Project Zero, also known as Fatal Frame in North America, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year by re-releasing the fifth main entry in the series, Maiden of Black Water. As the name Fatal Frame suggests, the gameplay focuses on utilizing a camera, or more specifically, a camera obscura, to combat the supernatural. The series focuses on survival horror, much like other popular counterparts like Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
- Camera obscura is a highlight;
- Explorable environments.
- Slow, clunky gameplay;
- Competing tones;
- Overused text story explanations.
Maiden of Black Water follows the story of three main protagonists as they explore supernatural happenings focusing on the abandoned Mt. Hikami. Once a highly spiritual location, now haunted by tragedy and surrounded by superstition. Many people disappear on the mountain and even local law enforcement claims they have simply been spirited away.
As a warning to players, this game can get rather graphic at times, especially on the subject of suicide. This can be a fun game to play for Halloween, but just make sure to be aware that this game has as much dark and serious themes as it does ghost-photography action.
Also, while it is exciting that a long-standing franchise is celebrating its 20th anniversary, this game has already been around for about six years. Maiden of Black Water was originally released on the Wii U worldwide in 2015, so if any fans are hoping for a brand new addition to the franchise, they will have to continue being patient for now.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is not action heavy, it is much more about the slow burn, which bleeds into the gameplay. This is a great call back to older survival horror games, but some of that charm is lost compared to more modern games. The protagonist move extremely slow, but that wouldn’t be too much of a problem if other factors didn’t compound the issue. The movement is often jerky and clunky, and every interaction, with doors, with items, is also painstakingly slow. This can build immersion and work towards a slow building scare, but after a while it does get repetitive and the time really adds up.
For example, there is a section of the game early on where the player must briefly explore the character’s home and place of business. Despite the fact that this shouldn’t be nearly as scary as hiking up a cursed mountain in the dark, the character still moves incredibly slowly, and when she opens doors, even the door to her own bedroom, she opens it slowly and cautiously. This behavior makes sense in an environment where actual ghosts attack, but it can be a bit distracting in a more familiar setting. Not to mention that the doors, even the character’s bedroom door, all close right after entering the room, which forces the player to experience the elongated door opening sequence again. It’s a real missed opportunity not to be more selective about which doors close on their own. If they all do it, then it just becomes normal.
Where this game shines is the combat, that is to say, taking photos of ghosts to exorcise them. While the character and the camera remain rather slow moving, the ghosts are somewhat more active, and the tension that can come from being attacked is palpable. But unfortunately, even that is undercut most of the time by the plethora of healing items available to the player. The question of survival doesn’t really come into play too often, which can have an adverse effect on the “horror” half of “survival horror” as well. Ultimately, the gameplay is clunky, slow, and repetitive at its worst, and somewhat tense at best.
Searching for Immersion
Maiden of Black Water maintains a dark atmosphere throughout the game. The environments are somewhat linear, but still explorable, with divergent paths and interactive locations peppered throughout. Aside from the typical enemy ghosts that need to be defeated with the camera obscura, there are also special event ghosts that you can get points for catching on camera, but the player does have to be quick, making them some of the more challenging tasks the game has to offer.
The atmosphere that is brought by the dark and dangerous environments is sometimes lost by the characters themselves. There’s no denying that anyone hiking up a cold mountain at night through the rain in a sheer blouse and shorts comes off as somewhat impractical. The alternate costumes also include a bikini, which seemingly intentionally reaches the point of comedy. However, the tone of the game never reflects these outfit choices. It’s one thing to have fun with an outfit, but it’s another for a character to be fighting off the ghosts of people who committed suicide with a bikini on. On some level it is just shameless fan service, and it makes immersion nearly impossible.
A Frightening Amount of Explanation
Speaking of immersion being shattered, Maiden of Black Water’s story doesn’t do the game any favors. Each chapter of the game is called a “drop” and follows one of the main protagonists as they explore a new area, and usually deal with ghosts. Most of these chapters are bookended by a few small paragraphs of text to explain what has been happening in the interim. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but sometimes it does feel unnecessary.
For example, in the Second Drop (light spoiler warning) the opening text reads: “...Hisoka has gone off somewhere and hasn’t returned… As [Yuri] sits waiting at the antiques shop, a girl named Fuyuhi Himino shows up, claiming to have enlisted Hisoka to help her find a missing person”. The following cutscene then plays out most of what is described. Yuri, the player, sits at the antiques shop, and Fuyuhi arrives, asking for Hisoka and talking about her missing friend. Yuri explains that Hisoka hasn’t returned.
If reading both of those explanations felt unnecessary, imagine how it feels to read about a scene and then watch the scene. The game seems overly concerned with making sure the player understands what’s happening, rather than just trusting them to understand based on the cutscenes shown.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water arrives just in time to celebrate Halloween as well as the series’ 20th anniversary. Unfortunately, a combination of clunky gameplay, impractical character decisions, and overused text exposition hold this game back from where it could be. Using the camera obscura to excorcise ghosts is tense and exciting, and the exploration isn’t half bad, but it’s not enough to tip the scales in the right direction.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water has its moments. It is certainly not the scariest game out there for Halloween, and the gameplay and story certainly leave something to be desired, but for long time fans of the franchise, it will get the job done. The camera obscura is certainly the highlight, adding some much needed action and tension to what can be a slow, repetitive, and tedious experience at times.
Despite the somewhat linear trails the player must follow, many locations do feel dynamic. What seemed like harmless spirits when first encountered, might try to attack you later on in the story. Having different interactions with the same spirits makes the story much more engaging and memorable. This is also helped by the unique event spirits mentioned earlier. Hopefully the next addition to the series, whenever that may be, finds more ways to keep the game tense and exciting, because the scales certainly aren’t tipping that way now.
Fans of the franchise might have missed Maiden of Black Water when it arrived exclusively on the Wii U back in 2015. It’s no secret that the Wii U was not the most popular Nintendo console. Thankfully, the game is now coming to all major consoles as well as PC, opening it up to a much wider audience.
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Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water arrives on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and PC via Steam.
Matt Buckley | Gamepressure.com