Review: Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (Wii U)

Is this game worth a dip, or does it make players want to rush back to shore?

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 11/06/2015 09:00 1 Comment     ShareThis
The Final Grade
1-Up Mushroom for...
Excellent production values result in a perfectly creepy atmosphere; Camera Obscura is a fun, smart use of the GamePad; compelling narratives for all three characters; Hooks the player from beginning to end
Poison Mushroom for...
Some graphical hiccups at times; character movement can be unreasonably slow; voice acting is a mixed bag; early battles can drag a bit

Nintendo has been home to the Fatal Frame series for a few years now, but fans in North America would be forgiven for not knowing that, as the last two home console titles have been confined to Japan. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water for Wii U marks the end of an eight year hiatus, and is yet another solid entry in the series. Owing in no small part to its ability to sell an incredible sense of place, Maiden of Black Water is immensely creepy in all the right ways. There are some technical hitches that hold it back from the upper echelons of elite horror games, but Maiden of Black Water is a real triumph on Wii U and a must-have for fans of the genre in particular. Developer Koei Tecmo might get some heat for its portrayal of women in some of its games, but the company shows some marked restraint here, and clearly pulled out all the stops in order to produce one of the best Fatal Frames yet.

Rather than create a traditional demo for the game, Nintendo has opted to release Maiden of Black Water as free-to-start; the first and much of the second chapter (called Drops in the game) are available to play without having to plunk down any cold, hard cash, but I found myself more than eager to crack open my wallet by the time I reached the cutoff point. Maiden of Black Water revolves around the narratives of three people: Yuuri, Miu, and Ren, who are all drawn to the eerie, haunted Mt. Hikami in Japan. Each character brings with them the same core gameplay, but in terms of story pacing, rotating through the trio keeps the story humming along and provides a different perspective from which to take everything in. Justifying the warning that flashes on the screen at the start, the game doesn’t shy away from going to some deep, dark places. There are suicides and grizzly deaths on display, and though Maiden of Black Water certainly earns its “M” rating with its gore and bloodletting, I never found any of it to be in excess. Every detail here is in service to the story, and I enjoyed its twists and scares all the way to the end. The voice acting is the only real letdown here, but despite some cheesy dialogue and clunky line delivery in spots, it’s serviceable.

Maiden of Black Water is gorgeous looking. There are a number of different settings to explore, and they’re all rendered in rich detail. I experienced some pop-in and stuttering here and there, but overall the art direction is exquisitely implemented and more than compensates for these shortcomings. For one, the wandering, hostile spirits that populate Mt. Hikami are varied and genuinely disturbing, and I looked forward to seeing all the different ways that they’d appear at random as I explored. It’s the environments that really steal the show, however. From derelict train stations to the woods dotting the mountainside, Maiden of Black Water sucks players into its world. Its atmosphere oozes dread, and coupled with an equally unsettling soundtrack (including some ambient noises that are piped through the GamePad at times), don’t expect to play this one without breaking into a nervous sweat at least once. This isn’t about jump scares, though, so much as psychological ones. There are some moments of pure fright, but overall Maiden of Black Water is a more cerebral type of scarefest.

What makes the Fatal Frame series especially unique beyond its tone and Japanese setting is its combat. No knives and guns are to be had, replaced instead with something called the Camera Obscura. Control of the camera is delegated to the GamePad, and it’s one of the best uses of the controller to date. When restless spirits come to attack, the player lifts the GamePad and aims it at the screen in order to take pictures that serve as the only means of battling the ghosts. Whether using gyro controls (which are solidly incorporated) or the right control stick to aim, combat in Maiden of Black Water is a joy. Each spirit has weak spots on its body that must be worked into the frame, and the more that can be clustered in a single shot, the greater the damage dealt. The camera itself can be upgraded with better film and lenses in order to pack more punch, and each character has a particular skill that can be exploited during battle, which provides an additional layer of strategy to fights. The encounters with Mt. Hikami’s lost souls can be intense and challenging, but they can also drag at times, sometimes even feeling overly long. This is more of a problem at the beginning of the game when the Camera Obscura is at its weakest, but for the most part the fun of manipulating the GamePad overrides any frustration with these early altercations.

The only other major shortcoming that Maiden of Black Water has comes from its character movement. I found all three characters to feel overly sluggish, even when sprinting. There’s no quick-turn option to speak of, either, meaning players have to manually spin the character around, which can be a huge pain when angry ghosts are rushing in. It’s obviously an attempt by the design team to help fabricate more tension by artificially hampering player movement in order to elicit a greater sense of helplessness during combat. Still, there are better ways of making a player feel less empowered without resorting to gimmicks that come across as design flaws, and in that regard I think Maiden of Black Water falls short. It isn’t game-breaking by any means, but it can be very annoying, particularly during a harried ghost fight. This goes for opening doors, too; I get it, Ren and company are scared to see what’s on the other side, but does every door need to be opened at a snail’s pace?

Those small issues aside, Maiden of Black Water is a premium title on Wii U that left me very impressed. The use of the GamePad here is a rare example of what Wii U’s controller can bring to a game that other consoles can’t. The familiar Fatal Frame combat takes on a whole new dimension because of the GamePad. Koei Tecmo clearly pulled from some of the mechanics introduced in Spirit Camera on 3DS (a Fatal Frame spin-off), but improves upon them greatly. Solid presentation and a gripping storyline will keep players glued to their seats, no matter how scared they might be throughout. The biggest (pun intended!) downside for some fans will be the large install for the game; Maiden of Black Water is over ten gigabytes in size, so make sure to have space available before hitting download. It’ll be worth it, though, as this is a can’t-miss title on a system that has been relatively light on releases of late. Maiden of Black Water needs to be on everyone’s wish list.

One Response to “Review: Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (Wii U)”

  • 0 points

    Oh good, glad it got a good review. Downloaded the “demo” but just too busy lately to try it out. I hope they release it in actual form rather than digital though. Makes me wonder if this is just Nintendo testing whether or not people are stupid enough to pay full price for a game download. That is, if the rumors are true about the NX being download only. I hope not, that would be full butt rape.

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