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Gaming Retro Reviews

Review: Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (Wii U)

128430_WiiU_FatalFrameMaidenOfBlackWater_illustration_026_resultDeveloper: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Horror

Rating: M
Price: $49.99
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is the fifth main entry in Tecmo’s long-running horror series, which debuted in 2001. Since the release of 2008’s Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, Nintendo has maintained co-ownership of this beloved franchise, resulting in mixed reactions from fans. For starters, this is the first Fatal Frame title to receive a release in North America since Nintendo has been at the reigns. Since the series has been absent from our shores for so long, Nintendo has been gracious enough to introduce newcomers to the franchise by making the first three chapters of Maiden of Black Water available for free on the Wii U’s eShop. Upon completion of these chapters, players are given the option to upgrade to the full game digitally. Did I mention Maiden of Black Water is a digital-only release? Well it is, which is unfortunate for collectors and horror fans alike.

Content Warning

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Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water contains content and themes which may concern Christian gamers. Preeminently, this title deals with the occult. Themes of paganism, ritualism, and paranormal occurrences abound. Furthermore, it should be noted that the series has always been famous for its usage of female protagonists. This could merely be seen as an excuse to have pretty women running away from ghosts in revealing clothing. The Japanese version of Black Water features alternative bikini costumes which are available upon completing the game. However, in an effort to bring Fatal Frame to a younger audience, Nintendo requested that Tecmo remove some of these outfits in the North American version, and replace them with others. One example includes a Zero Suit Samus skin for our main heroine, Yuri. Even so, it should be noted that there are still alternative costumes that reveal some skin, and even the default costumes are partially revealing.
Besides the raunchy fanservice and occult themes, Maiden of Black Water features nothing else particularly controversial. Violence is only seen in small doses during cutscenes, and adult language is basically nonexistent. Fatal Frame has never been a series that has relied on gratuitous violence or heroes that spew swears, and that trend continues. In summation, Fatal Frame won’t try to provoke you, but it does contain mystical themes which may rub some people the wrong way.

Review

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At the beginning of my journey in Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, I’m immediately placed in the shoes of Miu Hinasaki, as she awakens in the flooded basement of an abandoned shrine. I’m given no context as to what is happening around me, and the restless apparitions of several shrine maidens are quickly following behind me as I run for an exit. Already, this game is off to a great start, and I always give credit to the games which have the strength and confidence to drop the player straightway into action, with no explanation for the surrounding events. Games like Bayonetta have previously done this successfully in the past, and Maiden of Black Water follows a similar pattern.
With ghosts in tow, the double doors at the end of this hallway appear to be my only salvation. Sprinting through, I’m greeted by an enclosed chamber with an out-of-place box sitting squarely in the middle. As my protagonist approaches the oddity, a foul spirit shuffles outward, dragging my heroine to her fate. End of chapter.
After this strong start, I’m now shifted into the role of a young woman named Yuri Kozukata. Yuri is gifted with a sixth sense, which is said to only appear in children born in the village at the base of the cursed Mt. Hikami, this game’s backdrop. This ability is referred to as “shadow reading,” and allows practitioners to see the unseen. This includes traces of missing persons, and even deadly spirits. Yuri is trying to master her abilities with the help of her mentor, Hisoka, who shares the same power. Together, Yuri and Hisoka attempt to solve missing persons cases, which happen rather frequently around Mt. Hikami. The mountain is a popular suicide spot, and it used to be a peaceful shrine and tourist destination, before the attractions were destroyed by a massive landslide years ago. When our short-lived protagonist, Miu Hinasaki goes missing, Yuri and Hisoka are spurred into action, kickstarting a malevolent tale of supernatural events.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water features three main protagonists. We have the aforementioned Miu, the shadow-reading Yuri, and a man by the name of Ren Hojo. Ren is fixated on the folktales surrounding Mt. Hikami, and with the help of his tomboy assistant Rui, they attempt to piece together the history of the mountain, and ascertain the meaning behind the rumors of ritualistic drownings that the maidens once performed there. Unfortunately, none of our heroes are particularly Oscar-worthy, and are rather bland and interchangeable. Thankfully, the story itself is rather engaging, and is a testament to what the developers were able to achieve, given such lousy characters. The story is improved upon even further with the addition of multiple endings and Japanese audio.
Black Water stretches on throughout the course of fourteen chapters, or “Drops” as the game likes to refer to them as. If you couldn’t tell by now, this Fatal Frame has a central theme and obsession with water. “Water” is in the title, and it plays an integral role in the gameplay. Putting the narrative aside, Black Water’s key mechanic is the Wetness System. The water on Mt. Hikami is cursed, and if you happen to fall into it, its curse will abide on you. The wetter your character becomes, a hostile spirit can inflict more damage on you. Conversely, you also happen to do more damage to spirits.

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“How can you damage a ghost?” I hear you clamor. Combat in Fatal Frame games differs drastically compared to a traditional survival horror title. Whereas your Silent Hills and Resident Evils depend upon the player accumulating guns and melee weapons, your only means of defense in Fatal Frame is a camera. The Camera Obscura, as it’s called, is a mystical device capable of exorcising spirits. To use it, you must get right up in a terrifying ghost’s face, and snap a photo when the time is right in order to inflict damage. This combat system, while repetitive, keeps the terror heightened throughout the experience. Moreover, the Wii U’s gamepad is used to startling effect here, essentially becoming the Camera Obscura. Point the gamepad around, and use it just like a real camera. The results are satisfying, and there are few titles that jive this well with the Wii U’s gimmicks. Upon killing a ghost, the player can  move in close and touch the ethereal remnants in order to trigger a flashback of how the ghost died. These flashbacks, or “Fatal Glances” are pivotal to the experience, and explain the plot better than any note you pick up, or cutscene that you watch.
Technically, Maiden of Black Water has nothing to boast. The game is plagued with framerate dips and janky controls. The omission of a dedicated quick turn button is rather unforgivable for a horror title that was released in 2015, and you’ll often find yourself stumbling when the situation calls for running away, rather than standing your ground. Thankfully, Fatal Frame’s strengths were never its gameplay, and the spooks that abound in the story are more than enough to compensate for a rather mediocre gameplay experience. After the 15 hour story mode is finished, there are four more chapters that unlock, in which you play as Ayane from Tecmo’s very own Ninja Gaiden series. In these chapters, players are forced to sneak around ghosts, rather than confront them. This turns Fatal Frame’s mechanics on their head, and I only wish these chapters weren’t so short. Notwithstanding, there’s more than enough content here to keep a person happy.

By Gary Stemple

Gary is an anarcho-capitalist and born-again believer nestled away in the mountains of Morgantown, West Virginia. He is a passionate fan of basketball and survival horror video games. He currently works in nursing, and is going to school in hopes of becoming a paramedic. Follow his caffeine-induced rants on Twitter @GaryStemple.

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