The Project Zero/Fatal Frame franchise has been one that seemingly never makes waves, despite 5 main entries, interest from Nintendo, and even a spin-off. Fortunately, despite initially being stuck in the purgatory that is limited release on the WiiU, Koei Tecmo has unearthed this entry and has given it a second lease of life on current consoles and PC. So to all you dead and undead, I ask you to join me as we rediscover Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water.
Smoke on the Water
Despite being the fifth mainline title in the series, Project Zero: Maidens of Black Water can happily be played standalone. It only really has a few nods to the original Project Zero title.
Primarily set on the Hikami Mountain range which holds an unsettling history of suicides, the game tells the story of 3 protagonists. Yuri Kozukata who has supernatural abilities and a connection with the spirit world, Ren Hojo who is an author and friend of Yuri hoping to bag a story for his next literary piece, and Miu Hinasaki who is our link to previous titles in the series.
Yuri has been tasked with uncovering the secret of the Black Maiden. The mysterious circumstances of the suicides and other spiritual goings-on within the mountain range are a lot more than they initially seem.
The story is a slow burn and requires a lot of note reading to get the fullest from it. Like most traditional horror, there is a lot of downtime and exposition dumps rather than a sprint from beat to beat.
Rather than a sprawling narrative over the game’s 12 or so hours, it’s split into chapters for ease of digestion. This also allows the player characters to swap around, though the bulk of the game is spent with Yuri.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water swims in the pools of more traditional survival horror. Slow-moving characters, limited items, and notes to collect; you know the script by now.
What sadly holds the game back lies with just how little freedom it offers. You have a spirit guide to show you the way by holding the shoulder button, but aside from a few instances any time you stray from the path you’ll find the game throws you right back on it.
There aren’t too many puzzles here. It mostly falls within the realm of item searches or using your camera to find an object or recreate a past picture. This is painfully finicky and irritating!
What has always held this series apart from others was the combat which is all done through a Camera dubbed the Camera Obscura. It’s ideal for taking pictures of spectral beings with the bonus feature of exorcism.
As any budding photographer will tell you, it’s all in the quality of your shot which is usually determined by how little you move. Not ideal when you have a ghost breathing down your neck!
Here lies the combat loop. You have to line up shots with slow limited movement in a first-person shot, take that snap then move to a more advantageous location.
In this title, you can lock onto weak points of ghosts; Taking pictures of these releases little spirits. If on your next shot you can get the weak spots and spirits (up to 5), you’ll do extra damage and even knock the ghoulie back. You can adjust the angle of the camera to fit more into the shot, change the type of film which all have different damage, and even unlock abilities such as dodge and stun throughout the story.
Should you take a picture while you are being attacked you’ll get a “Fatal Frame” bonus, this nets you extra damage alongside allowing you to unleash a flurry of additional shots.
While on your merry way you’ll experience other spectral goings-on. Taking photos of these alongside combat with the enemies gains you points and fills out a picture book of all the ghosts you’ve come across on the mountain.
You can use the points gained throughout to top up your film/ammo, purchase more healing items, buy special upgrades, or equip your girls and boy with various costumes. Yes, it’s a Koei Tecmo game so you can have all the fan service of Bikini Waifu fighting water spirits you want!
On the subject of water, it plays quite the part herein that the wetter you are, the more open to attack from the water spirits you are. Standing in dry areas or using items will “cleanse” you of Black Water but often you’ll find it unavoidable.
The different characters don’t offer differing play differences outside of abilities in combat. For example, Ren can bundle 3 shots into 1 at the expense of a longer reload time. Fortunately, it’s not a case of each character having their traits resulting in a constant back and forth like in Project Zero 3; here it’s more of a narrative perspective over forced backtracking.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water offers an uneasy feeling throughout though tends to rely on jump scares a little too much. Whenever you collect an item there is potential for a hand to grab you. At first, this is a genuine jump moment, but the 20th time the annoyance is real.
Finally, enemy variety is a little lacking. It’s a shame considering how dark Japanese horror can be. Aside from a few ghosts which are deformed, the rest just seem to be general businessmen/women or village folk.
Graphically Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water looks fantastic, especially on the Nintendo Switch. While it isn’t exactly console-melting, it has a strong enough art direction and clever use of lighting to make the game stand out.
The character models look like extras from the Dead or Alive series. While this is not exactly “lifelike” style, it does see them age well.
The mountain does ooze atmosphere, and the swaying of trees and foliage as you wander around help bring it all together in a satisfyingly dark visual style. Sadly inside sections don’t fare quite as well and often have lower resolution textures and lean heavily on being abandoned and downtrodden. One exception is early on – a section sees you in a well-lit store and that looks nice enough without truly feeling “next-gen”.
Of course, there has been extra attention to the look and the feel of the water here and you’ll see some damn fine wizardry going on with brilliantly real water physics. I know there is a niche for this kind of thing so get your bucket filled here!
The Family Ghost
On the audio side of the scale, we don’t have much of a standout. The voice acting is about what you would expect; it’s passable and by no means horrid but nothing that will win awards. Ambient sound is the flavor here and you’ll hear the trees creaking, water gushing, and rocks falling around you, broken up by the pained groans of ghosts shattered by your camera flash.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is a product of its time. It’s a niche Wii U title from an already niche series for better and worse.
Where it tried to move from the standard formula is unfortunately where it lost its way somewhat. That’s in sticking you mostly to a set path in favor of exploration and reusing areas over and over again, rather than one open world.
On more positive notes, the combat is still great, the graphics with the newer lick of paint hold up and the core narrative does tell an engaging tale when it gets going. There’s even plenty of replayability with the points system, several difficulty modes, and even a cheeky bonus when you finish the game.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is a fine introduction to a series most will have passed by over the years, though doesn’t quite land the Fatal Frame it could have. It’s still a worthy addition to any horror fan’s collection and it’s great to see the series being more available than ever.
PROJECT ZERO: MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Koei Tecmo for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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Pride of utopia & greatest thing ever, I found the One Piece, Collected the Dragon Balls & won the Mortal Kombat Tournament in one night, it was quiet for me that night! Follow me on Twitter @powahdunk