Table of contents

The idea was a no-brainer: a new Fatal Frame, Koei Tecmo's survival-horror series, in which the Wii U gamepad would be the camera you fight off ghosts with. It was baffling why for years one wasn't made for the system. That's why when Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water finally released in the West in late 2015, it felt like a game that should've been released in the console's first year. Holding up the gamepad to the TV like a camera and peering through the second screen like a viewfinder is a great novelty. It elevates an average, old-school Japanese survival-horror game to being one of the Wii U's most unique experiences.

The Siren's Call

Looks can kill.

Ouse Kurosawa, the story's antagonist, is a shrine maiden on Mount Hikami. It's a fictional place based on Aokigahara, a forest flanked by mountains where people regularly commit suicide. Mount Hikami melds those two geographies together with its forested mountains from which water flows down into a massive caldera lake. Ouse, like other shrine maidens, are sealed in boxes and tossed into the lake to purify the mountain's black water. The water's a supernatural force that corrupts spirits if unpurified, making them malevolent towards the living. Ouse, in a moment of weakness, fails to purify the water and becomes a malicious spirit. She attracts women to the mountain to become sacrificial maidens and men to marry and die with them to enhance their purifying powers.

Players split their time between Yuri Kozukata who’s connected with the spirit world and can bring lost people back from it, Miu Hinasaka who inherited paranormal senses from her mother, and Ren Hojo, a writer. Armed with Camera Obscuras—cameras that can photograph and exorcise ghosts—they repeatedly visit Mount Hikami, lured by Ouse. Yuri (left) searches for her mentor. Miu (center) searches for her missing mother. Ren (right) does research for a book.

Personalities from left to right: Smoldering, confused, and cardboard cutout.

Yuri, Miu, and Ren’s stories aren't compelling. Their motivations are clear but their but their relationships to one another and others are mysteries for most of the game.

Yuri's backstory—how she feels about her powers and her relationship with her mentor—is drip fed in documents found throughout the game. However, it's only shown and fleshed out meaningfully in the last four of the sixteen episodes. It's material that should've been in first half of the game. By the time I'm shown how the two met and why they're so close, I don't care because the game's wasted several hours showing me little of importance. Saving the meat of Yuri's personal story for the end feels like it was supposed to be revelatory like the payoff of a mystery. The snippets of info found in journal entries and notes were meant to make players curious about her. Instead, it's infuriating because I would've had better context of situations and a firm grasp on relationships knowing all of it sooner. The documents on Yuri should've expanded on her story, not doled out basic information.

Miu is a flat, one note character who overstays her welcome. All she cares about is finding her mother because she's the only family Miu has left. Miu's nothing more than a mommy's girl the whole game. It's revealed that her mother went to Mount Hikami because she wants to see her dead brother again and ease his suffering. We never learn who the brother is, but it's more character development than her daughter. Miu's only revelation is that she's "shadowborn," the child of a living parent and a dead parent. That tantalizing detail is never explored and is just an excuse for Ouse to make her a sacrificial maiden.

Ren explores the mountain and its abandoned shrines with his assistant and delves deep into the mysteries of the mountain. His stakes are raised early on with investigating the disappearance of his friend who contacts him from the spirit world. After that his assistant runs off and he must bring her back down the mountain. Then Ren becomes personally connected with Mount Hikami when it's revealed that his recurring nightmares are the memories of an ancestor. While the structure of Yuri's story is end-heavy and Miu’s story is anemic, Ren's story is unfocused and bloated. The pretense of being an author doing research is largely forgotten after his first episode. The three story threads overlap so often that it's hard to tell what players should be paying attention to. Perhaps this was meant to keep players from being bored by the slow pacing but as I eased into one story a jarring interjection and transition into the next gave me whiplash. The assistant's story thread is forgettable; journal entries tell how she pines for Ren but in game he shows as much interest in her as a brother does to a sister. The others have satisfying conclusions because Ren's personal struggles are intertwined with the history of Mount Hikami and the ghosts that he encounters there.

More Than a Haunted House

Mt. Hikami is a character all its own. The forest feels claustrophobic, its intersecting trails disorienting. The thick foliage can't keep the heavy rain from pelting the mountainside.

