Like the lashing of rain against a bedroom window, or the sound of a damp footstep outside your door - Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is coming for you. Also known in North America as Fatal Frame, this latest entry in the cult horror franchise has set its sights on Western shores just in time for Halloween, and while some might say its limited retail release in Europe is scary enough, we'd argue that the game offers up plenty of frights on its own merit. There's a whole mountain of trouble to contend with, so it's about time you plucked up the courage and took a peek through the lens.
You certainly shouldn't be expecting a scenic view, as warnings of graphic and mature content pop up to effectively set a grim tone from the get-go. It's not often that a Nintendo console plays host to visceral depictions of suicide, but Maiden of Black Water has a bleak story to tell and won't pull any punches in doing so. Like many of its survival horror contemporaries everything is centered around a lingering sense of vulnerability, which the player often shares with the plot's three main characters.
Our protagonists have all been drawn together under the shadow of Mt. Hikami - a popular tourist destination disfigured by a landslide several years prior. Now, its maze of twisted branches and sheer cliffs only attract those wishing to end their own lives. Each of the three heroes are playable over the course of the game's numerous chapters – here named "drops" – and are linked by a common purpose to investigate a string of mysterious disappearances. Yuuri has psychic connections to many victims, Miu is on a personal search for her mother (a familiar face for long-time fans), and Ren is a writer who simply wants answers.These different perspectives on the plot help its pacing immensely, even if each level generally plays out in a similar manner.
While there's an impressive variety of environments - ranging from modern settings like rusted tram stations to ancient shrines filled with dolls - they're all fairly linear in structure. You're usually tasked with following the psychic trail of your quarry up the mountain or digging around an area for more clues, so a lot of your time is spent walking around. Exploration is still very much possible thanks to a new focus on larger and wilder outdoor areas though, so multiple paths often hide various secrets and items. Just be careful - the more you explore, the more likely you are to encounter lost souls seeking vengeance...
Thankfully, the trio also share ownership of the Camera Obscura; this is an important device that allows the user to fight back against evil spirits. This spectral camera is able to take photos that exorcise ghosts, shattering their ability to step into the physical world. It's a window into the afterlife, but also serves as the player's only means to defend themselves, which makes it feel suitably important. We found ourselves gradually developing a personal attachment to the camera over time, hammered home by the excellent implementation of the Wii U GamePad.
Making solid use of the hardware, Maiden of Black Water delivers ghoulishly good controls with gyroscope aiming that can be adjusted to a fine point. The game is viewed from a third-person perspective, but drawing your camera is as easy as holding the GamePad to the screen and tapping "X". It helps that the controller is likely close to the size and weight of the fictional Camera Obscura itself, so using it to switch to first-person aiming and manipulate the device is instantly intuitive. At one point you could imagine an added peripheral would have been required to attain this connection between player and character, but the GamePad is a very natural fit indeed. Before long you'll be holding it up as a gut reflex in response to every creeping shadow you spot.
It's worth nothing that while we recommend trying out the motion controls to begin with, there's always the option to toggle more traditional R-Stick aiming, which also comes in handy when playing off-screen. Here, the gyroscope can be ignored completely or used to make subtle movements a lá Splatoon. Motion controls will always click for some and frustrate others, so it's good to have options.
Speaking of options, you can also customise combat by finding and equipping various lenses or more effective film types to tailor your attack plan. Certain loadouts can cause more damage or even restore health when you defeat enemies, and it makes for some surprisingly arcade-like fun. Each character has a unique bonus too, such as Ren's ability to take multiple rapid-fire shots at once, or Miu being able to slow ghosts down in order to line up better angles. You'll score points based off your performance - which can in turn be used to buy items and upgrades between levels - and favourite photos can even be saved or posted to Miiverse.
The rather silly nature of point-scoring would seem pretty jarring if the ghosts weren't so well-designed and attention-grabbing, varying between stumbling corpses and more elaborate, unique characters that seem equal parts tragic and intimidating. One of the most memorable aspects of the game, "fatal glance", allows you to see a brief snippet of the character's life as their spirit form fades away, often revealing how they died in gruesome detail. Combined with the collectable notes scattered about levels, droplets of information quickly gather into a tidal wave of forbidden rituals and demonic legends.
One of the game's less effective mechanics is how water affects gameplay. While storms, flooded buildings and damp caves make for impressive set pieces, the emphasis Maiden of Black Water places on staying out of the water falls a bit short. Basically, a wetness meter measures how dry you've been keeping, and the higher it goes the more damage you'll both give and receive during combat. This is initially exciting, but the difference is always manageable and actually borders on negligible once you start stocking up on items that reduce the meter. It's a clever idea, just not quite fully formed.
Repetition is also an issue, with multiple characters visiting the same areas more than once during the campaign. This is actually something of a double-edged sword, as it's more than a little tedious to end up exploring the exact same building twice, but this does lend some presence and togetherness to the world at large, helping Mt. Hikami feel more like an actual place. There are plenty of more unique moments throughout the 12+ hour campaign as well, such as a later chapter that utilises security cameras to watch over a house and investigate disturbances as others sleep.
The game excels at maintaining a thick atmosphere of dread, which owes much to its excellent visual and audio design. It isn't a graphical powerhouse - in fact the framerate infrequently lags behind at certain points, while pop-in is relatively common - but the artistry and attention to detail make it a world that's as beautiful as it is unnerving. Ambient noise often plays through the GamePad speakers, and distant ghosts drift by without any loud music cues; this builds a pervasive, lasting sense of tension. Horror fans can definitely pick apart various sources of inspiration throughout, such as one unnaturally tall woman who seemed to take particular influence from horror manga artist Junji Ito. Her twisted grin had us wincing with each sighting.
This version for the West doesn't seem to have cut many corners either, with the impact of the game's original release still very much intact. Its dark themes and bloody gore remain, though voice acting has been fully dubbed by an occasionally grating cast of American actors. That being said, the European release (which we've reviewed) has the option to choose the original Japanese audio if you prefer. Various costumes and accessories can be unlocked post-game, such as Zelda and Zero Suit Samus, while ample wobble physics, wet clothing and some surprisingly curvy ghosts also ring true to the series' more dubious hallmarks.
With replayable chapters, multiple endings, extra gameplay sections and higher difficulties to unlock, there's plenty here to enjoy - you can try the demo first and find out if you hear the siren call of the full game too. As the game is only available via the eShop in North America we'll close by mentioning that the file size weighs in at 13GB, so you may want to invest in an external hard drive if you haven't already.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water has been put through a wringer of doubt and speculation in the run up to its release, but manages to come out the other side still just as drenched with atmosphere and intrigue as ever. Innovation should give fans that spark of renewed excitement, while newcomers are eased into an excellent horror adventure with plenty of time to learn the mechanics. A bit too much repetition and a few rough edges do mar the experience a little, but that absolutely shouldn't stop you from taking the plunge regardless. The water is lovely.