Beautiful horror? More like beautifully dull!
The PlayStation 2 has one of the most iconic game libraries of all time, including some of the best survival horror games ever made: Silent Hill 2 and 3, the Siren series, Rule of Rose, plenty of Resident Evil games, and of course, the Fatal Frame series. Sadly, outside of Resident Evil, pretty much all of them have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another.
However, in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Fatal Frame series, Koei Tecmo has graced fans everywhere with a Fatal Frame PS2 collection on modern platforms — oh wait, sorry, that’s just a section from my list of hopes and dreams. Instead, they put out a remaster of the Wii U Fatal Frame hardly anyone played or liked all that much.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (PS5 [reviewed], PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Wii U, PC)
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Released: October 27, 2021 (October 22, 2015 for the original Wii U release)
Six years on from its initial release, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water hasn’t aged gracefully due to the simple fact it just wasn’t all that scary to begin with. Even when it was initially released, games like Alien: Isolation (which came out a year earlier) in terms of pure horror made everything in Maiden of Black Water seem trivial by comparison. Outside of the fantastic setting and spooky ghosts, the ineffectiveness of its horror is thanks to a terrible story, a forgettable cast of characters, and plenty of questionable design choices.
Maiden of Black Water is set on the fictional mountain known as Mount Hikami and deals with plenty of heavy themes and topics such as suicide and ritual sacrifice, and is heavily inspired by the unsettling real-world location known as the “Sea of Trees.” Combine all this with rich Japanese folklore, and it’s a terrifying setting that is wasted (again) in Maiden of Black Water.
Without diving into too many spoilers, a big part of this is due to the cast of characters being nearly just as lifeless as the ghosts they’re taking pictures of. The story is told across roughly fourteen chapters and from three different character perspectives who all have the emotional range of somebody who just woke up and is being asked twenty questions at once. Throughout the game, in terms of emotions on display, these characters either look confused, slightly startled, or half-asleep.
For all the shit Ethan Winters gets for his one-liners and reactions to things going on around him in the latest Resident Evil games, at least he does react to things. Meanwhile, Yuri from Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is as I just described: seemingly emotionless in regards to practically everything going on. (Admittedly, I’m only picking on her because despite just rolling the credits on this game, I couldn’t tell you the names of the other playable characters if my life depended on it — they’re that forgettable.)
As an example of what I’m on about: In one scene right out of the Ju-on movies, Yuri is taking a bath when suddenly the water around her is filled with black hair, and Yuri is pulled under. A menacing pale maiden appears in front of Yuri, only inches away from her face as black water begins pouring out of the maiden’s eyes. Yuri then wakes up from what was just a nightmare. We’ve all seen similar scenes like this before.
Typically, though, the expressions on the character’s face are one of pure terror, and admittedly, when Yuri wakes up afterward, she at least appears shaken. But at the moment when the maiden is inches from her face with black goo everywhere? She no-sells the maiden’s attempt at horror and gawks right back at her with a look of mild inconvenience at best. I burst out laughing afterward at the thought of the ghost maiden going back up her spooky mountain, complaining to other ghosts that the living aren’t gullible enough for this shit anymore.
I could continue ranting about the story, its bizarre pacing, and how it bends over backward to come up with excuses for these characters to keep leaving (and then go back up) the haunted suicide mountain. So instead, let’s talk about the other main reasons why Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water fails at being a scary game — its repetitive and straight-up dull gameplay.
At the end of each chapter, you’re graded on how well you did with a rank and a bunch of points to spend on camera upgrades or items you can purchase at the start of the following chapter. However, between that and the fact you’re automatically given over twenty (20!) healing items at the start (along with tons more you can pick up or buy), it kills any sense of tension or challenge in the game as a whole unless you’re chasing after a high score or something.
Worse yet, Nightmare difficulty isn’t available until you’ve beaten the roughly 14-hour-long campaign on normal or easy (the latter of which disables the ranking stuff and lets you “enjoy” the story). It’s also in that length and terrible pacing the solid photography-based combat with the Camera Obscura becomes mind-numbingly dull long before even the halfway point.
Once again, you deal with ghoulish spirits by getting them in the frame, letting them get dangerously close, and dishing out big damage with fatal frames. Admittedly, it’s a brilliant shooting system that seemed perfect for the Wii U GamePad. On the DualSense controller with gyro controls, it works well enough. It can still be unwieldy at times, but thankfully, you can also use analog controls if you prefer that.
However, the character movement is still painfully slow and incredibly clunky in tighter interior areas. Funny enough, that’s pretty much the only semblance of challenge the game has going for it. The reality is if these characters could move at a brisk pace, it’d make dealing with the ghosts even more trivial than it already is. To be effective at combat, all you need to master is your timing with dodges (pressing X right before an attack) and keeping a reasonable distance from the ghosts between lining up good shots. Honestly, though, with the amount of healing items your characters have on hand, you’ll rarely be in any real danger in Maiden of Black Water.
I say rarely because there are specific moments sprinkled throughout the campaign where you run into the primary black water maiden herself (who’s invincible to your camera trickery) and will briefly be pursued. She looks cool as hell, but these are brief encounters that just have you running away. They are also somewhat trivial, thanks to your stack of healing items.
It was in these bad bitch maiden appearances, though, where it felt like my brain was finally pulled out of autopilot while playing. Aside from that, the setting and atmosphere do all the heavy lifting here to maintain your interest, which gets ruined by cheap scares anyway. One example they re-use multiple times across the whole game often happens while your character is (slowly) picking up items; a ghost hand may try and grab you. It does very little damage to your character and got old for me after the first time.
As for this updated release on newer platforms, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water on PlayStation 5 runs in a native 4K resolution, has slightly better water effects and shadows, but otherwise looks pretty comparable to the original Wii U version.
They’ve also removed the Samus and Zelda outfits (including for the Nintendo Switch release), likely due to licensing issues. Instead, they’ve added newer outfits that are far less visually interesting, and I never bothered using them.
There’s also a photo mode that lets you place different ghosts in the environment and toggle various poses for a fun diorama display. I’m sure some folks out there will love that stuff, but it only ever kept my attention for a few minutes at most. Also, all the censorship from the original western release is still in-tact as well, so if you’re looking for a “sexy outfit” fix, you’ll have to make do with the new ones, I guess.
This is all speculation on my part, but Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water comes off like a game that had some incredible artists with cool ideas for this setting and the Wii U tablet, but they couldn’t quite figure out a cohesive story to tell. To make matters worse, I get the impression they also didn’t want to scare away newcomers on a new system and toned the scare factor right down.
Six years later, in that timeframe, Capcom did the opposite with Resident Evil 7 — which has now sold over 10 million copies, making it one of the most popular games in the franchise. I think if Koei Tecmo still has an interest in reviving the Fatal Frame franchise, they need to go back to the drawing board or give newcomers a good collection of games that made this survival horror series great in the first place.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]