With Fatal Frame’s lack of success and near-invisible presence in the Western market, it’s no surprise that only now have I made my long-awaited encounter with the series. After the fourth game failed to reach overseas, it’s safe to say all hope was lost for Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water’s Wii U debut. But lo and behold, Nintendo saw potential once more and surprised fans back in April with confirmation of an English release. Half a year later, the game is set to be released. Has the supernatural snap-fest managed to capture my interest, or has it all faded away upon touching the final game?
The story revolves around the mysterious Mt. Hikami and its waters. The place has become an infamous spot for disappearances, suicides, and strange, spooky occurrences. You follow the three playable characters, Yuri, Ren and Miu, each with their own troubled backstory and reason behind their connection to the mountain. As the story unfolds, you learn more about each of the protagonists — their fears, past, and what they’re searching for. This campaign is split up into fourteen generous helpings, with each chapter potentially lasting anywhere between 30-60 minutes and (occasionally) upwards for first-timers.
Many of the game’s objectives consist of investigating the mountain’s landmarks and discovering clues in the form of item pick ups. You’ll find texts which give context to the phenomenons and folklore surrounding the narrative. Piecing together the story is extremely rewarding for players eager to explore. However, the focus is mainly placed on locating missing residents. This is done through “Shadow Reading,” an ability that all three of the protagonists seem to possess. By using relevant items — a photograph for example — as a “Token,” the characters are able to read traces of the past. This essentially allows you to follow a subject’s steps in the form of a ghostly outline, which means it’s nearly impossible to lose your way. Until of course, obstacles are thrown in your way in the form of puzzles and enemy encounters.
This is where the Camera Obscura comes into play. To exorcise malevolent spirits, you take their photo. The closer you get, the more damage the enemy/enemies present in the shot will receive. As such, clear photos focusing on multiple subjects will also yield the most points. Having five or more targets in the shot will activate “Shutter Chance.” This causes even more damage as well as knocking the ghosts back. Enemies secrete orbs known as Spirit Power which can be used to activate special lens shots. What you’re really looking for, though, is in the name of the game. Yep, the Fatal Frame. This is achieved when you manage to snap a spirit while it’s in an attacking position. It’s risky, but incredibly satisfying and rewarding to pull off. As well as dishing out heavy damage, you’ll be allowed a brief period in which you take multiple photos in quick succession, and it doesn’t even consume film.
And that’s not all your camera can do. As well as being able to see beings of the Netherworld, you can seek out invisible items. You’re able to call these back to the world of the living using a “Phantom Exposé” photo. By correctly lining up the photo, the camera will briefly go berserk to indicate a successful shot. Some puzzles provide the player with a token photo, and asks them to either find the location where it is was taken, or even try to mirror the photograph to obtain a key item in order to progress. The ways in which the camera is utilized keeps the game fresh and exciting, encouraging exploration and testing your memory skills.
As well as in the story, water plays a fundamental role in the gameplay. A “wetness” gauge to the lower right of the screen will light up as you come into contact with water and enemies. Basically, the wetter you are, the higher the likelihood of ghosts appearing, resulting in more damage you’ll take. Should your gauge turn red, you’ll become tainted, which slowly depletes your health. In either of these states, the damage you dish out and the amount of Spirit Power absorbed will be dramatically increased. But this technique isn’t for the faint-hearted and, should you need it, Purifying Embers can be used to dry you out. Risk and reward plays a big part in Fatal Frame’s gameplay, which is one of the reasons it remains exciting and suspenseful.
The camera interface can be displayed on both your TV screen and GamePad, or just the controller alone. Now usually, I’d never give any of my attention to the chunky device, but it actually adds a whole lot to the atmosphere. With the press of a button, you can activate the viewfinder and start snapping. With the GamePad itself, you’re able to use motion controls to look around, which is easily the most fun and immersive option. However, using the right analog stick with the GamePad and TV combo provides a much wider field of view, resulting in more precise shots. Plus, juggling your focus between the two screens adds to the suspense; not having everything on a single screen can result in some very unexpected frights.
However, I do think there was lost potential with the GamePad. For Off-TV lovers, it can duplicate the TV screen. Otherwise, it’s mostly distracting unless switched to the map view. While the GamePad’s map shows your objective and gives you a visual outline of the location, it lacks sufficient functionality. Instead, I found myself often opening the menu to view the comprehensive map, which allows you to view specific locations and toggle floors. It’s a small niggle, but there’s really no reason the full view couldn’t also be accessible on the controller complete with touch controls. Having a tab dedicated to inventory and the upgrade system would also be ideal.
