Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water Review (Wii U)
Koei Tecmo and Nintendo may have skipped out on taking the Wii's Project Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse out of Japan, but the House of Mario decided to cave to fans' demands and give Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water a digital release for Western audiences. As the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series have started to stray and stumble in maintaining survival horror, Maiden of Black Water ups the frights. This new Fatal Frame purposely maintains a slow burn in order to properly build up suspense, bringing back the ghostbusting gameplay of the Camera Obscura, which now utilizes the Wii U's GamePad to exorcise the dead. In an era when survival horror has skewed into action-oriented gameplay or defenseless first-person perspectives, Maiden of Black Water is a welcome, old school-style callback to survival horror's glory days. Unfortunately, Fatal Frame 5 suffers from simple control issues pertaining to its core gameplay that should've easily been ironed out. Despite its solid attempts at spirit photography, there are some basic parts of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water that feel underdeveloped, which can ruin the overall shot.
At first glance, Mt. Hikami and its dreary locales look eerie and gorgeous. Once you get stuck in the more cramped indoor areas, you'll notice that a lot of the textures look muddied and dated in quality. The character models of Fatal Frame 5 are captivating for the most part. Given Koei Tecmo's decision to use part of Dead or Alive 5's graphics engine, the female characters of Fatal Frame 5 look quite familiar and have rather sexy looks. Fatal Frame veterans might be surprised to see how well endowed most of the females in this game are and how they dress when compared to the rather toned down female protagonists of the first three games (Fatal Frame 4 never got an official Western release). Within the game's first couple minutes, you're playing as a girl in a near see-through top who falls into water and gets surrounded by a half-dozen female shrine ghosts who all have their cleavage hanging out.
While it's scarier than it sounds, Koei Tecmo's overt treatment of its female characters might be a turn off and just feels like bizarre design choices that needlessly standout when trying to craft something that is supposed to be scary. Nevertheless, the game's character and ghost models easily grab your attention whenever they're on screen, though some features (especially the layers of hair) look out of date, as if they were taken from Dead or Alive's last-gen engine. Luckily, the lighting and phantasm effects redeem a lot of Maiden of Black Water's graphical shortcomings, just don't expect anything that looks anywhere near as good as Until Dawn.
The music and sound effects of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water are on point and easily provide some of the best auditory experiences on the Wii U. Let me address the elephant in the room concerning Fatal Frame 5's audio: the English voice acting is horridly flat and unenthusiastic. Despite these characters being involved in life or death situations at a supernatural hot spot surrounded by ghosts, the cast just seems bored when they're talking. Underwhelming, dull voice acting isn't new to the Fatal Frame series, but the characters' Ritalin-esque reactions to everything around them still feels unnatural, especially when Maiden of Black Water increases the number of frights and ghosts you encounter regularly. I recommend playing with the original Japanese dialogue on, as those performances have a bit more life in them compared to their English counterparts. The main characters felt more lifeless than the ghosts that were haunting them.
Fortunately, the rest of the audio effects sound great. Playing with surround sound, I absolutely loved using the camera to shoot and seal away ghosts in front of me while hearing another spirit trying to flank me from the side. The music is very minimal, but the tones you do get are effective, reminding me of Resident Evil 2's soundtrack, which helped enhance the excellent atmosphere. It's quite haunting to walk by a cliff where a ghost reenacts its suicide as you hear the person's final words spoken with a creepy, ethereal effect before jumping with an appropriate, creepy musical note following the event.
Speaking of Resident Evil, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water has absolutely horrible controls when it comes to moving its characters. All three protagonists move like tanks stuck in the mud, which is fine if they actually had tight controls. Having played every Silent Hill and Resident Evil game out there, tank controls are something that I'm quite accustomed to. The problem with Fatal Frame 5's controls is that they're horribly sluggish. I understand that the characters may have been slowed down in order to give the ghosts a chance at catching up to you, but the controls shouldn't frustrate the player when all you're doing is exploring rooms and tight hallways without any ghosts around. Instead of turning a few degrees to the right upon tilting the analog stick, the amount the characters turn feels random and unpredictable. Yuuri, Ren and Miu all play the same, but they all handle like laggy versions of Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine. Even swinging the third-person camera around is laggy, unresponsive and simply hard to rely upon.
It's a chore trying to lineup your character to an item to interact with, often taking a few extra seconds to find the exact point to interact with the item. The clumsiness of this system is exacerbated when you have ghosts in the room or are in a rush to do something. Assigning the interact/item pickup button to ZR leads to many repeated animations where your character will walk up to an object, stick his/her hand out and either grab the item or be surprised by a ghost lurking in wait. This would have been an interesting mechanic if it wasn't repeated all the time throughout the game and didn't use the exact same animations or ghosts.
The biggest change comes in the form of having the Camera Obscura mapped to gyroscopic motion controls of the Wii U's GamePad. In the previous Fatal Frame titles, you had to toggle back and forth between a third-person perspective and the Camera Obscura viewfinder. Now, you control the Camera Obscura through the screen of the Wii U GamePad. You use the controller's screen as the viewfinder and physically aim the GamePad at the ghosts you want to shoot with the camera. The gyroscopic controls lets you determine the angles of your shots and their orientation.
As always, the more centered and clearer your ghost pictures are, the more damage you do to them. You have to make sure you have the floating parts of the ghosts' souls in the picture as well. Throw in multiple ghosts at the same time and things get rather hectic, but in a good way. Using the gyroscopic controls was never a chore, which motion controls can easily become. Luckily, this is one of the most intuitive ways the Wii U has ever used its GamePad and I fear for future entries of the series that won't be utilizing this mechanic. My favorite parts of the game were trying to get my GamePad's orientation just right in order to capture multiple ghosts and their essences all into the same shot.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water has plenty of enjoyment to be had for survival horror and spirit photography enthusiasts, but it also has plenty of setbacks, mainly in the form of its basic controls. It's a shame that the rudimentary controls, which Koei Tecmo should've learned to master by now based on all the games that have properly utilized it in the past, takes away so much from an otherwise enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, these atrocious controls plague Maiden of Black Water throughout the entirety of the game.
There's also a leveling system you get based on the points you earn from your shots, which help upgrade your camera, put on special lenses and earn you special types of film that cause more damage (which you'll certainly need). Other than the more nefarious spiritis, Fatal Frame has plenty of benign entities you'll encounter, and they can be just as creepy as the ones out to get you. Being quick on the draw and taking pictures of these passive ghosts that disappear as you approach them earns more points as well. As nonthreatening as these apparitions are, their presence still feels scary. Nothing beats backtracking into a place you're familiar with, learning about the area or room's bloody history, and getting creeped out by ghost that isn't even out to get you.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water's full price tag might shy away some would-be buyers since it's only available in North America as a digital release, but veterans of the series or survival horror fans in general will certainly have a good time having an otherworldly photo shoot at Mt. Hikami.
This review was completed with a purchased, digital copy of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water for Wii U.