The light from the characters' flashlights cast shadows off everything indoors, making you second-guess what you just saw down that hall.

The shrines are ornate. There's a sense of melancholic grandeur when traversing their upper levels in the soft light of lanterns' glows. Doors to ceremonial rooms and dining halls open slowly as if each room deserves a grand reveal. The lower levels are oppressive. Characters struggle to wade through the knee-high water that's flooded the floor. It's a relief to find dry ground after long stretches of water.

The beach is as calm as the surface of the water and its quiet isolation is eerie.

Journal entries, notes, and letters expose the dark traditions of the mountain's denizen's and their proximity to the spirit world. They give much needed context to the places the characters visit. A shrine full of dolls—on shelves, guarding the dead ends of corridors, hung from tree branches like they were lynched—becomes disturbing when you read about how children's remains were found in dolls. In an underground cavern with reliquaries, journals tell of human sacrifices being swept away by the water. The caldera lake where people pray and set offerings is where the worlds of the living and the dead meet.

Most ghosts you defeat offer the chance for a Fatal Glance. You approach the disappearing ghost, hold down the right shoulder button to reach out, and you're shown how they died. The screen cuts to grainy, low-res VHS footage reminiscent of Ringu's infamous tape. The short clips have the most horrifying imagery in the game. The ghosts of women who swim through the air are drowned in the volcanic lake because they failed to purify the water, their bodies floating to the surface. Ghosts that swing side to side from nooses have been pushed to suicide by the glance of a shrine maiden's spirit and hang from trees like Christmas baubles. A ghost who moves like an erratic marionette, their limbs cracking with each movement, had their body twisted through their arms and legs like a pretzel. The main story lacks much of the grotesque imagery and shocking delivery that the ghosts' backstories.

Killer Shots

You fight ghosts using the Camera Obscura, which in this case is the Wii U gamepad. You raise it to the TV and look at the gamepad screen like you would a viewfinder. It narrows your view so you must peer over the gamepad to see more of what's in front of you. The gamepad's gyroscope lets you move your arms to look around. It's a great novelty that engaged me in the action. I always looked forward to fights with ghosts because it was so much fun to look around the room with my gamepad and snap pictures. Ghosts can move suddenly and flank you so you'll often use the right thumbstick to swing the Camera around and fine tune your aiming with your arms. Each time you take a picture of a ghost, spirit balls will appear around them. You rotate the gamepad to get more ghosts and their spirit balls in your picture, which increases the damage done. When there're enough objects in the photo, the camera glows red for a powerful attack. The best photos are Fatal Frames, photos taken as a ghost is attacking you. If you shoot too soon or too late, you'll get hurt. Time it right and you'll unleash a string of rapid-fire shots that stagger the ghost and inflict massive damage.

You want as many ghosts and spirit balls in the shot, so you turn the gamepad to fit in as many as you can. You must wait for the right moment to take a picture—do you wait for a Fatal Frame or is it better to build up to a powerful shot—all the while keeping track of where other ghosts are around you. Sometimes the best course of action is to lower the Camera and put some distance between you and them.

Using the Camera in the beginning is simple—point and shoot—but as you progress the Camera becomes more powerful. The rarer the film you use—this game's ammo—the more damage you do to ghosts. Then there are lenses that unleash special attacks like a blast of damage or a freezing shot. Switching through lenses and deciding which one to use for the situation at hand adds a great layer of strategy.

You're rewarded with points on how the photo is shot, how many subjects are in it, and how much damage it did. The game ranks you at the end of each episode depending solely on how many points you garnered. The points can be used to upgrade the Camera's functions and the lenses. The rank is something to increase replayability but can be completely ignored. I enjoyed it a lot because it gave me a reason to become more proficient at photographing ghosts besides just killing them. Shooting for higher ranks means experimenting with lenses and how best to utilize them to get more points. I found that the Reward lens, which temporarily increases points received for each shot, is essential for the best rank. The other lenses can be messed around with until you find the ones that fit your playstyle the best. An easy way to get S+ rankings is to use the Reward lens and the worst type of film because it has infinite ammo. Ghosts take longer to die and flubbing a shot is worse because it takes so long to reload but you're showered with enough points to fully upgrade the camera and snag that S+ rank.

