Ghost make some of the best horror movies and games. Unlike the usual horror enemies, ghosts aren’t tangible and cannot be beaten by standard means – no guns, no knives and no bombs unless they’re enchanted. This is what first brought my attention to the Project Zero (Fatal Frame) series – Japanese horror featuring ghosts in a haunted rural setting. The basic premise of these games is that the hero (typically female) finds themselves in a situation that eventually involves lifting a curse. The Project Zero games have proven themselves to be some of the scariest gaming experiences, so, does Maiden of Black Water bring justice to the series?
What Happens on Mt. Hikami, Stays on Mt. Hikami
The game centres around three playable characters, Yuri, Ren and Miu, as they deal with their own personal trials while uncovering the mystery of the haunted Hikami Mountain and the Shrine Maidens that protect it. It starts off with Miu trying to escape the evil clutches of the ghosts within a shrine, unfortunately she gets caught and swallowed up by the ghostly apparitions. This intro gives you a grim glimpse of what our heroes are facing, an enemy so large in number that’s it’s almost impossible to outrun.
It then skips to our main heroine Yuri, a medium, who is brought to the mountain by her mentor, Hisoka. The two are in search of a hidden photo album that can only be found by using the powers of a psychic and a special camera. The person looking for the album is Ren, a friend of Hisoka who has his own ties to the mysterious mountain. Without giving too much away, the haunted mountain and its inhabitants refuse to the let them go even when they leave the mountain. It finds them and brings them back.
The basic story itself isn’t particularly new, but it’s the motivations of the main characters and that of the mountain’s inhabitants that make it so interesting. Finding and reading little notes that lie about, opens up the game and gives a large amount of insight to the mythos of the game. Many notes contain secrets about the characters and ghosts as well.
Not Your Friendly Ghosts
The main enemy of the game, like you’d expect, are ghosts. Like in all the other Project Zero games, the ghosts were once good people, but due to horrific deaths, they’ve become malevolent. Not only are they a force to be reckoned with, but each one is creepy in their own right. You’ll fight against ghosts like the hanged woman, who attacks by swinging herself and the fallen woman, who attacks by surprise falling on you while she shrieks. Others include little children, a serial killer and the Shrine Maidens – who are so tough, I think of them as mini-bosses.
So how do you fight an enemy that can’t be hurt? If you’ve played any of the Project Zero games before, you’ll know that the answer is with the Camera Obscura. This is a special kind of camera that can exorcise ghosts with a special kind of film. Not only that, but it also forms part of the puzzle solving in-game whereby you take photos of hidden objects in order to reveal them. What makes the camera so brilliant this time round is how it’s used. The gamepad is the life and pride of this game and is used to great effect as the camera obscura. Not only that, but it’s also a second screen and when not used as a camera, it can be used as a map.
The battles take place when in the presence of ghosts, as soon as you find one, you need to take out the camera and take photos of it to defeat it. Think that’s simple? Well it is and it isn’t. Shooting willy nilly will waste all the good film, so in order to maximise your power you need to take close ups and timed shots. By moving the gamepad around, you can emulate the feel of using an actual camera. This provides a lot of immersion, more so than the previous titles. When a ghost comes in for an attack, it almost feels like it’s coming for you. Just before it does land a hit, you can take a “Project Zero” causing significant damage the ghost. This can be chained for even more damage.
Scary Just Doesn’t Always Look This Good
Although the fights can be fast-paced, being attacked by a deadly apparition requires a pair of clean pants and nerves of steel. From the screeching, taunting and general horrific nature of the ghosts, trying to take the perfect shot while they spook you, is probably the main terrifying aspect of the game. What adds to the horror theme is that the whole game takes place during night and when it rains – there’s a reason for that. The main theme of this Project Zero is darkness and water, hence the night and rain.
The dark corners hide all sorts of harmless, but fright-inducing, ghosts which can be filmed for extra points (which are used to upgrade the camera and various lenses). However, the water takes centre stage. Everything about this game revolves around water, especially the black water that comes from the mountain. Water is everywhere, even flooding the houses and shrines. It even affects the characters; the wetter they become the more likely that they will be attacked by spirits. The clothes even become slightly transparent when wet.
The graphics in this game is some of the best I’ve seen on the Wii U, perhaps even the best. The setting is brilliant, pulling off on old Japanese cursed village like in old horror movies. The main drawback is the characters.
The Living Are Lifeless
While they look pretty, they also look very generic and almost always expressionless. I have big issues with the animation as well, as they don’t move like someone would in a creepy setting like that. When talking, their lips barely move and the voice acting doesn’t help either. What adds to the frustration of the characters are the very clunky controls. I had a bit of trouble moving my character around with its almost tank-like controls. There is one ray of sunlight though and it’s the ability to run. A big issue with previous entries is that the characters moved ungodly slow. Now they run a lot faster, but only when you’re not fumbling over the movement controls.
I didn’t experience any frame rate issues, but there were some unexpected loading screens that interrupted a fairly smooth experience. What I didn’t like was how the game was divided. Like the other games, it’s divided into chapters. This, unfortunately, breaks the immersion and sort of dilutes the built-up tension and fear. The longer levels become increasingly scary, while the short chapters aren’t at all. Clutching to this old method remains true to the series, but I think the game has evolved past that.
Both the visuals and the sound are great, but some of the sound effects don’t do it for me. There’s this odd psychic sense that’s used far too often and become a bit of an annoyance.
What I’ve always admired about the Project Zero games is that they’re all the perfect length for a horror game. It’s about 9 hours long with some added bonus content at the end. I won’t say what, but it’s actually pretty neat and does add some extra meat to the package. There are alternate costumes to collect and a long list of ghosts to film, giving you quite a bit of optional stuff to complete.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water isn’t the scariest horror (at least for a horror fanatic like myself) but it’s a good addition to the franchise. Its use of the gamepad is brilliant and well executed and the setting is so beautifully portrayed that I can’t think of a better creepy location to shoot ghosts with a camera. Also, there’s a nice surprise for Project Zero fans.
P.S. You can’t take a selfie in the game.