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Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water REVIEW — Invest in a rotating chair

by Ron Duwell | October 19, 2015October 19, 2015 7:00 am PDT

It’s been about half-a-year since Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water was given the greenlight for localization, a huge win for those of us who want to see all Japanese games reach a global audience. The victory comes following a bit of malcontent aimed at Nintendo and Koei Tecmo for not releasing the previous two games in the series, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse and a remake of Fatal Frame II, on the Wii for reasons still unknown.

Many assumed that this horrific series would run contrary to the Wii’s family-friendly image in the States, and people who think that are probably not that far off.

Now, with the Wii U struggling to stay in this generation’s race, Nintendo of America will localize anything to win back fans and tap into a new audience. Horror games are in short supply on the console, and Nintendo just happens to own a small portion of one of the best horror franchises out there!

Well, isn’t that just a lovely coincidence. Now that we have Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water though, the fifth game in the long-running series, was it worth the hollering and shouting for? Honestly … yeah, a bit.

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Just to start, I’ll just come out and say this right now. This game is a far cry from the heights reached by Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly. That masterpiece of horror gaming nails everything it sets out to do and does so far more effectively than this latest game.

Maiden of Black Water attempts the same style of storytelling but achieves it on a much lighter scale. It’s the Diet Coke version of Crimson Butterfly. It’s not as scary, doesn’t tell as good of a story, and isn’t as soul-shatteringly terrifying as Koei Tecmo’s previous attempts. Just a word to the wise for long time fans, adjust your expectations.

With that out of the way, on its own merits, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is quite good at establishing a horror setting to romp through. Players will take control of three characters who explore the fictional Mt. Hikami, a place where young Japanese girls go to commit suicide and many end up missing, their bodies never recovered.

Guess what! The mountain is haunted! And the three dummies you control just can’t seem to stay away. Our two main heroes are Yuri and Ren. Yuri is a newcomer in the world of supernatural investigations, being trained by her mentor Miu and coping with her new ability to retrieve humans from the dead, and Ren is an author who wants to write a book on the mountain. He struggles with the memory of killing a girl when he was a child in some ritual he only remembers through nightmares.

Perfect setup for a Japanese ghost story, and it only gets better! Miu goes missing, and Yuri stumbles across one of her clients, a young suicide survivor who isn’t quite “right” since that fateful night. This leads Yuri and Ren on quests back and forth to the mountain with more hints about the surrounding situation and the location of the missing teacher the further she dives in.

Their only protection against the ghosts which haunt the mountain is a camera, playing on the old Japanese folklore legend in believing that cameras suck out a human’s soul. Here, they genuinely do, banishing ghosts forever and ripping apart their undead vapors in ways that other mundane weapons can’t.

In addition to a wonderfully vague and slow-revealing story, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water nails its atmosphere. Mt. Hikami is a dreadful place to be a night with clinging dark trees, black pools of water, and a forecast of rain every single night. The ghastly inhabitants will arise from seemingly any surface to attack our characters, and Koei Tecmo shines with its ability to bring these apparitions to HD for the first time.

A little side note, the characters look great as well. In these days of mo-capped models, it’s nice to see that some old-school Japanese character models made from scratch can still look so good. I can still imagine back to the days of the SEGA Saturn and look at Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water thinking that this is a pure, natural evolution on those techniques.

I think the only part of its presentation that takes me out of the horror mindset is the fashion choices of the lady ghost hunters. I know we need to sell the otaku crowd something, but Yuri, Miu, and some of the girls they rescue look like they should be warming up backstage for an idol concert.

As a horror game, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is solid. Silent Hill is gone, and Resident Evil has taken the action route, so I feel a bit safe in saying that if you are a fan of Japanese horror … here is your best option. In these days of Amnesia setting the standards on the indie scene, Fatal Frame makes a case that old-school, PlayStation 2-era horror can have a place in this world.

I felt scared playing it at night with all the lights turned out, and I ran into a technical difficulty trying to review it because my wife, who is terrified of Japanese ghost stories, banned me from playing it when she was home. It’s creepy, unsettling, and it’s picture perfect in its style.

Now, how does it play?

More than just an experience, it’s a game!

Before I jump into what I don’t quite like, I want to focus on the positives. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water does a lot of things right, has some nice systems, and makes it a game worth playing, not just “experiencing.”

One thing I like about every Fatal Frame game is that they never try to be anything more than that … just a game. There is no pretension of creating this immersive, cinematic experience by taking out combat or gameplay, no removing a HUD, no gutting the game of its menus. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a horror game.

What do I mean by that? Well, for one thing, you gain points! And not kill streaks like in Call of Duty, which might be the closest comparison these days, but Fatal Frame judges you on your performance, like an old arcade title. Those points aren’t just for show either because they can be used to improve the power of your camera.

Fatal Frame brings a much needed sense of progression to its combat by allowing characters to improve with the pace of the game. Camera blasts can be made stronger, can be used at a longer range, can drain more “magic points” from ghosts to perform more frequent special attacks. Different films will be more powerful or reload faster. The camera can also be outfitted with lenses that swap up super attacks, like being able to snap in rapid fire bursts or drain life.

If you can think of a way to weaponize a camera, the Fatal Frame series has done it.

Combat places our heroes in a situation in which he or she is surrounded by ghosts. The more targets that appear in frame, the more damage it will do. Attacking a single ghost over and over will not bring victory any closer, so it is important to group them together and wait for the perfect moment to strike. Luckily, bits and vapors of the ghosts will fly off of their bodies with each successful blast, and these can act as targets as well. Even hostages or friendly faces you are trying to rescue can be a target, so put those useless jerks to work!

