The Project Zero series has been around for twenty years now. Though in certain parts of the world it’s better known as Fatal Frame.
Given the series’ focus on combating ghostly apparitions with a camera, Fatal Frame is perhaps the better moniker of the two, but I’m just waffling at this point. What matters is that the latest game in the series, 2014’s Maiden of Black Water, has broken free of its Wii U roots, and has been remastered for pretty much every current format you can imagine.
With three playable characters, the story of Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water largely takes place on the fictional Hikami Mountain. Inspired by Japan’s suicide forest, Aoigahara, it’s a place where people mysteriously vanish, and also unfortunately go to end their lives. As such, the story of Maiden of Black Water is suitably grim, and will certainly not be for all.
The gameplay finds the player taking on one Drop, or mission, after another, each placing them in the shoes of one of the three playable characters – Yuri Kozukata, Ren Hojo, and Miu Hinasaki. There’s little to differentiate the three gameplay-wise, however; they all pretty much have the same abilities, only their personal Camera Obscuras set them apart.
As players explore environments such as abandoned buildings and a dense forest, the spirits of the dead will frequently make themselves known. Sometimes they’re harmless, presenting an opportunity for the players to grab a quick picture if they’re fast enough and score some valuable points. Many, however, would like you to join their ranks, and your camera quickly becomes a weapon.
Upon raising your camera and locating a ghost in your viewfinder, you’ll notice circles appear – these are the points you need to photograph to inflict damage on the hostile apparition. Take a snap and strange ghostly faces might be released, floating around the apparition as if they’re protecting it. But actually, they present an opportunity to do more damage.
Manipulate your viewfinder to include five targets outlined by circles, and your photo will be more potent. There’s another way to make your photos do more damage, too. The closer you are to an apparition the more powerful your snapshot will be, and if you wait until an ghost is about to attack, you can perform a Fatal Frame shot, dealing substantial damage while also sending your attacker reeling.
It’s a fun combat system overall, and each character has unique quirks to consider that changes your approach. Ren’s Camera Obscura, for example, can take multiple shots in quick succession, allowing him to more easily perform Fatal Frame shots. Yuri, on the other hand, can make use of multiple lenses, including one which stuns apparitions when photographed.
Each character’s Camera Obscura can be enhanced throughout the course of the game, using the points earned by taking snapshots of spirits both hostile and neutral. Numerous upgrades are unlocked, too, allowing players to see an enemy’s remaining health by locking on, for example. Fail to enhance your Cameras, in fact, and combat can eventually begin to feel drawn out.
Aside from capturing images of ghosts, the Camera Obscura is also used to solve rudimentary puzzles. Sometimes you’ll get an inkling of an item hidden in an area – bring up your camera and it might become visible in your viewfinder. You’ll then need to lock-on and rotate the viewfinder until a red light is visible – taking a photo will then bring the item into the physical world.
A similar system is employed when coming across locked doors. Upon lining up a shot of the lock and taking a picture, the photograph produced will show the location of the key. You’ll then need to find that location and perhaps even take another photograph that matches the one produced by taking a shot of the lock, to gain access to the key to continue your adventure.
Upon its release on Wii U, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water was considered the worst game in the series by many, and it’s a shame that many of the issues raised haven’t really been addressed. Though some of them would have been outside the scope of a remaster anyway.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is disappointingly linear for a start, despite the open appearance of many of its environments. Try to go off path, for example, and you’ll generally be forced to turn around. If it’s not someone reprimanding you for heading in the wrong direction, it’s your own personal moral compass insisting you go somewhere else.
There’s also a mechanic that finds you more likely to be attacked by spirits when you’re wet, making exploring in the rain more dangerous. An abundance of items make the system effectively redundant, however. You eventually begin to wonder if it’s just an excuse to titillate players, having the game’s female protagonists wander around in damp clothing that makes it more revealing.
What hurts Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water the most though, is its clunky controls. Walking is slow, and you can’t simply hold forward on the left analogue stick and use the right analogue stick to adjust the camera and steer your character in the right direction. Whichever character you’re in control of also has a tendency to quickly snap to a new direction when turning them with the left analogues stick, which is a bit immersion-breaking.
There are other control issues, too. Holding the run button, for example, makes you run straight forward, with the left analogue stick used to steer. It wouldn’t be too bad if it wasn’t so sensitive. And when in combat, being able to dodge enemy attacks is useful, but it takes you out of camera mode, which is both jarring and clunky.
The haunting atmosphere of Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water means that it’s definitely worth a play for horror fans on the whole. It’s just a shame that more hasn’t been done to improve its gameplay over the original Wii U version. Combat is fun for the most part, and also rather spooky. But during the many bouts of exploration in between, you’ll become frustrated due to the clunky controls that make moving the trio of characters involved quite simply a pain.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water Review – GameSpew’s Score