Of the many classic video game horror series, Fatal Frame has been the quietest in recent years with its most recent entry arriving seven years ago on a platform that ultimately didn’t pan out too well and the one before that never even seeing Western shores. With so few horror fans actually having a chance to see what Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water had to offer, Koei Tecmo is celebrating the series’ twentieth anniversary with an enhanced release of the game on the current generation of consoles. So now that this previous Wii U exclusive is available on multiple platforms, is this horror game worth revisiting?
Based around the fictional setting of Mt. Hikami, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water focuses on the journey of three characters who must uncover the mysteries that surround the mountain which is obviously based around Japan’s infamous Aokigahara forest. The mountain was once host to a sect of famous shrine maidens but has since become an accursed place that draws in those who wish to take their own lives and even force those who venture into the mountain to meet their end should they try and resist.
The three playable characters this time around are Yuri Kozukata, Miu Hinasaki and Ren Hojo, with Yuri being the default main character and the other two’s storylines revolving around her. Each of their stories are intertwined as they find themselves drawn to Mt. Hikami’s horrific past in some form and it is up to the player to help uncover why exactly they are drawn to this place and possibly save their lives in the process. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water finds itself in a rather odd place where the concept of a haunted suicide mountain is makes for an interesting premise, especially one that involves eliminating ghosts with a special camera, and has an interesting enough reason for the cast of characters to risk their lives, but still falls rather flat in the end.
Whereas the setting and surrounding story are fleshed out through collectible text that players can uncover, as well as through “Fatal Glances” from certain defeated ghosts that can be missed entirely and there are a couple of different endings for each character, the problem with Maiden of Black Water is two-fold. The writing of the storylines themselves are not only fairly predictable partway through the game but the storylines themselves aren’t entirely special, especially in regards to the Fatal Frame series as a whole.
To make matters worse, the line delivery of the characters is flat out terrible with nearly every dramatic scene featuring the most wooden acting imaginable. This leads to a storyline that, while unique enough in its own right as stories like this are rarely seen in Western horror, doesn’t live up to its potential despite offering plenty of tension and more than a few scares through most of the game.
The key element that sets Fatal Frame apart from every other horror game is the camera based combat system and that remains as core of an aspect in Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water as ever. Every playable character in the game will have their own “Camera Obscura” that is capable of not only taking pictures of various ghastly ghosts, malicious spirits, and lingering souls but also bringing vanished items back to reality from time to time.
With the Wii U version in the rear-view mirror the Xbox version of the game instead focuses on using the shoulder buttons to rotate the camera’s viewfinder to best target a ghost’s various weak spots or group multiple enemies together for the best possible shot. These photos are handled incredibly well with players being able to use a variety of different film types to deal extra damage or reload quicker and even utilize spiritual energy to trigger special “shots” that can stun ghosts, heal the player, deal extra damage, and more. Whenever a ghost is attempting to attack the player they can trigger a “Fatal Frame” dealing massive damage and providing them with a short window of rapid shots or simply dodge out of the way though the dodge mechanic is a bit rough.
One thing that is worth mentioning is that outside of actually taking on ghosts, almost everything in Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is fairly slow by nature. All three characters have a slow walking speed and an only slightly faster jog. While this slow speed is intentional as many locations are fairly small and the developers likely didn’t want players to run past a jump scare or enemy encounter, the fact that even item pickups suffer from being incredibly slow is more than a bit annoying. Once again, this is an intentional design as players need to keep an eye out for phantasmal hands that can grab and damage a character trying to pick up an item but after dealing with hundreds of items over the course of the game, these simply became more frustrating than actually scary.
As players take down ghosts with their camera and take snapshots of supernatural events they will earn points that can, in turn, be used to purchase consumable items, upgrades to the camera that will improve its damage, range, reload time, and spiritual absorption, and of course costumes and accessories. Given the wide range of upgrades available and the fact that levels are given a letter grade, players are encouraged to play through a previous stage multiple times though whether they will actually want to do this is questionable.
This is primarily due to the fact that quite a few areas in Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water are re-used excessively. While it is understandable that a certain home location is often revisited, the fourth time players travel the same exact paths, often finding items in the same exact locations, can become rather annoying. Even adding a number of new ghosts or encounters in these repetitive areas does little other than prove just how much of a slog some of these levels can be when bogged down with extra ghost encounters.
Newly added to Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a special Snap Mode that allows players to create their own little dioramas using the in-game environment as well as any number of character and enemy models that they wish. This Snap Mode is rather in-depth and can be fun to use considering the ridiculous designs that players can put together but don’t expect too much else in the form of new content from the original version outside of some replaced costumes.
Visuals & Audio
With Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water making the jump to modern platforms the title has seen a fairly solid boost to its character models and the impressive designs of the various ghosts that they will encounter, though little has been done to make characters’ face models have any changing expressions from scene to scene. The best improvements come with the way the environments now feel more foreboding and moodier than before, really helping set the stage for the various frights that will happen as players travel through each level. Of course, being a Fatal Frame game, the fan service remains at a fairly high level with players being able to unlock a variety of skimpy costumes that all can become see-through depending on how wet a character gets while exploring the damp mountainside.
Earlier it was mentioned that part of the problem with Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water‘s storyline was the incredibly poor voice acting that every character in the game has been given and unfortunately that remains true regardless of whether players choose to use either the English dub or the original Japanese voice track. Even the ghostly wails of defeated ghosts quickly become repetitive in nature and don’t even appear to match half of the time. The soundtrack thankfully is fittingly spooky and the atmospheric sounds of the game really help add some extra tension to exploring each stage.
The revival of Fatal Frame is a welcome one as its unique style of gameplay and different approach to horror has always made it stand apart from other games in the genre. Unfortunately its solid camera based action is hindered by an underutilized storyline and incredibly repetitive environments that even plenty of fan-service can’t help.
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