Beautiful horror? More like beautifully dull!
The PlayStation 2 has one of the most iconic game libraries of all time, including some of the best survival horror games ever: Silent Hill 2 and 3, the Mermaid series, Rose rule, full of resident Evil games, and of course, the Fatal frame series. Unfortunately, apart from resident Evil, pretty much all of them fell into the water for one reason or another.
However, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Fatal frame series, Koei Tecmo honored fans around the world with a Fatal frame PS2 Collection on Modern Platforms – oh wait, sorry this is just one section of my list of hopes and dreams. Instead, they released a remaster of the Wii U Fatal frame almost nobody played or liked it all.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (PS5 [reviewed], PS4, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Wii U, PC)
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Editor: Koei Tecmo
Released: October 27, 2021 (October 22, 2015 for the original version of the Wii U)
MSRP: $ 39.99
Six years after its initial release, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water didn’t age gracefully because it just wasn’t that scary to begin with. Even upon its initial release, games like Alien: isolation (which came out a year earlier) in terms of pure horror does all in black water damsel seems unremarkable in comparison. Apart from the fantastic setting and spooky ghosts, the ineffectiveness of its horror is due to a terrible story, forgettable character cast, and many questionable design choices.
black water damsel takes place on the fictional mountain known as Mount Hikami and deals with many heavy themes and topics such as suicide and ritual sacrifice, and is heavily inspired by the disturbing real-world location known as the ‘Sea of ‘trees’. Combine it all with the rich Japanese folklore, and it’s a terrifying setting that is (again) wasted in black water damsel.
Without delving into too many spoilers, this is due in large part to the fact that the cast of the characters are almost as lifeless as the ghosts they take pictures of. The story is told through approximately fourteen chapters and from three different character perspectives all of which have the emotional range of someone who has just woken up and being asked twenty questions at a time. Throughout the game, in terms of the emotions displayed, these characters appear either confused, slightly surprised, or half asleep.
For all the shit Ethan Winters gets for his lines and reactions to things going on around him in the last one resident Evil games, at least he reacts to things. Meanwhile, Yuri from Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is as I just described it: seemingly emotionless about pretty much everything that’s going on. (Granted, I’m only blaming her because despite just throwing the credits in this game, I couldn’t tell you the names of the other playable characters if my life depended on them – they’re so forgettable. )
As an example of what I’m talking about: in a scene right out of the Ju-on movies, Yuri is taking a bath when suddenly the water around her fills with dark hair, and Yuri is pulled down. A menacing pale maiden appears in front of Yuri, just inches from his face as black water begins to flow from the young girl’s eyes. Yuri then wakes up from what was only a nightmare. We’ve all seen similar scenes like this before.
Typically, however, the expressions on the character’s face are pure dread, and admittedly when Yuri wakes up afterwards, she at least appears to be shaken. But when the girl is inches from her face with black goo all over the place? She doesn’t sell the girl’s attempt at horror and looks at it with a slight inconvenience at best. I burst out laughing after the fact at the thought of the ghost maiden walking up her creepy mountain, complaining to other ghosts that the living aren’t gullible enough for this shit anymore.
I could go on complaining about the story, its weird pacing, and the way it goes out of her way to make excuses for these characters to keep on leaving (and then up) haunted suicide mountain. Instead, let’s talk about the other main reasons why Fatal framework: black water damsel fails to be a scary game – its repetitive and boring gameplay.
At the end of each chapter, you are graded on your results with a ranking and a bunch of points to spend on camera upgrades or items you can buy at the start of the next chapter. However, between that and the fact that you automatically give in twenty (20!) healing items at the start (plus tons more you can buy or buy), this kills any sense of tension or challenge in the game as a whole, unless you’re chasing a high score or something something like that.
Worse yet, the Nightmare difficulty isn’t available until you complete the approximately 14 hour campaign in Normal or Easy difficulty (the latter turns off the leaderboard and lets you “enjoy” the story). It’s also in this awful length and pace that the solid photography-based fight with the Camera Obscura gets boring long before it’s even halfway through.
Again, you deal with the ghoulish spirits by putting them in the frame, letting them get dangerously close, and dealing big damage with deadly frames. Granted, it’s a brilliant shooting system that looked perfect for the Wii U GamePad. On the DualSense controller with gyro controls, it works quite well. This can be unwieldy at times, but luckily you can also use analog controls if you prefer.
However, character movement is still painfully slow and incredibly awkward in the narrower interior areas. Funny enough, that’s about the only semblance of a challenge the game has going for him. The reality is that if these characters could move at a brisk pace, it would make dealing with ghosts even more trivial than it already is. To be effective in combat, all you need to master is your timing with dodging (pressing X right before an attack) and keeping a reasonable distance to ghosts between good hits. Honestly, though, with the amount of healing items your characters have on hand, you’ll rarely be in real danger in black water damsel.
I say rarely because there are specific moments scattered throughout the campaign where you meet the main Darkwater Maiden herself (who is invincible to your camera trickery) and will be briefly pursued. She looks cool as hell, but it’s brief encounters that scare you off. They are also somewhat trivial, thanks to your stack of healing items.
It was in those mean bitch-girl appearances, however, where I felt like my brain had finally been taken off autopilot while I was playing. Other than that, the setting and atmosphere do all the heavy lifting here to keep your interest alive, which is ruined by cheap scares anyway. An example they reuse several times throughout the game this often happens as your character (slowly) collects items; a ghost hand may try to catch you. It does very little damage to your character and has aged for me after the first time around.
As for this updated version on new platforms, Fatal framework: black water damsel on PlayStation 5 runs in native 4K resolution, has slightly better water and shadow effects, but otherwise looks fairly comparable to the original version of the Wii U.
They also removed the Samus and Zelda outfits (including for the Nintendo Switch version), possibly due to licensing issues. Instead, they added new outfits that are a lot less visually appealing, and I never bothered to use them.
There’s also a photo mode that lets you place different ghosts in the environment and switch between different poses for a fun diorama display. I’m sure some people will love this stuff, but it only caught my attention for a few minutes at most. Plus, all of the censorship from the original Western version is still intact, so if you’re looking for a “sexy outfit” fix, you’ll have to settle for the news, I guess.
This is all just speculation on my part, but Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water comes across as a game that had some amazing artists with cool ideas for this setting and the Wii U tablet, but they couldn’t quite figure out a cohesive story to tell. To make matters worse, I feel like they didn’t want to scare newcomers onto a new system either and toned down the scare factor.
Six years later, in that time frame, Capcom has done the opposite with Resident Evil 7 – which has now sold over 10 million copies, making it one of the most popular games in the franchise. I think if Koei Tecmo still has an interest in relaunching the Fatal frame franchise, they have to get back to the drawing board or give the newcomers a good collection of games that made this survival horror series great in the first place.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]