A picture is worth a thousand screams.
As mentioned in the last review I did for a horror game, which I believe was Five Nights at Freddy's, I fully confess to having both the “namby” and “pamby” titles all locked up. I do not do scary well; in fact, I very likely am a bigger chicken-shit than actual organic chicken feces itself. And yet I love horror games. Won't set foot in a “haunted house” attraction, but give me a controller and a pause function and I'm badder than all four Ghostbusters combined. Who could be more perfect to review Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, and so close to Halloween too?
The Fatal Frame series, which was introduced to North America in 2002 on the PlayStation 2, centers around devices known as Cameras Obscura, ancient cameras that can capture more than just a charming smile—the camera can focus on beings beyond the realm of the living, such as ghosts trapped on the mortal plane or long-hidden items pulled into the other side. Maiden of Black Water is the first to see the light of day in the West since Fatal Frame III: The Tormented in 2005 and the first to appear on Western Nintendo consoles.
The choice to move to the Wii U concerned many, even though the fourth chapter, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, was released exclusively on the Wii in Japan. But the move couldn't have been more perfect, as the Camera Obscura is literally in the player's hands.
The plot involves three interweaving storylines featuring Yuri Kozukata, a young girl with supernatural powers being trained in the art of “shadow reading,” Ren Hojo, an author researching Mt. Hikami, a location infamous for drawing in those contemplating suicide, and Miu Hinasaki, who shows up in the Prelude then promptly drops out of existence until the latter half of the game. Yuri's caretaker and mentor, Hisoka Kurasawa, goes missing while trying to locate Haruka Momose at the request of Fuyuhi Himino. (You may need a diagram to keep up with all the characters the game throws at you in the first few chapters.)
Against Hisoka's admonishment not to go after people who may have been “spirited away” to the other side, Yuri goes up to Mt. Hikari to see if she can find Haruka as well as what happened to Hisoka. Yuri finds Hisoka's Camera Obscura and charm washed up on the banks of a river flowing near a mountain shrine. And from that point, let the crazy ensue! Players are thrust into stories of suicide pacts, murderous dreams, spirits born from the dark waters of the mountain, deceased shrine maidens who possess the depressed and convince them to kill themselves, and creepy-ass dolls and dead kids. Of the few jump-scares Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water has in store, the dolls got me the most. I've seen Child's Play. I know how this all goes down.
It's true—Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water doesn't use all that many jump-scares, eschewing shocking-scary for creepy-scary. It's not about if an evil spirit is going to come after you, but when and where it will happen. Many of the game's most intense fights will be in the tight corridors of dilapidated inns and the murky mountain shrine. Then the game leads you to a curiously open room or outdoor area, a couple of items on the ground, and just enough music to realize something is about to go down.
Adding to the intensity is the realization you directly hold the Camera Obscura in the form of your Wii U GamePad. It works much like a regular camera would, with ZR acting as the shutter and the D-pad cycling through your lenses and film types, and ghosts appearing in the viewfinder. Sure, you can see them on the TV, but you won't be able to see their weak points or even aim the Camera unless the GamePad is in front of your face, and this subconsciously adds to the tension. I spent more than a few boss battles actually getting off my couch to be able to spin and aim the GamePad 360 degrees around me for optimal results. I still have a little bit of the cola stain in my carpet left to prove it, the unintended result of a particularly demanding battle with three ghost kids playing an evil form of hide-and-seek. Seriously, creepy kids… they'll get you every time.
Controls while not in battle are a bit on the tankish side, and I'm actually okay with this. It hearkens back to the genuinely creepy games of prior generations, such as the original Resident Evil. It's not easy to get away from combat, and as such Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water encourages some stealth, yet tempts players to engage with the prospect of high-quality film, healing items, and points that can be spent for items in between chapters or upgrade the Camera Obscura or its lenses.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water has a decidedly-Eastern horror feel to it, very much more 1998 Ringu than 2002 The Ring. Eastern spiritualism seeps into the environment and invokes an atmosphere of creepy tension, broken up with interspersed touching or lighthearted moments, and yes, who doesn't want to investigate the paranormal in Samus's Zero Suit or Zelda's full Hyrulian regalia? Instead of the in-your-face outright scare without substance, Maiden of Black Water goes for a sense of dread paired with an insatiable curiosity to know what happened next. It's a welcome re-introduction to the franchise in the West, a hit for the Wii U, which is still trying to prove it can appeal to "Mature" gamers. It will make you wonder just what was that sound down your dark hallway at 3am, and just when did your bathroom faucet start leaking?