What makes a horror game work? Often, suggesting something terrible might have happened is more dangerous than showing you what actually happened. Japanese horror in particular is known to focus on unsettling atmospheres and dark, sinister tales than actual gore. True to its roots, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a relentlessly unsettling and disturbing game. The locations reek of malice and foreboding and the visuals exude an energy that is palpable, even though you’re looking at the events play out on a screen in front of you. While Fatal Frame succeeds brilliantly in creating a disturbing atmosphere, it is unfortunately let down by repetitive ghost encounters and awkward controls.
Maiden of Black Water speaks about the echoes of the past. It speaks of unspeakable horrors that were committed in a time gone by. It speaks of tragedies so powerful, they reach through the ages and leave their mark on the psyches of people in the present. There’s a lot going on story wise. The plot is told via three protagonists, each in a different time period. All three of them, on one fateful night, undertake a journey to discover what happened at Mount Hikami. Different aspects of the events that played out in Hikami come out during each of the three tales. It’s an interesting way to approach a horror plot, and it works really well here.
In the dozen or so hours that you’ll need to finish this game, you will come upon some truly horrific events in the plot – ritual murders, drownings and several other terrible things. Even the most jaded of horror fans will feel the tingles creeping up their spine. Maiden of Black Water makes it uncomfortable for you to sit down and play it. And that is as good praise as can be heaped upon a horror game. The things you uncover are so disturbing, that you’ll dread going through the same corridors once you’ve uncovered some information about what happened there in the past. Learning new information about the tragedies that occurred give you a fresh, unsettling perspective on the locations in the game. Innocuous corners turn foreboding, and random objects scattered around take on new, tragic meanings.
Your only defense against the ghouls and spirits you’ll come across in this game is a camera which is also an exorcism device. This mechanic uses the GamePad in an interesting way. Basically, your GamePad turns into your camera. If you take a good picture, you inflict more damage on the ghosts in your frame. It’s like Duck Hunt, only much, much scarier. Handling the characters themselves is far less intuitive. In a game that features so many tight spaces, it is annoying to be hamstrung by the controls over and over again. You’ll have many occasions where you come across a truly monstrous spirit, and need to run back only to find that your character has all of the agility of a drunk slug. Sometimes, you’ll end up twisting and turning right into the waiting arms of the ghost you were trying to flee. So much for exploration.
Using the GamePad as a camera/weapon is fun throughout the runtime of the game. But this control scheme illustrates how limited the game’s combat really is. You can equip different lenses on your camera to get different effects and abilities. Each of the protagonists wield slightly different cameras too. But, for the most part, you’ll just end up using the lens which does the most damage. All of the other lenses, irrespective of the variety they lend, are generally less useful.
Water is an important part of the environment and the story in Maiden of Black Water. If you’re wet, you’re more likely to get jumped by a ghost. You have the ability to dry yourself off using items, but you’ll most likely end up getting wet immediately after. As a result, you can basically ignore this mechanic and progress through the game. Which is a shame, because the use of water in this manner could’ve been a fascinating gameplay element if implemented correctly.
When you’re starting your journey, pointing-and-shooting (pun intended) your camera at ghosts is a lot of fun. The only time monotony begins to creep in is during the third act of the game, where you are forced to fight the same ghosts repeatedly for no apparent reason. By the end, even though the individual ghosts are expertly designed and have a lot of personality, you’re just tired of looking at them. What’s more, fighting wave after wave of the same ghosts will probably use up a lot of your supplies, leaving you vulnerable to more powerful ghosts.
Little touches lend a lot of personality and scares to Maiden of Black Water. You’ll catch ghosts aimlessly wandering around in the environment. You’ll see a split-second reflection of a malevolent face in the water. You’ll discover ghosts which are just watching you go about your day. It’s frequently creepy, in a good way. As a horror story, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a triumph. The innovative use of the GamePad makes it fun to play, even if the combat does get a bit repetitive by the end. Even so, this game will leave you thoroughly unsettled and disturbed. If you’re a fan of survival horror, that’s exactly what you’re looking for.