Every culture throughout time has expressed some interest or belief in the existence of ghosts. Beings who were once flesh and blood but, having passed on from this life, persist amongst the living as ephemeral forms. With Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, the fifth mainline entry in Koei Tecmo’s well-established horror series—known as Zero in Japan and Project Zero in Europe and Australia—we get a glimpse into how this dualistic view of nature has taken shape in Japanese pop culture. Stories of ‘yuurei,’ the Japanese word for apparition, have a long tradition in Japanese folklore. Tragic at their core, tales of yuurei typically involve incidents of murder, suicide, and other weighty misfortunes, the spirit of the deceased impeded from that eternal slumber following a traumatic event. The unresolved issue at hand keeps the departed malcontent lingering about, haunting those who bear some relation to its plight or have stumbled into its domain. Such is the backdrop of Fatal Frame V, or Maiden of Black Water.
Full disclosure: This is not only my first ever foray into Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, which originally launched in 2014 as a Wii U exclusive before its remastered release on all platforms this past October. It is also my introduction to the Fatal Frame franchise. That might seem odd for a series that will be turning 20 years old this December. Let’s just say, I’ve always been more of a Resident Evil guy. It’s not for any particular reason. To be sure, horror games aren’t my usual cup of tea, but I guess I’ve never been stricken by anything in the past that impressed upon me an imperative to play a Fatal Frame title.
I don’t know why but that changed with Maiden of Black Water. From the moment I saw its announcement for the Nintendo Switch, I knew I had to get it. If you’re someone who has played any or all of Fatal Frame’s past entries, or even Maiden of Black Water, and is simply curious to know how this recent remaster of a seven-year-old game compares to the Wii U version or its predecessors, then my apologies in advance. I can’t really provide a definitive answer to that. However, if you’re interested in discovering how my introduction to the series measured up to expectations, then read on!
The overarching narrative of Maiden centers around the haunted Mt. Hikami, a site once dedicated to local superstitions before reverting to a tourist hotspot. Now, in its current state, it’s neither of these things. Replete with an elaborate shrine structure, torii gates, rows of stone lanterns littered alongside the mountain’s winding pathways, as well as a decrepit inn, hot springs, and a cable car lift (which is still, happily, operable), Mt. Hikami is a destination rich in history and myth. It is also a popular scene for those seeking to end their lives. As Maiden warns players at the outset, this game deals with a number of heavy themes and depicts some gruesome imagery. If you find the subjects of death or suicide difficult to process, Maiden of Black Water may not be for you.
There are three playable protagonists who are especially drawn to Mt. Hikami’s slopes, each with their own marked purposes. These individual storylines are tangentially related to one another and also involve an additional character who plays a crucial role in each of the respective narratives. There is Yuri Kozukata, who, together with her antique shop employer, Hisoka Kurosawa, is first encountered scouring Mt. Hikami for a missing photo album that is of interest to an acquaintance of Yuri’s. She and Hisoka have reason to believe that it is located at Mt. Hikami’s old inn. Next up, you’re introduced to the novelist Ren Hojo and his assistant, Rui Kagamiya. It is research for an upcoming book that brings Ren and Rui to Mt. Hikami’s accursed surroundings, and which causes him to enlist the help of Yuri in tracking down the aforementioned photo album. Finally, there is Miu Hinasaki, whom you meet in the prologue. Her journey to Mt. Hikami is perhaps most dire: her mother, Miku Hinasaki, who also served as the main character in the original Fatal Frame, has gone missing. Miu senses that Mt. Hikami holds the key to her search.
The Camera Obscura
What sets Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water apart from other survival horror experiences is not merely that it revels in Japan’s time-honored culture and traditions, from the architecture that you explore to Mt. Hikami’s malevolent specters, which include ghastly temple monks and maidens clad in white, elegant, funerary kimonos. There’s also the fact that—as the (North American version) name suggests—your weapon for warding off aggressive spirits in Fatal Frame is a camera, or the ‘Camera Obscura.’
Appearing to be an ordinary antique device, the Camera Obscura is anything but. With an ability to dissolve menacing phantoms, and utilizing an array of different lenses that confer unique advantages on its wielder, the role of photography in building the world and narrative of Maiden, as well as being its focal gameplay mechanic, was an immensely refreshing and enjoyable affair for this newcomer to the franchise.
