Fatal Frame is a beloved series among long-time survival horror fans. I'd even go as far as to say Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly is one of the scariest games ever made. Sadly, like other genre contemporaries such as Silent Hill or Clock Tower, the franchise has struggled to maintain relevance and mainstream appeal with age.
After a rather lengthy hiatus in the West following the release of Fatal Frame III in 2006, this photo-centric horror series attempted to reinvent itself with the launch of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water in 2015. Unfortunately, this shipped initially as a Wii U exclusive, and the console's limited install base immediately kneecapped the potential for Fatal Frame's big comeback.
Six years later, this entry is getting a second chance thanks to a remastered re-release across essentially all major platforms. I've spent nearly 20 hours with the PC version, and it's been fascinating revisiting this curious snapshot of a distinct moment in game design. While fans of the series and seasoned survival-horror enthusiasts will undoubtedly enjoy this haunting ride, some terrifyingly sluggish pacing and tedious gameplay mechanics prevent this title from sticking a picture-perfect landing.
Bottom line: Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water suffers from some dated design decisions and redundancies in level design, but the unique combat and evocative environments make this a worthwhile adventure for horror fans.
- Wholly unique experience
- Compelling exploration of Japanese folklore
- Engrossing environments
- The Tall Lady
- Primitive controls
- Painfully sluggish pacing
- Tedious jump-scare mechanics
Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Koei Tecmo. The company did not see the contents of the review before publishing.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water: What's good
One of Fatal Frame's greatest strengths is its genuinely original take on survival horror. In a twisted fusion of the camera-centric gameplay of Pokémon Snap and the tense atmosphere of games like Alone in the Dark, players must use their Camera Obscura to ward off evil spirits. Instead of a handgun or lead pipe, this mystical camera serves as your primary weapon, and the various film types you collect on your journey act as your ammunition.
|Title||Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water|
|Developer||Koei Tecmo Games|
|Minimum Requirements||Windows 8.1, Windows 10, 64 bit/Intel Core i5 750 or over|
|Play Time||15-20 hours|
While you'll spend most of your time in Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water navigating Mt. Hikami in the third-person perspective popularized by many iconic survival-horror titles, equipping your Camera Obscura seamlessly shifts the player's viewpoint to a first-person lens. Forcing the player to engage with enemies from the first-person perspective adds layers of stress and fear that many other survival-horror titles struggle to offer. Haunting moments like fumbling to equip your camera while a mangled ghoul emerges from underneath a totaled car consistently provide nice jolts of adrenaline. This unique dynamic introduces even more tension when encountering the terrifying ghosts and spirits of this world.
Another area Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water succeeds in is the thorough way it presents and explores Japanese folklore. In addition to introducing its own grim story involving suffering maidens and the painful sacrifices they endure to keep the ominous Black Water at bay, this horror title spends a great deal of time explaining the cultural significance of the narrative themes. Discovering journals that detailed the spiritual beliefs surrounding water and photography in Japan added weight and critical context to many of the game's key moments, and makes it all hit harder for Western players. Thanks to the team's commitment to explaining this world's horror mythos, I found myself far more engaged with the events of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.
The increased resolution and updated visuals provided by this remaster make the environments of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water more engrossing than ever before. There's no shortage of evocative locations to get terrified in, from dark, dense forests with gentle streams to decrepit modern architecture. I also thoroughly enjoyed the balance of tight interior spaces like nightmarish Japanese shrines or abandoned residential buildings and sprawling outdoor environments like the peak of Mt. Hikami. The biomes' distinctive designs make every area in Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water memorable.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water provides no shortage of ghostly apparitions, but there are a few standouts that will surely permeate your nightmares for quite some time, including one particularly towering terror. Before Lady Dimitrescu exploded on the scene in Resident Evil Village and became the new gold standard for horror video game tall ladies, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water horrifyingly introduced The Tall Lady. This lanky monstrosity clad in a simple flowing white dress lives up to her name. She effectively makes several frightening cameos throughout the game. I won't divulge any major spoilers here, but fans of campfire ghost stories or supernatural urban legends will unquestionably love how The Tall Lady is incorporated into the game.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water: What's not good
"Tank controls" were the definitive way to experience a survival horror title at one point in history. These intentionally limiting control schemes were designed to reduce player mobility and increase tension when facing off against different creatures by making you only face in one predetermined direction. Thankfully, for all our sakes, we've mostly moved away from this infamous era in gaming. Unfortunately, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water hasn't completely let go of the past.
