The Project Zero franchise, or Fatal Frame for those across the pond, are a curious mix of ghostly Survival Horror with Pokémon Snap. I’d never played any of the games in the series until, but it had always peaked my interest.
With the upcoming release of Mask of the Lunar Eclipse on the horizon, now seems like a perfect time to jump into the Switch’s other snappy scarefest.
Is it good enough to stand alongside the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill?
The story surrounds the mysterious Mt Hikami: a place that once homed a curious religion that worshipped water, but is now seen as the place where people go to take their own life. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there are many stories surrounding spiritual phenomena in the area which lead people to believe that there’s more than meets the eye to this mysterious mountain.
Maiden of Black Water revolves around three protagonists, Yuri, Ren, and Miu, whose stories all intertwine with one another. Each character has their own reasons for investigating the mountain, but they all head off with the same powerful weapon in tow: the Camera Obscura. With this camera, they can damage and trap spirits within photographs – as well as seeing things that they would otherwise be unable to.
Being a survival horror game, the story is an important part of what makes the experience a compelling one, and Maiden of Black Water almost delivers on that regard. There’s a lot of lore and notes to be found, as well as ghost memories that can be obtained by touching a spirit before they fade away, which all help to fill you in on the history of the mountain and what happened to the people residing there. It’s very compelling and you’re always wanting to learn more about what is going on. However, the protagonists themselves are a little bit of a mixed bag. Yuri and Miu are both looking for missing people in their lives, but the emotionless attitudes they have make it hard to really care about their plights. Ren, on the other hand, fares a little better as his story focuses on the strange dreams he has been having regarding a young girl … who he seemingly murdered when he was a child. It’s a compelling mystery, and the resolution centres around the mountain. Despite the issues that the individual plotlines may have, you’ll be intrigued as to what is going on with the mountain and will want to probe further to find out more – which is good, as there is a lot here to uncover.
THE MOUNTAINS ARE CALLING…
As with the best survival horror games, Maiden of Black Water focuses the vast majority of its time around one location: the aforementioned Mt Hikami. How this game differs, however, is in how linear your traversal is compared to other games. Set across sixteen chapters, each one has you controlling one of the three characters, with a set goal in mind – usually to find an NPC who has wandered off onto the mountain (something they seem to do repeatedly). Their location is where you will end up, and any wandering off the beaten path will usually result in the game warning you that you should stay focused on that task at hand. It can feel quite limiting, especially at first, but once you realise the scope of everything, you will appreciate that that the game does this to stop you from getting too lost. This is further aided by the character’s ability to see shadows of the past using certain key objects – which is really just a fancy way of incorporating a waypoint system. It’s functional, for the most part, but it does add to the games linearity. The game also occasionally shows off other ways of guiding you forward from time to time, such as having a wandering spirit appear where you need to go, so it’s a real shame that they lean into the waypoint system for navigation rather using more subtle means.
Given the limited exploration, puzzles are also relatively infrequent and are focused on more immediate problems: usually a locked door of some kind, that requires you to locate an area shown in a psychic photograph in order to progress further. Sometimes these are quite simple, but other times it will require a little bit of lateral thinking in order to get what you need. There’s nothing too complex though, but the puzzles do add to the feeling of supernatural exploration – and they often help set up some decent surprise set-pieces with some ghostly foes.
A FATAL FRAME OF MIND
Dealing with spirits is what really sets the game apart from its contemporaries, however. Using your Camera Obscura, you need to take photographs of the ghosts in order to deal damage to them. This will usually result in spirit fragments forming around your foe, and those are the key to dealing more damage. Framing five things in a camera shot at once (be it multiple enemies, fragments, or even friendly NPCs), will result in a ‘shutter chance’ shot, which deals massive damage. Alternatively, snapping an enemy mid attack will result in a ‘fatal frame’ shot, which also deals heavy damage – as well as setting up a combo of free bonus shots for extra damage immediately after.
Sounds easy, right? Well, not quite. Every time you take a photo, your camera will need to reload the next piece of film. Waste a shot, and you could be leaving yourself open to attack. Your basic film allows for infinite usage, but it’s also really weak too. More powerful film is found everywhere, but it’s also limited – meaning you’ll want to save your stronger film for more powerful ghosts. If you really want to improve your combat abilities, however, you’ll want to focus on earning as many points as you can in order to purchase upgrades (via the camera option in the menu) to make your camera and lenses stronger. Lenses offer a bonus shot that can be triggered after absorbing enough spirit energy, and can be found throughout the game. Given the cost of upgrading stuff, I’d recommend focusing your attention on a single lens. I personally invested in the one that deals bonus damage, but you can find other lenses that can freeze enemies in place or even restore your health upon defeat. Each lens is suited for a different playstyle, so it’s up to you as to which one you think will work best for you. Bonus points are earned after each chapter depending on how many items are remaining in your inventory, so better performance will allow you to get stronger faster. It is possible to grind out points by replaying chapters, but there’s really no need to do so given that the game is pretty easy compared with other games in the genre.
The difficulty mainly lies in getting to grips with how the combat works and how different enemy types attack. The giant floating water women can shroud themselves with floating orbs, making them immune to the camera; whereas the Flamekeepers can launch fireballs at you – and can also revive each other should you leave an active one unattended. There aren’t a huge variety of ghost types available, meaning that repetition can set in later on (especially in the game’s final chapter), but the combat still feels pretty fun and should keep you engaged regardless. There may be the occasional encounter in a tight space that feels a tad unfair, but as fights are not overly frequent, none are likely to irritate you.
What will probably irritate you though, are some of the controls. Whilst not terrible on the whole, there are occasional choices that seem a tad baffling. In order to turn around, you need to move in the opposite direction and press LT for the camera to snap behind you. The problem is that it doesn’t always work. Often you will find that using it will result in your character facing somewhere you didn’t want them to, or – because it’s mapped to the same button – picking up an item nearby on the floor instead. Changing the direction of the camera in the heat of battle is a little bit too clunky, and often results in taking unnecessary damage. Whilst you can press the B button to dodge incoming attacks, this too seems a tad useless. Unless you dodge attacks just right, you’ll still end up getting hit – which can be hard to do when dealing with a camera that isn’t doing what you want it to do. These are tolerable though compared to the one mechanic that really gets on my nerves – the ghost hands. Picking up an object causes your character to slowly reach to pick it up, something which has a small chance of causing a ghost hand to appear that grabs hold of you – which you then have to shake off. The chance of it appearing is frequent enough to get irritating fast, but not frequent enough for you not to feel immensely irritated every time you waste five seconds trying to pick something up. I understand that it’s trying to cause tension, but it ends up causing frustration instead.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water definitely has its faults, particularly with its lack of characterisation and some questionable design choices; however, these are only a small dampener on what is otherwise a unique and atmospheric horror game. Hopefully the remaster of the prior game will prove to be just as enjoyable as the series’ fifth entry!