Aiming to revitalise classic horror with intuitive GamePad controls, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water hits a perfect shot with the Camera Obscura. But sadly, the genuinely eerie atmosphere just falls flat with a bland storyline, repetitive mechanics and rigid gameplay.
From Koei Tecmo and Nintendo’s SPD team comes the fifth instalment in the Project Zero series – or Fatal Frame as it’s known more widely in the US. Having released for Japan in 2014, western audiences can now feel the shivers of dread coupled with spine-tingling excitement from the game’s co-creator Makoto Shibata and series’ producer Keisuke Kikuchi. Playing as both Yuri and Ren, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water sets the scene for horror lovers on the fictional Mount. Hikami; infamous for its plethora of suicides and spiritual entities. In recent years, the once peaceful Shrine Maidens have become malevolent and attack those who try to unearth the mountain’s secrets, leading women and men to a gruesome death. Tasked with freeing one shrine maiden, players must guide Yuri through the misty black water and bring tranquillity back to Mount. Hikami.
Consisting of 13 chapters, Maiden of Black Water takes place in numerous locations such as a haunted house, the terrifying Shrine of Dolls, a cable car station and the mountain itself. Featuring both easy and normal modes, players can either be ranked on their overall performance in each episode – including items found, ghosts photographed and defeated – or choose to take the game at their own pace. Fans of the franchise will recognise the return of classic tropes and small references to previous titles scattered throughout the episodes – a neat touch from the developers.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is genuinely horrifying in its opening chapters and, unfortunately, seems to peak far too early. With no way of defending yourself against the Shrine Maidens in the prologue, you’ll have to outrun them down tight, claustrophobic corridors in dank, wet surroundings. But with such a strong opening and starting chapters, the game seems to lose its way rather quickly and begins a dire, repetitive cycle featuring the same clichés that become far too familiar to feel truly terrifying. In particular, the “find the friend and capture the ghost” story mechanic is used frequently, becoming a warped joke in itself, while you’ll find leftover notes and journals that give you the same background information but with a slight change of perspective. Beginning as a promising story, it only falls dismally back into the black water it emerged from, leaving fans more than a little short-changed.
However, story aside, the game’s main mechanic relies solely on using the Wii U GamePad as the Camera Obscura – and it’s a complete breath of fresh air. Arguably the most enjoyable part of the game, players can defend against the malevolent ghosts by snapping photographs of them with their trusty camera. Using the left trigger to lock on and the gyroscope – or the dual analog sticks – to find ghosts, you can snap them with the right trigger at just the correct moment to bag a Fatal Frame or Shutter Chance shot. Not only does it feel authentic and breaks the fourth wall of horror gameplay, but it’s also easy to use for new players and gives you a real sense of the foreboding. Stripping away the ability to hide, it’s a fantastic use of the Wii U GamePad, leaving it as more than a secondary map option.
Playing as both Ren and Yuri, players will be able to upgrade the Camera Obscura based on what lenses they find and through points rewarded from ghost encounters. Pick up the best scores from Fatal Frame, Shutter Chance, and exploration shots of spectral entities and you’ll be able to upgrade the camera’s loader, sensor, and output fairly quickly. Plenty of film types can be found throughout the game’s episodes, though you’ll also have an unlimited stash of basic film if battles take a turn for the worse. Although defeating ghosts is your main aim, franchise fans will also be able to use the Camera Obscura to uncover phantom objects. Locking on to the target and rotating the GamePad until the red marker alerts you is yet another great use of the intuitive control scheme.
At times, Maiden of Black Water’s graphics are wonderfully creepy and fascinating to explore. Cutscenes are gritty and feel just as sordid as the Blair Witch Project, giving them a delightfully eerie feel with interesting music and sound effects. Aside from the Shrine of Dolls – which is a particular highlight of the game – and the beautiful black water, textures appear flat and lifeless. There are moments when it’s difficult to tell the difference between where a corridor ends and a door begins, while tree branches and leaves lie motionless as chunks of rotting texture. Dreary, dull graphics that are lacklustre to explore. Yet in stark comparison, character costumes are detailed, and fervently so when they are dripping head to toe from the black water.
Despite its eerie tone, character movement within Maiden of Black Water is clunky and awkward. Destroying most of the tension built, simply walking and running with your character is stiff and frustrating. If you’re one for exploration, most of your play time will be spent picking up medicine, film and journals with an excruciatingly slow cutscene and hand grabbing movements. And simply running feels like a limp jog rather than a good sprint. Even when the playable character opens a door, it’s horribly slow and leaves you with a sense of eye-rolling dread rather than terror. Unnecessarily drawn out sequences such as these lengthen the game considerably and, with no pay-off, it’s inexplicably futile.
In the early stages of the game, battles with Maiden of Black Water’s ghosts are likely to take you to the edge of your seat. But defeating the same ghosts repeatedly quickly becomes monotonous. As you progress through the game, players will come across the Shrine Maidens. Of course, it’s intensely fun battling five simultaneously in the first instance. Yet you’ll encounter these shrieking ghouls so consistently, especially in tight corridors with no hope of escaping without injury, it becomes utterly tedious. The sense of evil and frightening appeal the game once had is entirely snuffed out by constant battling and backtracking with the same spirits. There’s a real lack of variation here and it’s detrimental to gameplay.
Unless you’re a die-hard series fan, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water isn’t likely to crack you into a cold sweat. The Wii U’s GamePad integration works beautifully with the Camera Obscura, but sadly the game drowns with a poor storyline, sluggish AI and monotonous chapters before it really has a chance to swim to the surface. Lacking focus and development, perhaps it’s best to blink and miss.
5.5 / 10