I found my initial introduction to the game's controls to be somewhat jarring. In the third-person perspective, all player mobility is tied to the left stick, and while the right stick can freely rotate the camera, it has no bearing on how your character moves. However, when using the camera in first-person, everything controls as you'd expect from a modern horror game. It took some time for me to adjust to this flagrant disconnect between how I wanted the game to control and how it actually controlled. I wouldn't say Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water feels as primitive as playing the original Resident Evil or Silent Hill, but even for a 2015 title, there's serious room for improvement.
The engaging, episodic format of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water frequently takes massive nosedives thanks to stretches with painfully poor pacing. On paper, a horror title exploring a series of unexplainable events from the perspectives of three different induvial sounds rather interesting. Unfortunately, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the execution. Instead of diversifying environments or emphasizing unique plot points, we see our three heroes Yuri, Ren, and Mui essentially retreading the same ground multiple times over. One chapter will see Yuri investigating a mysterious shrine. The next chapter will see Ren studying that exact same shrine. Ultimately these unnecessary redundancies lead to a bloated 15-20-hour horror romp.
Some gruelingly tedious jump-scare mechanics also grind the flow of gameplay to a screeching halt. While seemingly noble in their efforts, the team baffling decided to incorporate moments of tension every single time you open a door or reach for an item. To grab film or healing items off the ground, players hold RT to initiate an odd mini-game, where whatever character you're controlling slowly extends an arm towards these items. While holding this button, there's a chance a phantom arm will reach out from the darkness and grab your wrist, but if you release RT at the right moment, you'll be spared from this ghoulish embrace. This entire process takes several seconds and happens literally hundreds of times throughout the game.
A similar design philosophy was incorporated every time you open a door as well. Instead of grabbing the doorknob and casually swinging a door open, our protagonists offer to spend far too much time slowly, and I mean slowly, creaking each door open. If sprinkled more efficiently throughout Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, tense mechanics like these could have been fun and effective. Unfortunately, these gimmicks wear out their welcome in the first hour, and then you just have to deal with it for the next fourteen or more.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water: Should you play it?
It's hard to say that Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a return to form for the series or that this particular entry will reinvigorate the interest of casual fans. However, as a self-proclaimed connoisseur of video game horror, it's reminded me just how much I've missed these games. Its unique incorporation of the Camera Obscura, distinctly Japanese environments, and incorporation of ancient folklore beautifully blend to present an experience that is wholly and unabashedly Fatal Frame.
With updated visuals and slightly improved controls, this is undeniably the best starting point for players interested in trying the franchise for the first time. That is if you're willing to overlook some slightly dated gameplay mechanics and occasionally aggressive repetition. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water probably won't convert critics of previous Fatal Frame offerings, but legacy survival-horror fans will have a fantastic time uncovering the truth of Mt. Hikami and its captivating Black Water. While maybe not one of the best horror games of 2021, there's no denying its intoxicating originality.
Miles Dompier is a Freelance Video Producer for Windows Central, focusing on video content for Windows Central Gaming. In addition to writing or producing news, reviews, and gaming guides, Miles delivers fun, community-focused videos for the Windows Central Gaming YouTube channel. Miles also hosts Xbox Chaturdays every Saturday, which serves as the Windows Central Gaming weekly podcast.