Time doesn't matter for an S+ rank. It's all about points.

Besides a sense of accomplishment, the only reward for getting the best rank in all episodes on both Normal and Nightmare difficulties is an overpowered lens. It's not a worthwhile reward; you'll have had your fill after two playthroughs, not counting the episodes you had to replay for a better rank.

The ghosts aren't as aggressive or fast as in past games. This is probably because of the game's emphasis on group battles and rewarding photos with multiple subjects. The slower ghosts give players the opportunity to rotate the gamepad and shoot multiple ghosts. The window for a Fatal Frame is also much larger, allowing players more time to recognize an individual ghost's telegraph among others. These changes make fighting regular ghosts one-on-one tedious. The best strategy is to wait for a Fatal Frame but they take forever to attack and it's too easy to pull off.

Moving during battles is frustrating. You run by holding down the left shoulder trigger and your character flails forward without any other input. Steering them left and right while running feels like trying to course-correct a tank. Their running looks like someone overtaken by fear. The characters' arms swing wildly, their legs look like they're about to trip over each other. Turning doesn't have that same feeling of desperation. You can do a quick-180 to run away but for everything else you swivel to the right and left with all the urgency of a walk through the park. In large, open spaces like the forest you can start running and get to where it's safe to pull out the camera again. This is impossible in the cramped corridors and rooms of houses and shrines. Start running and you'll be making out with the wall until you manage to steer yourself down a hall or through a door. You must slowly turn in the right direction, leaving you vulnerable to attack. Ghosts disappear through walls and furniture. A red glow tells you approximately what direction ghosts are in, but when you can't see where the ghost exactly is and if they're attacking or not, you often run into them. In the smallest of rooms, you must either turn and walk slowly or run into walls to avoid that ghosts' attacks. They're unfair situations where you'll continue to take damage until you kill the ghosts or get lucky and walk past an attack. Even with slower, more forgiving ghosts you'll find yourself cursing the controls.

Making movement easier would alleviate most of these issues. I love difficult controls in horror games when done right. Controls in the classic Resident Evils, Silent Hills, and even Fatal Frames make players feel vulnerable and stressed in dangerous situations. The trade offs to keep the series' rigid controls intact were not worth it here. Easier movement would allow players to better move while indoors so they don't find themselves in situations where it's not their fault ghosts hurt them. The ghosts could become faster and more aggressive to compensate, making one-on-one fights more exciting while still maintaining the basic strategy for group fights. This could allow for the Fatal Frame window to become tighter. It would still be the best shot you could take, but it would be more of a risk and keep it from being the only strategy when fighting individual ghosts.

A Postmortem

The next game will be an opportunity for better characters and storytelling. Each game in the series has an incredible sense of place with well written lore and presentation, but I feel none of them have met the high standards that Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly set with its great characters and horrifying plot.

With the Wii U forgotten and the Nintendo Switch ditching the bulky gamepad, the next Fatal Frame won't be able to iron out Maiden of the Black Water’s gameplay flaws. Without the gamepad, I don't know if the next game will capture the same magic I felt with this one. The gamepad as the Camera Obscura felt natural. The Switch could do something similar in handheld mode, but it's not the same as looking up from the gamepad and seeing the rest of the world in front of you. If I play it on the TV I could use motion controls but I wouldn't have that same physicality of the second screen in front of me and in my hands.

It's a shame that Maiden of the Black Water wasn't released sooner in the Wii U's life and Koei Tecmo didn't get another crack at the concept. I'm glad however that this game came out at all. Fatal Frame IV was never released in the West, and after fans demanded that Maiden of the Black Water be localized, Nintendo released it with little fanfare as if they were ashamed of it. They shouldn't have been. It stands with games like ZombiU as a demonstration of what could've been possible if developers had invested in and been more creative with the Wii U. That reality makes it one of the console's most bittersweet swan songs.

"Let's take one more for posterity."

Image and Video Credits

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