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During the late ’90s and early 2000s, the survival-horror genre ruled the gaming landscape. This gory golden age was dominated by your Resident Evils and Silent Hills, but close on their heels was Tecmo’s ghost-hunting series Fatal Frame. Unfortunately for American gamers, Nintendo bought the rights to the Fatal Frame franchise in the mid-2000s, and for nearly a decade declined to bring any new entries in the series westward. Many feared the chances of another Fatal Frame ever coming out in America were stone dead.
Well, it turns out fans a shade too pessimistic, as Nintendo has released Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water as a download-exclusive title for the Wii U. Between its mature themes, and extensive use of the GamePad, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water would seem to be exactly the kind of game the Wii U desperately needs, but is the series clinging too closely to its past?
Fatal Frame: Maiden Of Black Water (Wii U)
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a dark game. Not just for a Nintendo-published title, but by survival horror standards in general. Compared to this game, The Last of Us is a lighthearted romp for the whole family. Fatal Frame: MoBW deals with suicide, and I mean deals with it. You will see numerous people kill themselves or attempt to kill themselves throughout this game, and everything just feels smothered in a deep, dark blanket of depression and dread. Yeah. If you’re feeling down, I honestly suggest you steer clear of this game.
The story revolves around Mt. Hikami, an infamous suicide spot, obviously inspired by real-life suicide spot, Aokigahara Forest. The mountain was host to dark, cultist rituals and ever since, mysterious “shrine maidens” have haunted the place, luring people to their deaths. You play as three characters, who are drawn to the mountain in hopes of finding lost loved ones, or to solve the mysteries of its haunted past. If you’re hoping for deep characterization from Fatal Frame: MoBW, well, keep hoping. As in a lot of Asian horror, the protagonists of Fatal Frame: MoBW remain rather stoic and don’t readily reveal their inner motivations. That said, the story’s unique setting and basis in Japanese folklore is fascinating, and the game manages to serve up a good smattering of genuinely disturbing moments.
Nobody’s going to confuse Fatal Frame: MoBW for a PS4 game, but by Wii U standards, it’s certainly above average. Some of the game’s textures are a bit grubby, but that’s mostly obscured by nice lighting and the fact that the game takes place entirely at night. The game’s characters, most of whom are pretty girls, are certainly detailed, although they have a bit of a plastic-doll look to them, and most have made some rather odd ghost-hunting outfit decisions. By Koei-Tecmo standards, Fatal Frame is relatively tasteful, though it’s no Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, but it will take you a few minutes to get used to the game’s unique sense of style.
Ghostbusting in tan jumpsuits is yesterday’s news.
On the audio front, Nintendo has done a decent job of localizing Fatal Frame: MoBW, although the voice acting doesn’t do much to liven up the game’s slightly lifeless characters. Voicework aside, the game’s sound design is rock solid, with the creepy music kicking in at just the right times, and the ghosts letting out some truly gut-twisting moans and shrieks.
For the most part, Fatal Frame: MoBW plays very similarly to past entries in the series. You creep around various dark, gloomy Japanese locales, and when a ghost attacks (which happens often) you whip out your mystical Camera Obscura and blast some spectral booty. Of course, the main difference is that this time around the GamePad represents the camera, with you actually holding up the GamePad in front of you and using the controller’s screen to target and shoot ghosts. This actually isn’t the first Wii U game to use the GamePad as a camera, although it’s the first one to do so quite this extensively and it certainly freshens up the established Fatal Frame formula a touch.
This guy will be a few inches from your face on the GamePad.
Aside from the GamePad usage, the only truly new addition is the wetness meter. It’s not as dirty as it sounds. Not quite. Basically, Fatal Frame: MoBW is packed with pools, ponds, rivers and plenty of rain, and the wetter your character gets, the more ghosts you’ll encounter. Your wetness also effects your stats in some way, although it’s never terribly well-explained. It’s fairly obvious the system was conceived as an excuse to get the game’s mainly female cast in wet tops, but the developers do an okay-to-decent job of justifying all the dampness from a storyline perspective. Perhaps you’re starting to see why Nintendo was just a bit slow to localize this game.