Combat and Rewards
Combat in Maiden of Black Water is both easy to grasp and execute, with most of the difficulty boiling down to decisions regarding how to best spend reward points on various upgrades and enhancements for the Camera Obscura. When navigating Maiden’s unsettling environments, the game is set in a third-person perspective. Looking through the Camera Obscura switches to a first-person vantage point. Fortunately, you’re still given prompts to notify you of enemies outside your line of vision or when they’re readying an attack from the rear.
Just about every damage-dealing shot from your camera lens results in you receiving points. The closer in range you are or the greater the number of ghosts within your frame, the more damage you will inflict. Hence, the more points you’ll be rewarded. Photographing an adversary also causes ‘spirit fragments’ to break off from it, and these become targets as well. Locking on to five such targets can temporarily stun a ghost, while, if you can manage to time it correctly, snapping a photo right at the moment a specter is about to cause you bodily injury will initiate a Fatal Frame attack, exacting a more destructive blow.
This only barely scratches the surface but should paint a general picture (no pun intended) of the distinctive character of Fatal Frame’s combat. None of this, I should think, will be novel to veterans of Koei Tecmo’s ghost hunting saga. Aside from using your points to modify the Camera Obscura (it should be noted that Ren has his own camera which functions slightly differently and must be upgraded separately from the one Yuri and Miu uses), you can also purchase additional healing items and whatnot at the start of each of Maiden’s sixteen episodes, called ‘Drops,’ including a short Prologue and Interlude. Or, if you’re feeling fashionable, you can buy several different outfits for the three main leads. If you like a pinch of erotica in your horror, or your tastes tend towards what some Japanese might call ‘kawaii,’ you’ll be pleased with more than a few of Maiden’s costume options.
I tend to be a little bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to survival horror games (it’s my excuse for indefinitely putting off Outlast 2). My palms quickly perspire, my heart races, and after around thirty minutes, I’m usually ready for a cigarette break.
That wasn’t really ever the case with Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water. It certainly contains a good jump scare every now and then but, to my great relief, I never felt stressed out or downright terrified. That’s not to say that the game isn’t creepy. Nay, on this front Maiden is a psychological showpiece. The developers did a superb job in crafting a world that completely sucks you in, leaving you somewhere between a state of curiosity, always wishing to press onward, and a sense of looming unease. Whether it was wandering the narrow corridors of the aptly named ‘Shrine of Dolls,’ which is as uninviting as it sounds, or the Unfathomable Forest, I was continually mesmerized and spooked. It may be a remaster but visually it’s clearly a product of its time. Since that time wasn’t all that long ago, I thought Fatal Frame on the whole looked pretty darn nice. It’s not pushing any boundaries but remains one of those experiences that I caught myself occasionally thinking, ‘I’m actually playing this on a handheld device!’ Call me old-fashioned.
What was it that I found so engrossing about my time on Mt. Hikami, or back at Hisoka Kurasawa’s antique shop, which serves as the group’s home base? It’s not just the ojizou statues that stare at you as you meander about Mt. Hikami’s dark, eerie woods, or the old temple structures, with their traditional tatami mat floors and sliding doors, or anything else one could mention as an example of the refined delicacy that pervades so much of Japanese aesthetics. It is, unquestionably, in part, the game’s sound effects, which are a perfect example of the kind of subtle tension that Fatal Frame constantly invokes. This is particularly evident whenever you try to pick up an item. You have to hold down the ZR button, the tempo of the background noises building up to a crescendo, a ghostly arm occasionally reaching out of nowhere to grab you. If you don’t let go of ZR quickly enough, it will latch onto you until you shake it off, sapping a small portion of your health.
Another area in which I consider Fatal Frame to excel is its world-building. There are interesting details contained in seemingly all places, from ghosts you can ‘touch’ upon claiming victory (sometimes issuing a brief cutscene that reveals a scene from their past) to the endless memos and books you chance upon. The latter is by no means an innovative method of conveying information in games, and I imagine most will skip through a lot of the lines. Don’t. Yes, reading small, thin text against the dirty, gray-colored paper it’s written on is literally a painful endeavor (it wasn’t a problem for me in handheld mode but when playing docked I had to continually squint my eyes or utilize the Switch hardware’s zoom feature). But it’s worth it.
Mt. Hikami is full of secrets, left behind by those who made it their final pilgrimage. Journal scraps speak of ‘Ghost Marriages’ and ‘Postmortem Photography,’ which, based upon real-life practices or not, I found simply intrinsically fascinating to read about. There’s also a lot of sadness in many of the scribblings; people who had given up on their hopes, convinced that death was the only available solace. Whatever else one might say about Maiden’s story or its implementation, it feels like a deeply personal experience that, if nothing else, gave me a glimpse into the artistic minds of those who clearly poured their heart (and some pretty eccentric passions) into it.
