I was not frequently scared by Fatal Frame. The game has its heart in the right place, but the horror is so inconsistent that it never really has a chance to sink in. The best horror games create a consistent atmosphere that makes the player want to get out. The player doesn’t feel safe, the player doesn’t feel comfortable, the player doesn’t have the tools he or she needs to easily overcome the challenges they face. This game does not do these things.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water basically has three parts. You walk around environments following waypoints (spooky ghost waypoints, but a guideline is a guideline), you get into fights with ghosts that need to have their souls sealed by your Camera Obscura, and you watch cutscenes. Only one of these three game segments is really scary.
First off, the combat is not scary. Film is effectively unlimited which means that ammunition isn’t hard to come by, and health is abundant also. I’m actually quite fond of the ghost snapping combat in this game, but it’s balanced to encourage high score chasing and replaying levels again and again. The question asked is not “how can I survive this”, but “how many points can I get out of these ghosts”? That’s fun, but not scary.
The cutscenes similarly failed to get a rise out of me. This is one of those games that opens up with a title card that straight up says (and I paraphrase) “This is a horror game, please be scared”. That level of subtlety continues throughout. There’s some genuinely inspired jump scares in these cutscenes especially when it comes to wading through water that you can’t see the bottom of, but the reason the characters choose to wade through said water is always lacking. I’m not a yell at movies type, but there was more than one occasion where I just wanted to yell “You’re right, this is a bad idea… so don’t do it!”
Throw in lip syncing that leaves some to be desired, incredibly poorly decided outfits for mountain exploration (not to even touch on the bonus costumes, which are mood breaking also), and a plot that seems like it was written with the goal of touching on as many horror clichés as possible and you have a set of characters and cutscenes that negate any investment I may have had before we leave the starting block. I can deal with a bad story in a video game, video games have bad stories all the time. But when the explicitly stated goal of the game is to get me invested enough to be terrified of what’s on the screen, then the game has to do a little bit better than this one does.
Fortunately, not all is lost. When exploring environments between combat and cutscenes there are some genuinely good scares. The central photography mechanic creates scenarios where the player’s peripheral vision is restricted, and this is mined over and over again. The game excels at making the player want to not look away, and then requiring that they do exactly that. Or sometimes making the player want to look away, but forcing them to see every gruesome detail. For all that the exploration gets wrong in terms of camera control (the third person camera, not the Camera Obscura) and finicky angles required for certain photos, the manipulation of perspective is a powerful tool and it’s used well. I swore loudly in the middle of the night more than once, and I’m not the easiest scare on the block.
Still, if your game sets out to achieve a goal and two of three pillars don’t achieve it… it’s not great. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water almost feels divided against itself. The most fun part, the combo chaining combat, has the least to do with the tone and intent of the rest of the work. Sometimes a game is less than the sum of its parts, and I’m afraid that this is one of them.