox One and Playstation 4), the game looks like crap. On 4K, textures are muddy and models (both for characters and environments) are laughably low polygon.
That’s a crime against fans because due to the low quality visuals, the ghosts all look like crap.
Apart from a few genuinely creepy ones (such as the Tall Lady), the rest feel like rehashed spirits from previous entries. How many long haired women in kimono ghosts are there in Japan anyways?! The handful of ghost types repeat, which makes you feel like you’re fighting an army of clone spirits. Hell, at times you’ll be fighting more than one of the same type.
I do appreciate that there are backstories for every ghost you encounter. After you beat a ghost, you can quickly rush in and touch them to absorb their memories.
If it’s the first time you’re absorbing that particular spirit, you’ll even get a short movie clip seeing how they died. It’s pretty cool and one of the best parts of the game, though I do wish the movie clips are better quality. They’re supposed to look like VHS tapes being played back but the resolution is so horrendous you’ll barely be able to make anything out.
Thankfully, the framerate remains stable, but that’s small consolation considering everything looks like rubbish.
One other particularly annoying carryover is the painfully slow door opening animation. I get it, the game’s trying to build suspense. Why then are there barely any scares that happen when you open a door?
It’s no longer suspenseful when you’re just plain bored out of your mind waiting to get into the next room! Sigh.
The Bottom Line.
Fans of the series will definitely embrace Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.
I’ve a ton of criticisms against it but in the end, I grudgingly admit that I did enjoy the game. Maybe it’s my love for the series that’s blinded me but Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water does have its charms. The unique Japanese aesthetics, the traditional Fatal Frame gameplay and the solid survival horror mechanics pulled me in, even if it was against my will at times.
If you’re not a fan of the series though, you’ll find that there’s a lot to hate about Maiden of Black Water.
It’s not going to win any converts simply because it feels archaic and stuck in time. While other survival horror games have evolved (take a look at the Resident Evil series), Fatal Frame seems to be mired in the past, with its focus on traditional Japanese horror. That’s fine (and commendable even) but it really needs to amp up its scare factor, plot and most importantly, visuals to remain relevant.
Until then, Fatal Frame will always be a niche title, even for survival horror fans.
Decent Fatal Frame game but technical issues mar an otherwise enjoyable horror experience.
- Taking pictures of ghosts is still great fun.
- Some genuinely creepy spirits.
- Exploring some areas for the first time.
- Not a lot of jump scares.
- Episodic nature ruins pacing.
- Holding RT to pick up items.
- Outdated, ugly visuals.
- Hard to follow plot.
- Not scary or creepy.
- Going through explored areas over and over.
- The checkpoint system.