Alec Kubas-Meyer has written about movies and video games for Flixist, The Daily Beast, Unwinnable and Filmmaker, among others. He also makes movies, some of which are worth watching. Follow him on Twitter @alecjkm
“FATAL FRAME: MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER” (Video Game Review)Books/Art/Culture,Game and Toy Reviews,News Alec Kubas-Meyer
The first two chapters of Nintendo’s FATAL FRAME: MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER are free. Which is to say, if you own a Wii U, there’s no reason not to give them a try. Whether they grab you or not, there’s no question that this is a unique game for a unique platform, and well worth your time.
The first three games in the FATAL FRAME series, known as ZERO in Japan and PROJECT ZERO in Europe, are PlayStation 2 horror classics. The series centers on the Camera Obscura, which is both a weapon and a puzzle solver. You cannot fight the ghosts that haunt you, not in the traditional sense; instead, you take photos of them—the better the photo, the more damage is dealt. A fourth game was released for the Nintendo Wii, where players controlled the Camera Obscura and their flashlight with the Wii remote, but that one never left Japan.
Now, however, Nintendo has brought the fifth in the franchise to international audiences, this time on the Wii U, taking full advantage of the Gamepad’s design. Though a full-priced title, MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER has been given no disc release. Players must download it from the eShop, but again, the first two chapters are free. Nintendo has been trying out differing distribution models lately, and hopefully this one will pay off for them, as it shows some measure of faith that those first two sequences will compel you to buy the full game.
MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER is oh-so-Japanese; it opens on a shot of black water, but the hue isn’t due to some sort of dye or sludge—it’s hair. Long, flowing hair, the kind that has become the country’s horror stereotype. You can play the game in Japanese too, with English subtitles; dual-audio games are fairly rare, so this is a nice treat. There are also the occasional camera angles that can only be described as “objectifying.” It doesn’t matter if they don’t have Bayonetta proportions; if the camera cuts to a female character’s chest for no reason whatsoever, that’s problematic. Or Japanese. (Both, really.) Also as in many Japanese horror games, the controls aren’t very good. Turning is a chore, and multiple crucial actions are tied to a single button while others remain essentially unused. The game fights you every step of the way, which can be exceedingly frustrating, particularly during the combat portions. I was injured more times than I can count because my character wouldn’t start running in the direction I wanted, and would land right in a ghost’s waiting hands.
But this issue is a staple of Japanese horror games, particularly those with PlayStation roots. What ultimately matters isn’t how it plays, but how the experience feels. All can be forgiven if the game gets one thing right: The horror. Fortunately, this one does. There’s a pervasive sense of dread throughout MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER, where even trying to pick up an item could lead to a spectral arm grabbing you. It’s not always “scary” per se, though it certainly can be. When ghosts drop down or appear out of nowhere, it gets the heart racing, and even when there isn’t combat, it’s nonetheless unsettling. Screams in the distance raise the hair on your arms, and the score complements the excellent sound design. Also, while the Wii U isn’t all that powerful by modern console standards, this is still a very good-looking game. Artistic ability will always trump technical perfection, and MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER has style in spades.
Combat is a tricky thing in horror games. Although the likes of F.E.A.R., CONDEMNED, DEAD SPACE and the later RESIDENT EVILs can absolutely frighten you, the ability to defend yourself with ammunition to spare keeps you from feeling like you’re in real danger. Whether 2010’s SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES was the impetus for the shift away from that is up for debate, but since AMNESIA: THE DARK DESCENT, released later that year, unkillable enemies have become the norm. You may not run from the ghosts in FATAL FRAME, but a camera doesn’t feel like a real weapon, and its inherent limitations serve to heighten the tension as much as a chase sequence would. As the ghosts teleport throughout the map, you turn your camera around (slowly, I might add) trying to locate them, and suddenly, one may be right in your face. You might get off a shot in time to stun them, but maybe not. You can defend yourself, but you feel vulnerable; your enemies don’t go down easily and often travel in packs. Trying to keep track of them while taking care to use the right lens and film stock (while preserving your supply of the latter) at the right time and attempting to twist the Gamepad to get that perfect frame is tough, yet also exhilarating.
MAIDEN’s framing mechanic is particularly interesting, and truly sets the game apart, both within this series and as a Wii U exclusive. This is the best use of the Gamepad in quite some time, since the early, unfortunately titled ZOMBIU. Keeping track of two different screens is an inherent challenge, one that ratchets up tension as you attempt to divide your attention and get the best view of the situation. It’s ideally suited to horror, and adds a lot to the FATAL FRAME experience. Damaging the ghosts with a photo may require a landscape image, a portrait or anything in between, and utilizing the Gamepad’s gyroscope, MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER allows you to do just that. With the screen centered on the controller and a trigger pull taking the shot, it does feel like you’re snapping a photo. In the heat of the moment, the effect sells it.
But whether you’re slowly trudging through creepy locations or trying to survive a ghost assault, FATAL FRAME: MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER gets under your skin. Depending on your tolerance, you may not scream or jump, but you’ll find yourself concerned, afraid even, because the world feels dangerous. In a game like this, that’s what really counts.