Leave the salt and silver at home. Your camera is the only thing that’s going to save you in this ghostly survival horror experience.
Developer: KOEI TECMO GAMES
Publisher: KOEI TECMO GAMES
Release date: 27 October, 2021
I’ll come clean and say that I’m a flawed survival horror fan as I’ve never played the legendary Fatal Frame series before The Maiden of Black Water. My fellow horror enthusiast and girlfriend has been raving about them for years but the stars just haven’t aligned as of yet. Of course, this is mostly due to access as my PlayStation 2 bit the dust years ago, but I’ll get there someday!
That said, The Maiden of Black Water performs admirably in capturing the feel of the classic survival horror titles while adapting to the requirements of more modern gaming. Even though its original release was seven years ago now, I feel as if this is just the gateway that many need to pull them into the venerable series.
Around Every Corner a Ghost
The Maiden of Black Water has us take on the role of three unlucky souls whose fates will tie them to a mountain haunted by hundreds of vengeful spirits. These ghosts are frequent encounters, though the most thrilling ones are always the unique entities that have a particularly dark past. You’ll often read multiple entries regarding them before you encounter them and every one of them was exciting to finally see. There’s nothing quite like quietly exploring when some angry lady hanging from a rope materializes and forcefully attempts to make you suffer the same fate or a victim of a car accident crawls out from underneath a car screaming about his legs. Even better, once you’ve defeated these ghosts, you can reach out and touch them to see a short cinematic that lets fills you in on the last moments of their lives.
Fatal Frame has always revolved around exploring places of tragedy armed with nothing but a camera and this one is no different in that regard. It’s important to note that it’s not just any camera though, it’s a camera obscura, and it has the power to not only observe but affect the supernatural. It’s capable of both revealing items hidden to the mundane world and utterly ruining an otherwise dangerous spirit’s day.
Character Progression: Shot by Shot
The most unexpected part of The Maiden of Black Water for me was the variety of upgrades for your camera. I had assumed there would be healing and plot items, but lenses and different types of film were a pleasant surprise that I wasn’t prepared for as a newbie to the series.
Film, as you likely assumed, is your ammunition when bullets just won’t do. Handguns and shotguns are useless against the foes you’ll face on your adventure, so you’re equipped with a camera obscura instead. Don’t worry though, it packs a serious punch, especially if it’s making use of a higher quality film. Some reload more quickly while others drastically increase the damage dealt to all spirits that the picture encompasses. This damage is further amplified by skillfully lined up shots that capture all of the entity’s weak points, especially if you land a “Fatal Frame” and catch them in the middle of an attack animation.
Equally as impactful as your film, lenses can be swapped between and provide powerful additional abilities to your shots. These range from stunning to slowing to healing yourself and so on. They can drastically alter the effects your pictures have on the ghosts that threaten you. These can be upgraded by spending your hard-earned points, conveniently earned by photographing spirits. Your camera obscura itself can be upgraded in such a way as well allowing you to tailor its functionality to your chosen playstyle. It was fun working on a “build” for my camera since I hadn’t even had a thought that it was going to be a possibility when I first picked up the controller.
A Few Negatives
The Maiden of Black Water is not without flaws of its own. The most egregious of these is the companion AI. It’s not rare that you’ll be exploring these tragic locations with another character along, though these characters clearly have the bare minimum amount of intelligence necessary to function. While you’re moving around, lining up shots, and avoiding the ghosts that haunt you, your companion will wander around aimlessly without a care in the world. It’s so rough, that I would honestly at least consider having these companions only in cutscenes instead of accompanying you as an improvement. The characters themselves were enjoyable if a bit flat as they tend to be in horror, but the AI was absolutely monstrous. Fortunately, although it did break the immersion when particularly odd events took place, it never caused me a game over even if it did occasionally throw an irritation or two my way.
To mention a couple of secondary concerns based mostly on personal preference, the first is the extremely slow process of opening doors and picking up items. I can certainly appreciate that it’s meant to build tension and there’s always the possibility of a spectral hand reaching out to harass you, but doing it repeatedly throughout the adventure causes it to be slowed down frequently. In theory, I like the idea behind it, but its execution could have been improved if it were sped up a bit.
The last of my concerns is the consistent use of the same environments. Granted, this isn’t the worst aspect a horror title could incorporate, and we see it often, though I feel as if the title was artificially lengthened by making two or even three characters traverse the same environment with very similar challenges on multiple occasions. The atmosphere was always excellent, so there’s that, but I would have preferred to retread the same ground fewer times even if it meant a slightly shorter game overall.
Fatal Frame: The Maiden of Black Water is an excellent survival horror title that carries the series’ legacy along so well that even a player new to it can enjoy it. There’s certainly some nostalgia mixed in that my playing partner caught while I was oblivious, but lacking this knowledge doesn’t hinder the experience in any way. I’ve been converted to Fatal Frame through my run with this one and it looks like I’m now going to have to really buckle down and get my hands on the old ones as well. Horror fans, pick this one up, it may not become your favorite in an instant but it’s unlikely to disappoint.