When it comes to fear, the Fatal Frame series usually follows the mantra that less is more. Telling you you're trapped in a strange place and must find a way out before horrific paranormal beings kill you is a perfect recipe for fright that doesn't require extra dressing. Unfortunately, the franchise's newest release, Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water, has apparently lost that edge. It still contains the ghost-exorcising camera that's fun to use and moments of frightful brilliance that the series is beloved for. But that simplicity is thrown out the window, replaced with so much padding that it's a struggle to dredge up the good buried underneath the junk. Mix in repetitive design and a disjointed narrative, and you have a game that's way longer than it needs to be, and not nearly as good.
The first Fatal Frame entry to reach the West since Fatal Frame 3 in 2005, Maiden will probably sound familiar even to those who haven't played it: it's that game where you kill ghosts by taking pictures of them. Though that mechanic has been around since the series started, this game comes at it with particular gusto, bringing in the Wii U gamepad to function as a makeshift Camera Obscura. You have to actually lift and turn the gamepad in the real world to use it on digital ghosts, and while that sounds like it would get old fast, it's easily one of the best parts of the game.
The gamepad's camera is decently responsive and does a good job covering the areas you want to cover; plus, if it misbehaves or shoots for the ceiling when you lift it up, it just takes a button tap to reset it on the spot. Unfortunately that doesn't necessarily translate to non-camera controls (it's hard to run from an immortal enemy when your character changes direction with all the grace and speed of a dump truck), but given the most demanding parts of the game involve snapping pictures, the fact that it works well makes other control issues forgivable.
Wet behind the ears
Much of Fatal Frame 5's design centers on water, and that life-giving liquid seeps into gameplay in the form of a 'wetness' meter. As each character's saturation level increases (as they're rained on or knocked into a puddle by a rude spirit), their attack power goes up as their defense decreases. That comes with a visual component, because the wetter they get, the more their clothes cling to them in highly fanservice-y fashion. That is, excluding Ren, who looks the same whether he's wet or dry. I'm sure a fix for that bug will be coming any day now.
The combat itself is simple and instantly intuitive - you highlight the ghosts' weak points in the viewfinder and ‘attack’ by snapping their picture. Damage stacks depending on the quality of your photography skills: how good the shot is, whether the enemy is attacking or not, and so forth. Nail a ghostly assailant at just the right moment and you'll land a 'fatal frame', which lets you hammer away at them for several uninterrupted seconds by taking powerful snapshots. It's immensely satisfying and makes you feel incredibly powerful, a nice break from the constant vulnerability you experience for most of the game.
Unfortunately, once you get past the gameplay basics, Maiden's flaws become much more apparent, especially in the story department. All that camera-based combat is undertaken by three different heroes: troubled medium Yuri, bumbling bachelor Ren, and mysterious model Miu. While Yuri is a brand new character with no connection to other installments, Miu and Ren are both related to figures from elsewhere in the Fatal Frame storyline. Their inclusion is a fun wink to past installments, and fans may appreciate the nod in their direction. However, the game bypasses simple cameos and puts them in starring roles, which stretches the narrative too thin and demands padding to actually give them something to do.
While stories structured around several characters can work if their plot threads are woven together and complement each other, Maiden never gets there, and instead creates a mess of events that never feel cohesive or entirely relevant. Miu's tale in particular could have been removed entirely and it wouldn't have changed anything important. Worse, accounting for three separate storylines leads to a lot of repetition and padding - expect to do virtually the same search-and-recover mission multiple times as Yuri, and it's painfully obvious the game is buying time when Ren spends a second whole episode watching security cameras and taking on plot-free Ghostbuster duties.
That's a shame, because absent that repetitiveness, Maiden boasts some evocative and beautiful ideas, especially in its enemies and environments. The designs for the ghosts are bold and unsettling - the spirit of a man crushed under a car scrambles at you across the floor with lightning speed, the noose around a hanged ghost's neck cre-eaks as she swings to attack you, and I maintain that a ten-foot ghoul giving you the world's creepiest smile is grounds for controller-flinging no matter how pretty her sunhat is. Plus, while a couple of locations seem generic from the start (creepy misty forest, check; abandoned house, check), most are gorgeously designed and a lot of fun to explore the first time around, when random sounds still make you jump and disturbing visuals are still freshly eerie. Can you really go wrong with a room full of dolls that seem to get closer every time you turn around?
Turns out the answer is yes, unfortunately, when you're sent to that place several times with few new things to discover. While the series does traditionally drop you in a set location that you have to explore pretty thoroughly, previous games keep the set-up interesting by expanding the area you can explore over time, leading to new parts of the map that feel like entirely new terrain. Maiden goes with the budget version of that idea, sending you to the same location multiple times and, at best, adding on another room so you know where to find that mission's relevant collectible. Sadly that means those lovely environments get old fast, and the ghost with the sliced throat loses her shimmer when you see her bloody special move for the twelfth time.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy here, however, is that all of these issues create a game that just plain isn't scary 99% of the time. While repetitive, dread-defeating design is certainly a factor, the real issue is that nothing about the game carries a real sense of consequence or peril. You return to your safe home base at the end of every mission, so you never really feel trapped; the game physically turns you toward any ghost passing you in the distance, so there's no time to barely see it and freak out; and the story's most horrific punishments are toned down to have all the terrifying impact of a summer cold.
There are a few moments when a hint of real terror shines through, but with everything else about the game working against them, they're few and far between. Admittedly, whether or not that's a bad thing is up to personal preference - the game falls on its face as a horror title, but it works better as a paranormal adventure game, so players who aren't interested in scares (and can tolerate the repetition) probably won’t mind that it’s a bit tame. But when all other entries in the series until now have been so utterly terrifying, an entry that scrubs itself of its fright potential feels out of sync at best, and just plain wrong at worst.
It's been ten years since a Fatal Frame game made its way to the West, and sadly, Maiden of Black Water wasn't at all worth the wait. Though it does a decent job implementing series touchstones like camera combat and visually impressive enemies, in every other regard it falls flat. A dull ghost story scrubbed of actual horror and replete with draining repetitiveness all but drowns its good parts. If you're a huge fan of Wii U gamepad controls or absolutely must get your ghoulish photography fix, maybe pick it up after a price drop.