The Fatal Frame series, known as Project Zero in Europe, has had an inconsistent presence in the West for quite some time now. Though several installments made their way onto Nintendo consoles - most notably the Wii - fans outside of Japan have grown accustomed to importing in order to get the latest spooky kicks. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water not only marks the first core entry into the cult horror franchise since 2008, but the surprise resurrection of Western localisation as well.
Yes, despite a certain gloomy tweet from developer Koei Tecmo previously dashing our hopes somewhat, this Wii U exclusive is launching as an eShop download for both North America and Europe this October; fans in the latter region can alternatively try and get hold of a limited edition physical version. Fans and newcomers alike can even avail of a "free to start" trial version beforehand, which hopes to ease players in and grab their attention with a generous chunk of the game's opening chapters. After spending plenty of time playing through these early stages and beyond, we're feeling far more optimistic than camera-shy.
As an established third party exclusive coming to Wii U - albeit the IP is owned by Nintendo - Maiden of Black Water has drawn the attention of a user-base that's eager for something original. With this in mind, and since the implementation of a trial version will help introduce totally new fans to the series, we'll start by setting the scene. Hunting ghosts with a camera might seem inherently silly at face value, but Fatal Frame actually manages to carry the distinctive and disturbing atmosphere of a Japanese horror movie. There's a strong emphasis on folklore, supernatural forces and a world beyond our own, which helps better contextualize certain mystic artifacts such as the Camera Obscura.
The camera itself is key to the franchise, serving as your primary 'weapon' across all three playable characters, and your only line of defense against restless spirits. It has the unique ability to exorcise ghosts by capturing them on film, tasking the player with lining up the most effective shots to do so. Like a halloween-themed Pokémon Snap, the more targets you lock into a single frame, and the closer you manage to get, the more powerful your photos will be. Best of all, the GamePad is a natural fit for this mechanic and works wonders in making the experience more immersive.
Gyroscope aiming allows for naturally quick movement when you need it most, and all you have to do is hold the GamePad to the screen and push X to activate your camera. You can also switch gyroscope control to the R-stick if you so choose, which is a nice option to have as an alternative. We're delighted with how well the GamePad actually works in practice, feeling more and more like an actual camera each time you use it. Capturing creepy events on film earns bonus points you can use to upgrade your equipment, which is a neat way to keep the player alert at all times, fully ready to raise their camera and get exorcisin'.
Right off the bat you're warned about graphic imagery and disturbing content, which isn't an overstatement. In fact the main story is about as dark as it gets; centered around the cursed Mt.Hikami where people go to take their own lives. Once a sacred area and a popular tourist destination, the mountain was ravaged by a landslide which effectively ruined the clear waters and peaceful atmosphere. Since then, it became something of a hotspot for the occult, with echoes of the real-life Aokigahara forest as an area plagued by suicide. Despite the irresistible comparison to Pokémon we made earlier, this is definitely a game that earns its mature rating.
You're dropped straight into an eerie prologue, which impressively manages to teach you the basics while simultaneously making you feel like you're never in control of the situation. Waking up in a half-flooded building, the player is left vulnerable and confused, as bodies slowly rise from the water to give grotesque chase. It isn't long until an onslaught of nightmarish imagery overwhelms the helpless girl, and endless tendrils of black hair coiling around her body are the last thing she sees before passing out - a grim example of the tone Black Water strives to achieve.
Though we're introduced to our second playable character immediately after, it isn't until Chapter 2 that the game really opens up. Yuuri Kozukata is drawn to the slopes of Mt.Hikami itself on an impromptu missing person expedition, and it's here that Black Water begins to stand out from other titles in the series. The mountain is a dense outdoor environment, with multiple paths that often reward the player for exploration with bonus items or hidden scenes. It isn't an open world - not by a long shot - but it's decidedly less cramped than fans may have come to expect.
Fittingly, several mechanics are introduced that accommodate and bolster this new focus on outdoor areas, such as the ability to sprint with LZ for the first time. This, combined with an interactive map on the GamePad, makes traversal easier than ever and far less sluggish. That's not to say that movement is completely flawless, but once we got used to the tank-like controls (a survival horror staple by this point) it didn't cause many problems. We'll see how well this stands up to the test of more challenging combat later in the game.
Rain-slicked forests and damp buildings hammer home the emphasis on water this time around, as well as play into the new "wetness" gauge. Basically, the more you come in contact with the foul liquid the more susceptible you are to attack, but a full gauge will also make you hit harder in return. It's a balance of risk/reward, and it's an interesting system for a while but eventually fades into the background as a bit of an afterthought. Perhaps it plays a larger part later in the campaign, where certain enemies might fill the gauge faster.
On to one of the biggest questions - ss it scary? We've been playing Maiden of Black Water at night whenever possible, with the lights off and the sound turned up for maximum effect. Do the same, and we're fairly certain you're in for a chilling time. We're also happy to report that there haven't been any loud jump scares so far, nor a sudden violin shriek designed to give the player an artificial jolt of adrenaline. There's an elegance and subtlety to the horror of Fatal Frame which allows an unsettling atmosphere to take center stage; slowly building a sense of dread over the course of each chapter. Faces appear in windows and bodies shuffle past your line of sight without fanfare, allowing the moment to mingle with a sense of self-doubt.
Solid visuals are complimented by extraordinary sound design, as ghosts wail in an otherworldly tone that borders on mechanical. It's creepy to hear them lament their actions with their final whimpers, and the stronger "boss" ghosts have even more character to them. One such example took the form of a hanged man, who repeatedly threw himself out of the window before landing right back in front of our eyes. Notes scattered about the environment often give background information on these poor souls, and slowly reveal the influence of a mysterious presence. The English voice acting is also perfectly serviceable so far, but we've still got a way to go yet before completing the story and giving a full opinion.
So far, we feel that Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water could manage to both please fans and intrigue newcomers by doing enough differently without sacrificing that morose atmosphere in the process. It's shaping up to be perfect for the Halloween season, and we're very much looking forward to the rest of our trip to Mt.Hikami. In fact; we're dying to stay here as long as we can. Won't you join us? Forever?