The gameplay itself is absolutely solid — I’m a big fan of mechanics which tie in with the narrative — but unfortunately, the controls often harm the experience. The characters’ movements are simply too sluggish. While exploring, this doesn’t generally cause an issue. However, it does become a huge problem when placed in a narrow room filled with aggressive ghouls. The slow, stiff turning makes it difficult to keep up with the agile enemies. There is a quick turn, but it’s rather fiddly to execute and, instead, you’ll end up making the character perform an awkward backwards waddle. It becomes less of an obstacle once you’ve adjusted, but when swamped with enemies, there will always be some frustration difficult to overcome.
Horror games are intimidating enough without a fiendish challenge involved. For this reason, I was impressed with the handling of Fatal Frame’s difficulty, which comes in two flavors initially: easy and normal. Easy is a comfortable option for those wishing to enjoy the story alone. Your items are doubled but your scores aren’t recorded. If you’re still not the confident sort, you can spend points on items for health recovery, revival, or quantities of faster-loading film upon selecting a chapter. However, I never found this necessary. Even playing on normal, the game hands you a generous inventory for each chapter.
Even if you do lose all of your health (and revivals), there aren’t any real consequences for dying. You get a slap on the wrist in the form of large “Game Over” text creeping up on the screen, but you’re able to jump right back in from the last checkpoint — continuing on normal, or dropping it down to easy, should it all become too much. Honestly, playing through the game on normal, I only witnessed this screen on two specific occasions. I was absolutely dreading the fatal encounter, expecting to lose huge amounts of progress along with a substantial amount of points deducted from my end score. So you can imagine my delight when I realized my ranking would remain unaffected. Personally, I’m glad it focuses on keeping the experience enjoyable, as opposed to the challenge, at least for the first playthrough…
During the initial few hours of play, the game does a brilliant job at making you feel vulnerable — your inability to afford items, your bare-bones camera, your painfully slow Type-07 film. However, progression here is a wonderful, satisfying thing. You’re able to spend your points on upgrading the Camera Obscura’s capabilities, such as attack range and spirit absorption. As you trod your way through the story, you’ll also pick up new lenses. From dealing more damage per shot, to slowing down enemies, to absorbing health, there are lenses with special shots to help out in any bleak situation. Best of all, these can also be individually upgraded. Becoming increasingly better equipped for battle made me feel as though I was maturing alongside the characters as we were further exposed to the threat.
Fatal Frame isn’t the best looking Wii U game, but it’s nothing horrendous either. Close up, particularly when you reach over to pick up an item, you’ll notice some of the textures are frightfully fuzzy. However, it’s not disturbingly noticeable, and still holds up decently for a current-generation title. There are even a few highlights in the graphics department. Character models look consistently great, and the way lighting reflects off of the water’s surface? Stunning. You also have to admire the attention to the gory details in relation to enemy design. Anyway, you shouldn’t be focusing on the woodwork of that cupboard to your right; there are ghosts right behind you.
What really makes the game is in the way it builds up tension. This is done perfectly through sound alone: the eerie music, the haunting whispers of the ghosts. That buzzing around your head when doubled up with the feeling of the GamePad’s vibration can really do a number on you when you’re least expecting it. You’ll be paranoid of your surroundings, anxiously waiting for the next spirit to pop up and knock you off your chair. Just when you think the coast is clear, you’ll reach out for an item and get suddenly grabbed by an arm and your heart skips a beat. Every damn time.
So, what did I really think of my first encounter with the series? Based on the nineteen hours spent alone in the dark with its campaign, I can say it was one of the most immersive horror games I’ve ever played. The gameplay, the lore, the frights, and the techniques used to pull it all off — all superb. With S-ranks and multiple endings to obtain, the unlockable Nightmare difficulty and side-story, you’ll find yourself drawn to Mt. Hikami, coming back time and time again. If you’re looking for a treat this Halloween, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water goes above, beyond and through the Netherworld to deliver. Do yourself a favor at the very least and download the trial version when it floats into the eShop later this month. Offering up the Prologue, along with the first two chapters, you’ll be able to taste the fearsome fun for yourself. After this, it would be a real shame to watch the series disappear for good.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water for Wii U is co-developed by Nintendo and Koei Tecmo Games and published by Nintendo. It will launch in the North American Wii U eShop on October 22, 2015. It debuted in Japan under the title Zero: Nuregarasu no Miko on September 27, 2014. It will arrive in Europe, under the title Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water, on October 30, 2015. Unlike in Japan and Europe, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is available in North America exclusively on the Wii U eShop.
Review copy provided by Nintendo