GamePad usage aside, Fatal Frame: MoBW is as old-school as survival horror comes. The game does use a modern dual-stick set-up, but it doesn’t make much difference, since your characters still stagger forward like they’re half in the bag. When pushing the sprint button, you character moves around as fast as the “walk” speed in most modern games, and the regular walking speed is glacial at best. Considering this game was developed by the company that makes the speedy Ninja Gaiden, I have to assume the sluggish movement is intentional, and admittedly it does underline the fact that this isn’t a traditional action game, and helps ratchet up the tension. Tank-like movement is a survival horror tradition, I can accept that, but I was less pleased by Fatal Frame’s camera (er, not the one you use to fight ghosts, the in-game camera) which is also frustratingly untrustworthy and slow to adjust.
Level design generally sticks to a linear path, with many stages forcing you to follow directly in the footsteps of the ghost you’re tracking, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The linear design allows Koei-Tecmo to built some impressively creepy haunted houses. The game lays the atmosphere on thick, with plenty of eerie environmental touches (a couple stages take place in a shrine packed with nightmare-inducing dolls) and lots of unnerving, glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, ghost appearances. That said, the game is actually blissfully light on cheesy jump scares. Fatal Frame is more concerned with creating an overall feeling of dread than with making you scream every five minutes.
Oh, you best believe Fatal Frame brings the creepy kids and dolls.
But what about the ghostbusting? When a malevolent spirit is in the vicinity a red marker will appear on your screen, and it’s time to get your GamePad up in front of your face. Using the GamePad as your camera works well, I never had any technical frustrations with it, and it definitely makes zapping ghosts more immersive, but it isn’t a perfect system. When holding up your camera your character moves even more slowly than usual, so if a ghost traps you in a corner, which happens often, you have to lower the GamePad, look back at the TV screen, reposition yourself, then return to the GamePad. Worse, you can’t access any of your health items when using the camera, so if you’re low on life you need to lower the GamePad, go into the pause menu, select your item, then exit the menu and go back to using the GamePad. It’s a needlessly clunky setup to say the least.
The actual system you use for killing ghosts also isn’t quite what I expected. Rather than being about precision or getting that perfect shot, it’s more about brute force and spamming the ghosts with as many pictures as possible. There is some reward for timing your pictures correctly, and vaporizing a particularly troubling specter can be pretty satisfying, but what you do in the game doesn’t really resemble real photography, which seems to be missing the point just a little bit.
Fatal Frame: MoBW is fairly meaty for an old-school survival horror game, clocking in at a solid 12 to 15 hours. The game also provides a good amount of replayability, as you can individually retry any stage and shoot for a better ranking, try out a harder difficulty setting or attempt to unlock all the game’s alternate outfits and endings. Basically, after you’ve played through the game once, you’re free to tinker with it as you please, so I could definitely see a lot of gamers who enjoy Fatal Frame-style ghostbusting picking it up again.
Nintendo is only offering Fatal Frame: MoBW as a download, which somewhat frustrating as it weighs in at more than 16 GB. That’s a file big enough to eat up half the storage on a Wii U Deluxe model, and of course it won’t even fit on a 8 GB Wii U Basic. In other words, Nintendo’s pretty much forcing Wii U owners to upgrade their storage to play this game, which isn’t cheap if you go with the hard drives Nintendo recommends (personally I risked it and went with an inexpensive USB thumb-drive option). Thankfully, Nintendo is mitigating the storage issue a bit by offering the game’s first two chapters for free, and the full game at the somewhat reduced price of $50.
Aside from the issues related to Fatal Frame being download-only, there’s not much to complain about. The game doesn’t contain any DLC, and glitches and technical issues were rare in my experience. There is some notable slowdown here and there, but that’s about it.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water plays like a survival horror game from 15 years ago, with all the baggage that implies. The game’s controls are on the clunky side, the pace is slow and there’s a lot of backtracking. Having to use the Wii U GamePad freshens the experience up a bit, but not as much as it could or should.
That said, Fatal Frame: MoBW also replicates a lot of things that made old-school survival horror great. It’s willing to take it’s time, slowly layering on the atmosphere until tension is at a breaking point. The game does a great job of making you feel underpowered and overmatched, and there’s a certain satisfaction to gradually, step-by-step, exploring and conquering this eerie world. I have a feeling many newer gamers will be put off by Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, but a few might appreciate its dark charm, and most wizened old survival horror fans will should feel right at home in its haunted halls and forests.
Verdict: Worth A Chance
This review was based on a digital copy of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water provided by Nintendo.