I’m embarrassed I didn’t play Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water sooner. I downloaded the Wii U demo upon its U.S. release in 2015, but never made the purchase. Maybe I was already looking beyond the Wii U at that point. Maybe I just never quite got the grasp of using the Wii U Gamepad as a camera.
Thankfully, KOEI TECMO allowed me to correct that mistake by updating and re-releasing Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water for the Nintendo Switch—and just in time for Halloween, no less. This is a great game, and one that horror fans won’t want to miss a second time.
Maiden of Black Water is actually the fifth game in the Fatal Frame series, using characters and elements from the previous entries. However, it can very much be played on its own. The story takes place on the fictional (in name, anyway) Hikami Mountain, where supernatural forces have been drawing many people to their death, usually by suicide. There’s a somewhat complicated explanation for this, the short version being that a group of Shrine Maidens were murdered on the mountain, cursing it, as one would expect.
There’s more to it than that, but learning the mountain’s sordid history is part of the fun. The rest is exploring it, which you’ll do as three different characters. We start with Yuri Kozukata, an apprentice investigator with the ability to see ghosts, and Ren Hojo, an author with a potentially dark connection to the mountain. We eventually also take control of Miu Hinasaki. She’s the daughter of Miku Hinasaki from earlier entries in the series.
All three characters have a bad habit of wandering up the mountain at night with only a Camera Obscura to protect them. They have their reasons, sure, but knowing what they’re facing, you’d think they’d at least try to put a little daylight above their quests.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water focuses on their stories (back and current) and their time exploring the dark forests and the buildings found within.
Honestly, the whole affair is creepy as hell. The developers rely more on macabre imagery, prolonged tension, and vague visions to unsettle you, all of which are more effective than the typical jump scares (although the game has those, too). There are long periods without action, and you’ll often have to walk through areas you’ve already covered. Both may put off some players. When the ghosts do attack, though, things can get pretty intense.
To defeat them, you have to take photos of them. Many photos. The closer you are, the more damage you cause, so you mostly want to keep things pretty tight. Photos release fragments from the ghosts, and you then must adjust your angle to try to capture as many of these fragments in one shot as you can. Capturing a “fatal frame” produces the most damage, but it can leave you open to attack if you miss or don’t grab the shot in time.
The ghosts become powerful and plentiful as the game progresses, so it’s important to keep your camera upgraded. You’ll have access to lenses with different abilities you can quickly swap out during fights (better range, more powerful attacks, health replenishment, etc.), and you can also change film. This is handled like ammunition in action games; better film does more damage, but it’s limited and best saved for the more powerful enemies. Thankfully, you can pause the action to adjust your camera without fear of attack.
If ghosts touch you, they’ll drain your health and drench you with water. This is important because your attacks become more powerful based on how wet you are. However, it also means more ghosts will attack. If this becomes too much to handle, you can “dry off” by either clearing the area of ghosts or drinking a health item. Some of the more powerful ghosts can also decrease your attacks and range of vision, so it’s important to keep such items handy. You’ll want to overstock; if you run out of items during a “drop,” as the game calls it, you have no choice but to push through without or start the level over again.
I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that the ghost battles aren’t my favorite part of playing Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water. I prefer the creepiness of the exploration, especially the fleeting chances to photograph ghosts in the distance. You’ll get an indication that one appears, then must quickly lift your camera and frame the shot before the ghost disappears.
Good shots result in points that you can use for equipment upgrades, health items, and DLC costumes.
Quick tangent on the costumes. Even the bonus items you get for buying the game early must also be “purchased” within the game. I found that odd. And although some players will be sad to note that the Zelda and Samus outfits from the Wii U version aren’t present, they never made any sense within the context of the game, anyway. Neither do the swimsuits, which are now included. There are a couple of goth and punk outfits, however, that are perfect for the game’s tone and the characters involved.
As much as I enjoyed playing Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, it doesn’t come without issues. The biggest is that the camera controls are quite unwieldy, leading to plenty of frustration in the more intense battles. X pulls up the camera. L and R and/or the gyroscope rotate it. XR takes the picture. XL locks on the target. B dodges. The D-pad swaps film. The L-stick moves your character, and the R-stick changes your direction. All to just take a photo. Things would be much simpler with an iPhone Obscura, where live and burst modes would certainly ease the process (although Ren does have a burst mode of sorts, so at least he’s on top of things).
Battling in hallways is a chore, as ghosts get to disappear behind walls that you can’t move through. This makes it very hard to frame your shot, and they sometimes die where you can’t touch them (doing so sometimes reveals their story for extra points).
I was about to win one battle when I backed into an area I wasn’t supposed to access. When my travelling companion was done correcting me on this, the ghost was gone.
A potentially bigger issue is that I don’t think the game is actually all that scary. It has its moments, but was mostly just unsettling. The story is also very slowly paced, and everyone in the game is quite sullen. That’s justifiable considering their circumstances, but if you’re not scared and not into the overall emo-ness of the proceedings, then Fatal Frame can be a hard game to get into.
Still, I did. Heavily. I really liked these characters, and I enjoyed accompanying them as they slowly crept through new areas…even the one with all the dolls. So many dolls.
I can even empathize with the perceived futility of what they’re doing. When one of the girls Yuri worked so hard to save from the mountain just turns around and goes right back up, I was like, “Typical teenagers. Just wait until you become a parent.”
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a unique game that looks great and runs well on the Nintendo Switch. If you’re looking to dig into something creepy and unnerving, it’s definitely worth the price, especially if you didn’t already explore Mount Hikami on the Wii U. And don’t worry about the unwieldy controls. As any photographer will tell you, practice makes perfect…provided you’re not spirited away first.