Where Maiden of Black Water Stumbles
In spite of everything that Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water does well, there are multiple aspects in which the game fell short for me. Let’s start with the controls. While I wouldn’t ascribe to Maiden the god-awful clunkiness that was so common in several older survival horror titles that I’ve played, steering your way around its ominous environs still suffers from a certain stiffness. This is probably attributable to a number of factors. For one, you’re often switching between different viewpoints, i.e. when operating the Camera Obscura as opposed to merely walking around. Accompanying this change in the camera’s angle are varying movement speeds, and the transition doesn’t always feel as fluid as it should. Opening doors is also tortuously slow. I suspect the cause is twofold: to give new areas time to load-in and also to heighten the suspense, since you never know what’s waiting on the other side. The process involved when picking up items, to which I’ve already alluded, only added to my increasing sensitivity towards the tediousness of Maiden’s fundamental mechanics.
To be clear, these are arguably minor issues and hardly bothered me until I got deeper into the game. I think what magnified my annoyance with each passing hour that I spent in Maiden’s melancholy milieu stems from the serious bouts of déjà vu I began to frequently meet about two-thirds of the way through. As I stated, the game is divided into sixteen episodes or chapters. It seemed like over half of these more or less stuck to the same tiresome formula: so-and-so has left for Mt. Hikami and hasn’t returned. You have to go find them and bring them back. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t largely reduce an otherwise poetic story about love and death into a series of glorified fetch-quests that felt as uninspired as the game’s introductory chapters were chock-full of excitement and intrigue. Although you’re usually given the option to ‘shadow read’ the direction you must go to progress the narrative, I’m the type of gamer who has to check every room and grab every shiny item. Having to backtrack through the Unfathomable Forest for the sixth or seventh time, as well-designed as it is, to accomplish a task you swore you had just completed, well, just isn’t that much fun.
Finally, with regards to Maiden’s repetitive gameplay, there are four bonus ‘mini-episodes’ that you unlock after finishing the game. These feature Ayane from Koei Tecmo’s Dead or Alive series and are built upon a premise that is quite unlike Maiden’s main campaign. Rather than brandish a camera that kills(?) ghosts, Ayane is given a ‘Spirit Stone Flashlight.’ It’s basically a weapon that can temporarily immobilize spirits but never eliminate them. Thus, Ayane is forced to rely on stealth, sneaking past enemies when possible—and they will react differently to her presence whether she runs, walks, or stands still—or stunning them. It’s a neat deviation from the thrust of Maiden’s other Drops (i.e. episodes), and I couldn’t help but wonder why various, interesting elements like this couldn’t have been introduced into the game earlier. There are a couple of genuinely cool segments involving surveillance cameras but for the most part Maiden of Black Water sticks to the same game plan throughout. It’s mostly entertaining while it lasts but, like any old clueless ghoul, it doesn’t quite seem to realize when it has overstayed its welcome.
At the end of the day, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a solid effort despite its flaws. Like I said in the opening, if you’ve played other Fatal Frame entries and currently sit on the fence about Black Water, I can only say that it’s a memorable survival horror ordeal that fans of the genre should not hesitate to check out. Or, perhaps you’re just curious about the insights it sheds on Japanese aesthetics, fascinated by its distinct and deeply immersive traditional context? In that case, you absolutely should give Maiden of Black Water a try, as well as listen to Matt Sainsbury from Digitally Downloaded offer an excellent breakdown of what we can learn… about Japanese art from this game!
In any event, I hope this latest iteration of Fatal Frame isn’t the last time I’m cropping images of Japanese ghosts on the Nintendo Switch. Who knows, maybe in a few years, I’ll even be introducing myself with the phrase, ‘I’m more of a Fatal Frame guy.’
I’m not there yet. Nonetheless, Maiden of Black Water is sure one hell of a start.
- Gripping, haunting environments that beautifully embody traditional Japanese culture
- Engaging combat distinguished by its use of photography
- A solid progression system, full of collectibles and rewards to enhance replay value
- Interesting details and background information that really fleshes out its melancholic atmosphere
- Hellooo, Ayane!
- Some text is difficult to read when playing in docked mode
- Movement is a little stiff
- The narrative too often feels flat and stretched thin by repetitive, monotonous objectives
- Being forced to backtrack through the same areas half a dozen times becomes proportionally less enjoyable as the game wears on
A review copy was provided by the publisher.