When Nintendo first announced the Wii U and its Gamepad, a few games sprung to mind immediately in the ways they could take advantage of the device. One of these, for those that were familiar with the series, was Fatal Frame. The series is well-known for supplying some truly scary gameplay, utilizing its in-game camera mechanics to great effect. Now, the dream of a Wii U exclusive Fatal Frame game has become a reality, with Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water. Unfortunately, that dream turns into a bit of a nightmare once you spend more time with the game.
Fatal Frame as a series involves special cameras called the Camera Obscura. As players wander spooky environments they will come upon various ghosts and spirits that are trying to attack them. To fight them off, the player has to pull out their Camera Obscura and snap a bunch of pictures of the ghost, essentially taking from the myth that pictures steal your soul. This gameplay mechanic translates perfectly to the Wii U, with the player able to use the Gamepad as their in-game camera. Pressing a button brings up the camera, which you can then move around freely, or direct with the analog sticks. This mechanic works wonderfully well, and will be a great treat for series fans, and pretty much any Wii U owner looking for a unique experience. If only the rest of the game worked as well we’d be looking at another Wii U classic.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water tells the story of three different protagonists, Yuuri Kozukata, Ren Hojo, and Miu Hinasaki. All three are caught up in supernatural events surrounding the fictional Hikami Mountain. The mountain used to house a group of maidens who performed rituals surrounding water. After their massacre, Hikami Mountain has become a place known for suicides and other dark spiritual activity. Our characters head there for various reasons, and end up caught in the storied history of the infamous mountain.
There is just something inherently not scary about earning points
The game’s story is easily one of its strongest points, featuring dark themes, all based within Japanese culture. Horror fans will be fascinated to see every cutscene and story development. While some of the characters might behave in inexplicably strange ways (don’t go BACK to the mountain! Come on!), it all works well enough to service the necessary story, and doesn’t completely shatter the suspension of disbelief, mostly thanks to a couple of workarounds within the plot.
Whether you stick with the game long enough to finish that story is a question of how much you’ve been starving for a traditional survival-horror experience. So many classic franchises have moved far from their survival-horror roots, such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. However, Fatal Frame continues to deliver genuinely creepy experiences that fans will love. Environments are appropriately moody and dark, the themes presented are quite disturbing, and some situations and events will truly horrify, in a good way of course. Some concessions have been made to modernize the game though, and these definitely detract from the horror experience.
Points are a huge factor in Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water. You fight the ghosts with your camera, but you also earn points. Getting the most points out of each shot is helpful for upgrading your equipment, and buying items, such as health boosts. At the end of each chapter, of which there are over a dozen, you are scored for your performance. There is just something inherently not scary about earning points, and changing your behavior to gain the most of them. Getting the most effective pictures is already a part of the game, as it deals more damage to the ghosts, but then having a score counter pop up on screen, and knowing that this is all being judged, takes a bit of the bite out of Fatal Frame’s terror.
Even more harmful though are the frankly terrible controls. Your character has exactly two speeds, slow and slightly less slow, which is somehow too fast to maneuver properly. The camera is pulled in close, which might help give a sense of claustrophobia, but it ends up just making things feel more cumbersome. The camera controls also hurt things, as they can feel sluggish, while not really going where you want them to. And no matter what you do, don’t try to move your character and the camera at the same time, as it will cause odd spasms that get you nowhere.
The aforementioned Wii U Gamepad controls work well with the camera, though getting your character into the right position to take the shots is almost always a chore. Spirits will get in close to you, making it so your pictures are almost useless. You can move with the camera out, but it’s at the slower of your two speeds, so it’s pretty futile once they close in. Putting the camera away and running to the other side of the room is the best strategy, but getting your character back around is harder than actually fighting the ghost.
This alone would have almost been excusable for a game like Fatal Frame: Maidens of the Black Water. Delivering a true survival-horror experience is a rarity, so fans will put up with a lot, but the mission structure goes even further to frustrate the player. Nearly everything in the game takes place somewhere on Hikami Mountain, with many missions revisiting the same spots. This repetition is quickly tiring, as it feels like the game should just put you right where the new content begins, instead of making you trek through the same haunted wilderness over and over.
This type of quick start mission does happen, but not enough to overcome the feeling that the game is padding its runtime. Adding to this feeling are the specific objectives you get on occasion. You’ll be running through a mission, checking off all of the requisite boxes, when suddenly you’re tasked with something like “Find X”. Whatever that item or person is could be anywhere in the level, and you have little to no indication of where it is.
This is extra frustrating because the game actually has a great way to direct players. If you have a special item related to the person you are seeking you can hold a button to see a spirit representative of them, walking toward where you need to go. Unfortunately, many of the objectives forgo this, causing you to wander around the house or forest, looking for that one hidden path that you missed the first five times you walked by. Even switching to easy mode, which is said to be for those that want to “enjoy the story” won’t fix this, making for extreme frustration, and a break in immersion whenever it happens.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water is a game that horror fans will want to love, yet will come away totally frustrated at the few aspects that ruin the whole. It does so many thing well, with the Gamepad integration and the overall feel of the game. However, the controls, camera, and mission structure destroy a good portion of this work. With a bit of retooling this could be the ultimate survival-horror experience on the Wii U, or this entire console generation, but as it is, Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water is an unfortunate mess.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water
- Available On: Wii U
- Published By: Nintendo
- Developed By: Koei Tecmo, Nintendo Sotware Planning & Development
- Genre: Surival Horror
- US Release Date: October 22, 2015
- Reviewed On: Wii U
- Quote: "Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water is a game that horror fans will want to love, but will end up causing frustration due to broken controls and an annoying mission structure. The scares are still there though, if you can forgive the other mistakes."