Position five of any target into a single frame for an ultimate combo attack. Rinse and repeat. That’s the main goal, and Koei Tecmo shifts it up with boss fights … a little. Okay, it can get a bit repetitive and just chaotic at times, but more on that later.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water works in a few other systems as well, some that pay off nicely, others that don’t. Mt. Hikami is a mini-open world, and you’ll be spending a lot of time there. Each time you enter, the items will respawn and you’ll be graded on how many you pick up. It’s fine for gamers like me who enjoy exploring every nook and cranny in a video game, but the repetition sets in when the mountain starts to become all too familiar.

Exploring around and collecting these items can also add an entire half-hour to a mission’s length, drastically dragging out the pace of the game. I played through a single mission twice, and I beat it in half-an-hour just going from beginning to end as opposed to the hour and ten minutes it took when I was thoroughly uncovering every rock and branch. That pace is up to you, but my uncontrollable obsession of leaving things undiscovered in games really started to drag these levels out.

Another little interesting system I liked is looking into how each of the enemy ghosts met their end. After vanquishing them from existence, ghosts will leave behind a yellow vapor, which when touched, will reveal the last few minutes of their life. These are played out with a black-and-white, grainy film reel and many of them are absolutely horrible. They even create little sub-stories as well, meaning you’ll want to find them all.

A system I didn’t like was something that usually seems so second nature in games: picking up an item. In Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, this simple act can randomly instigate a ghastly arm that reaches out to grab the character, resulting in a loss of life if the player can’t release the pickup button in time. I can understand the intent here, being every item comes with the weight of uncertainty and fluctuating confidence in your reflexes, but it just gets annoying after a while.

Water also has a system! The wetter your character gets, the more damage their camera will dish out. On the flip side, ghosts will crowd her and hit her harder as well. A nice risk and reward system

So yes, not every little idea in this game works, but Japanese games tend to mold imperfect systems together to make an overall experience better. When one starts to sag, another steps up and becomes more interesting in its place. The synchronization is here for a splendid little horror game, but one thing holds it back from being a straight up recommendation…

Ouch, my back

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water suffers from control issues, on both the dual-analog front and the motion control front. Where will we start?

I guess the tank controls on dual-analog would be a better place to start because that is generally what Fatal Frame’s controls feel like: a tank. Simple actions like walking and turning the camera are really unresponsive, and the characters take an eternity to turn around and flee to a safe point to battle ghosts at.

The mystery is if these clunky controls were intentional or not. If Koei Tecmo genuinely wanted to create a sense of disorientation in this ghost game, they succeeded, but the cost was making even walking a chore and a test of patience. This goes double because the Wii U gamepad is already awkward when it comes to dual-analog anyway.

At least when there is no combat, these walking controls can’t really get in the way. You’ll be exploring awkwardly, but that’s fine at the game’s pace when you’re not being chased.

That’s the motion controls’ main problem.

Unlike the dual-analog sticks, the Wii U gamepad is brilliant in its response. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water treats it as the actual camera characters use in the game this time around, and anywhere you aim it or anyway you twist it to squeeze in more targets, it is never wrong. Absolutely pinpoint, quick, and responsive very nice touch.

What’s the matter with it then? Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water assumes you’ll be playing it in the middle of a room with no obstacles within a three foot radius and possibly on a rotating chair. So many times, I was targeting a ghost only to have it disappear and reappear behind me. The gamepad called for me to pull a 180 to nab the sucker, but the couch I was leaning against got in my way or the quick jerking motion I would make would twist my back in ways it was not intended to go.

I think at one point I just got fed up with trying to turn around, and leaned over backwards to play upside down … because that’s really intuitive.

Not every ghost pulls these tactics, but the ones that do are infuriating and impossible to target in time if you enjoy sitting comfortably against a couch when you play video games. The system can definitely work if you own a rotating chair, but otherwise, it feels implemented like a clumsy leftover from the Wii generation.

Didn’t we already learn that gamers don’t like to move when casually enjoying their hobby?

A game worth fighting for

I liked Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water and am really glad that it gets a shot in the North American market when it wouldn’t have stood a chance a half a decade ago. It drips with Japanese horror style, has the systems of a great PlayStation 2 adventure in all the right ways, and it’s a really, really pretty game as well, brilliantly bringing old-school Japanese character models into HD.

I just wish I had been playing it with a DualShock 4 controller instead. Koei Tecmo was onto something here with this game, but the motion controls are both the selling point for making combat more exciting in certain situations and making it uncomfortable in others. A double lens camera, you might say.

If you are new and interested in the Fatal Frame series and you own a PlayStation 3, check out the older games on PlayStation Network for a better starting place. You’ll learn the basics without having to fumble with the motion controls, and the second one is just a much better game anyway.

They are usually on sale at Halloween time as well, which is right around the corner.

As for established fans, it is a solid game. If you are willing to adjust your gaming posture and stretch your back a bit, you’ll find a nice package here. The new ideas can be a bit gimmicky, but they all work together nicely. It’s the controls, both the motion and dual-analog, that are what hold it back from a full recommendation.

I would only buy it at full price if you want to vote with your wallet, telling Nintendo and the rest of the Japanese publishers of the world that these risky games have a home here.

Buy/Wait

Disclaimer: We were provided a review copy of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water for the Wii U and played the single player campaign before writing this review.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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