The fifth entry in Koei Tecmo's long-running Fatal Frame franchise, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water was originally released on WiiU back in 2014 and is, for our money, the weakest link in the series. This is a game that surrounds its signature ghost-snapping action with janky traversal mechanics and a wooden cast of characters that are hard to get particularly invested in. However, there is still a good deal of freaky fun to be had here if you're willing to look beyond these shortcomings.
Telling the story of three protagonists, Yuri Kozukata, Ren Hojo and Miu Hinasaki, the plot here revolves around some seriously spooky goings on at Hikami Mountain, an area known for a disturbing rash of suicides and unexplained disappearances. There's suicide pacts, drownings, hangings and murders galore here, some dark and disturbing stuff that manages to send a shiver up the spine on more a few occasions during its fifteen hour running time.
Indeed, in terms of the fear factor, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water manages to succeed in delivering the goods when it comes to its creepy backstory, a menagerie of impressively horrifying ghouls and the suitably grim forests and abandoned buildings that you'll need to investigate thoroughly as you seek to unlock the mysteries at the heart of the game's narrative. There's a nice line in traditional Japanese folklore to pore over in documents that you discover around levels here too, genuinely interesting stuff that details actual traditions and beliefs pertaining to the photography of dead bodies, it certainly makes for some pretty grisly flavour text.
It's just a shame, then, that most of these successes are repeatedly undone by a trio of protagonists who are a drag to spend time with, flimsy caricatures reading from a cheesy, half-assed script, they really are a disappointingly paper thin bunch that we found ourselves completely unable to connect with. There's also the expected levels of fan-service here, skimpy outfits and unlockable swimsuits, that do nothing other than to work against any real tension the game might have been building up at points. It's par for the course with Fatal Frame, and if you're a fan you're no doubt perhaps expecting it to be there, we just personally find it serves to seriously undermine both the story and atmosphere.
More frustratingly, as much as this remastered version has given the game's graphics a nice touch-up, it has completely failed to fix the rather rubbish controls. Traversing levels here feels less like you're controlling a human being and more as though you're attempting to guide a large and stubborn tank through some very narrow passages. You'll also get completely turned around at points due to a camera that struggles against you at all times as you attempt to look anywhere other that where it wants to specifically direct your attention.
There's far too much backtracking through areas you've been to before as well, without any real mixing up of the gameplay to keep tedium at bay and, even though this revamp comes with a new Snap Mode that provides a little more photo fun for fans, it just feels like so much more could have been done to make things flow more smoothly from moment to moment. With a few tweaks to the controls and camera this could have been a far more fluid and enjoyable survival horror adventure to get to to grips with.
However, all of these issues aside, the core camera action, the signature Fatal Frame business of photographing spooky spirits in order to fight them off, is still rather special. We've always thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the franchise and it's as good now as it's ever been - maybe even better given the revamped visuals. Warding off the collection of properly creepy ghouls on offer is genuinely spine-tingling stuff, waiting for the last second to snap them in order to set off a titular Fatal Frame, fitting the maximum number of ghouls into a picture in order to do the most amount of damage you can, stumbling backwards as you wait for your camera's film to slowly reload...this is all very good indeed.
The camera obscura action at the heart of this adventure has multiple clever layers to it and, as the core aspect of the game upon which everything else hangs, it 's still very entertaining and involving stuff, forcing you to look directly into the eyes of some horrendous apparitions in order to survive. Together with some suitably eerie settings and plenty of disturbing historical lore to sift through on your journey, the gameplay here definitely succeeds in serving up some good old-fashioned chills. If you can look past clunky traversal mechanics, poor writing, a chronic cast of characters and misguided fan-service aspects, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is still worth a look for horror fans, even if it is the weakest link in the franchise to date. Now, Koei Tecmo, give us a couple of nice remasters of Fatal Frame 2 and 4, pretty please.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is the weakest of the Fatal Frame games and this remastered version fails to address its biggest issues, namely clunky traversal mechanics and a seriously wooden cast of characters. However, look past these shortcomings and, especially for fans of the series, there's still a lot to enjoy in the solid ghost-snapping action on offer here. It may not be the best game in the franchise, but this remaster will still give your spine a good tingle if you let it.