Were you to see a ghost cutting about, what would be your first instinct? Forgive us for this assumption, but we imagine it’s probably not “take a polaroid of it”, right? Tell that to the various heroes of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water — Project Zero in Europe — who seem to fancy themselves budding Sir Donald McCullins and get snap-happy each and every time they see a geist, malevolent or otherwise. Us, though, we’d leg it. Full Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo leg it.
Still, it’s worth noting that we’re not talking about an ordinary camera here. The device wielded by the Fatal Framers (they’re not actually called that) is the Camera Obscura, which captures more than just treasured memories. Indeed, utilising it carefully can allow its wielder to capture spooks, which in practice is effectively the same as killing them. Again. Look, the point is that you’re essentially photographing ghosts to death. We’re just getting ahead of ourselves.
This is a port/remake of the Wii U instalment of the long-running Fatal Frame series although perhaps the scariest thing about the original release is its price on the second-hand market. Good of Koei Tecmo, then, to re-release the game for Switch and to do such a sterling job of it. If you played it already on Nintendo’s previous console — where the Gamepad ‘was’ the camera — there’s little point in revisiting here, but that neat mechanic has been retrofitted to work on a single screen as well as one could hope.
Tracking the journey of three major protagonists (and one secret-ish one from another series, shhhh), you’ll take the Camera Obscura into all sorts of creepy places that you really wouldn’t want to go, in order to solve an extremely bleak mystery involving suicidal shrine maidens and the titular Black Water, a curse that feeds into both the narrative and gameplay.
See, your playable character doesn’t want to get wet. If you’re soaked to the bone, you’re more susceptible to the curse and if you come down with it, your health bar is going to drain constantly until you either use an item to warm up or eliminate all the revenants in the area — and the latter is easier said than done.
While you’re normally playing in third-person mode, bringing out the Camera Obscura — naturally — switches your view to first-person, giving you a much more significant blind spot. You’ve got to “frame” (yes!) your target and snap it ’til it vanishes, taking care not to run out of film. There are different lenses and film types to choose from, which adds a layer of strategy to the already-demanding action, but it’s the fun kind of frenetic. One snap isn’t usually enough to take a ghost down, but taking pictures causes chunks of their ghostly essence to fly out of them, and if you can frame them all you’ll have a chance to banish the ghost properly. If you happen to have multiple ghosts in the frame when you achieve what the game calls “Shutter Chance”, well, that’s just gravy. With careful, skilled play you can absolutely decimate a horde of phantoms with just a couple of deftly handled presses of the ‘ZR’ button. You’re also able to initiate the titular “Fatal Frame” bonus by taking a photo at the last possible moment; a risky, but highly damaging move.
When you’re not doing candids with a spectre, you’ll find yourself engaged in fairly typical survival horror exploration; making your way through each environment is pretty simple, with relatively basic controls. You can use your flashlight by holding ‘ZR’, which will allow your current character to follow spirits in order to track the next part of the story. It’s quite linear, but in a way that suits the spook-show atmosphere.
Less good is the camera, which can be a bit of a pig at times. It feels as though the right stick barely has any effect on it, and when surrounded by ghoulies you’ll instinctively want to whirl it around when you very much can’t. You can run and quick-turn, but the camera still takes its sweet time catching up with you. Yes, it adds to the panic, but in a way that’s a little frustrating.
The episodic structure makes Maiden of Black Water easy to jump in and out of, with episodes replayable to get higher ranks and gain more currency to unlock different costumes for each character. These, of course, fall well within the ranks of “novelty”, but impassioned gamers will be disappointed at the removal of “gravure” lingerie in this localisation. Notably this wasn’t in the Western release of the Wii U game, either, but it’s still worth noting in case you really, really want a little titillation while you deal with spooks.
Visually it’s all very good indeed. It goes without saying, but Fatal Frame sings on the OLED Switch with its deeper, darker blacks. Unfortunately its performance is less impressive. While generally an acceptable 30fps, we found that there was quite a lot of hitching — brief, irritating freezes that wrench you out of any kind of tension you may be experiencing. We’re hopeful that these annoying little bugs will be ironed out in a Day One patch that promises to improve loading times and fix bugs, but in the meantime they are a little bit of a downer.
There’s a lot to like about Maiden of Black Water; while we didn’t find it overly scary, it is very good indeed at being eerie. You’ll see ghosts out of the corner of your eye and when you check, they’ll be gone. It’s oddly cosy and non-stressful for a horror game, because your camera is such an efficient weapon and the combat it propogates is too action-packed to really let any dread sink in. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though we found the earlier PlayStation 2 instalments of the series were more interested in actively frightening the player. If you get absorbed in the storyline — which is easy to do as the episodic structure makes “just one more area” a compelling prospect — you’ll find a good 15 or so hours of game here, and much more if you decide you need to get higher ranks as you improve your Camera Obscura with upgrades and other boons. Performance problems aside, this game’s a real winner and worth snapping up if you’re a horror fan who missed it on Wii U.