Fatal Frame encourages love-hate relationships. The lore, premise and scares easily lure people in, leaving good first impressions. Unfortunately, cheap ghosts that pop up out of nowhere looking for a fight, confusing locations that leave a player constantly consulting a map, frequent backtracking and frustrating controls have always held the series back. While Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water doesn’t miraculously fix everything, it makes great strides forward toward a more healthy, positive relationship.
Taking cues from Fatal Frame III and IV, the fifth installment stars multiple protagonists. We’re first, briefly, introduced to Miu Hinasaki, daughter of the original Fatal Frame‘s Miku. She’s come to Mount Hikami in search of her mother, who disappeared when she was three. Yuri Kozukata is an apprentice Shadow Reader studying under Hisoka Kurosawa, a woman who uses the Camera Obscura to find hidden objects and people. She finds herself constantly going to Mt Hikami in search of people who have gone missing there. Finally, Ren Hojo is a man researching burial photography due to a recurring dream. A client of Hisoka, after she and Yuri find a book of burial photos at a deserted inn on, you guessed it, the mountain no one should ever, ever visit, he finds himself drawn to further investigations with his Camera Obscura. (Seriously, people need to stay away from the mountain.)
Originally known as a religious spot where water was worshipped and shrine maidens performed services for visitors, tragic incidents have lead to Mt. Hikami, which no one should ever, ever visit, having a far darker reputation. It’s been recognized as a noted suicide spot for years, filled with souls of people who could never leave, and a place where unfortunate victims are spirited away. Few leave, and those who do often aren’t left intact.
Ironically, the biggest scares in Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water are the unintended ones.
Think of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water as an adventure game with third-person shooter segments. In each chapter, the goal is to investigate an area to find someone or something. Along the way, passive and aggressive ghosts will appear. Using the Camera Obscura lets a person capture photos of the benign and violent for points, with the camera also subduing spirits that mean the player harm. Points can be spent on beneficial things like film, healing items and camera upgrades. Saving up for lots of Purifying Embers is highly recommended, as characters who are “wet” encounter more random battles and may even start continually losing health if corrupted enough. Preparation is key, because ghosts will drain away your life with each encounter and, given how abruptly they appear and disconcerting their sounds, may inflict some psychological damage on the player.
Ironically, the biggest scares in Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water are the unintended ones. To take photos, a player holds up the GamePad as though it were the Camera Obscura. It seems like a clever use of the peripheral and there are moments when it works really well, but it also falls into the motion control trap. A player can search for offending ghosts by either using the right analog stick or moving the GamePad. The problem is a calibration issue. If you move too much, you’ll find yourself having to reposition yourself or stand up in the middle of a fight to line up a shot. There is a lock-on feature, but none of the foes are fans of standing still. When they disappear, and they will, you have to find them again before they grab you. Unintentional jump scares often ensue, because it can be difficult to get them in frame again before they attack.
I was torn as to whether I was happy or disappointed with the feature. Things seemed to go best when I was on a mission that involved constant investigation of an area. I would leave the camera up at all times, use the analog stick to view the area, and found I’d never miss a quick spirit screenshot or be caught off guard by a malicious ghost. If it was a mission that involved more exploration, things were much trickier. Enemies loved to back me into corners, where there was little room to maneuver or escape, and pop up when they would be most unwelcome.
There’s another odd GamePad issue. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is one of those games you can play entirely off-screen. However, you don’t get to hear any of the voice acting or event segment music through the GamePad speakers. Sound only comes through when a player is in control of the character. It’s an odd design choice, especially if the player happens to be a wuss who chooses to play a more cheerful show like Friends on the TV while playing the game.
Don’t worry, because there’s one final, frustrating design decision before we can get into the good stuff. In order to build tension, a player can be grabbed by a ghost when reaching for an item. This means grabbing for an item isn’t as simple as pressing “A” when you see a glimmer, as in previous entries. A player has to wait for the “ZR” button prompt to come up, then hold the button for a few seconds. You have to be in the perfect position for this to happen. You can’t imagine how frustrating this is in a game where you want to spend as little time as possible dawdling, for fear a ghost would appear. If a ghost does try to grab your character, the timing has to be perfect to keep from being caught. The first one or two times, it’s a neat idea. Every time after, it’s annoying.
For all of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water‘s complications, it fixes more than a few issues that have plagued the series for years.
Don’t let these criticisms dissuade you from playing the game, though. For all of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water‘s complications, it fixes more than a few issues that have plagued the series for years. The pacing is fantastic. Too often, previous installments involved quite a bit of backtracking or running between locations to get to the next point of interest. By breaking the title up into chapters, you’re dealing with only the most relevant moments and not hassled by pointless, resource-consuming encounters in-between.
Moving and exploring in general is more concise. The series likes twisting, winding buildings, caves and forests, environments that all seem to look alike. Here, you won’t find yourself walking in circles. It’s a critical and much appreciated change, especially when being chased by an opponent you can’t fight. And if you do need to get from point A to point B, you can always trace. Each character can see a ghostly presence of where they should go if a trigger button is held. People who don’t want the help can avoid it, and people who do can get a tip whenever they’d like. Even better, checking the map doesn’t mean going through menus. All you need to do is tap the touch screen.
I nearly abandoned the series after Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly, because my friends and I kept getting lost in the village and its homes. Instead of going through the game and enjoying ourselves, we would go into a room, check the map, walk through a hallway or other room, get distracted by ghosts trying to kill us, check the map again, then continue until we had to, you guessed it, check the map again.
Another positive change is that it feels as though Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water does a better job of making a player care about the characters, be they the poor saps who just won’t get away from that damn, cursed mountain or the malevolent ghosts bent on ensuring you share their fate. The translation is great, with effective lore making even the most terrifying ghost tragic. As an example, there’s a girl named Fuyumi. Despite being a minor character, her storyline is quite interesting and culminates in an event that leaves quite an impression.
More important, every playable character’s actions and choices leads to a unique result. While both the third and fourth games had multiple protagonists, there were a set number of endings. Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water has unique endings for Yuri, Ren and Miu depending on what happens, meaning you could see endings that are all good, all bad, or a mix of the two.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water might frustrate, but it’s worth every moment. Compared to previous entries in the series, clear progress has been made in terms of both storytelling and gameplay. It’s also absolutely as scary as someone would expect, in the most satisfying way. Completing Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is an accomplishment and people will want to return and make sure they receive the best results. (Or, barring that, those sweet Princess Zelda and Zero Suit Samus costumes.)