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Review: Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water Remains a Divisive Entry

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Fatal Frame was a huge part of my formative experience with horror media. I became equally invested in the franchise and obsessed with it as a pre-teen. However, the series has practically faded from existence, a ghost of its former self. And with the release of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, there’s hope that Fatal Frame will return! At least to some extent. However, Maiden of Black Water has been a divisive entry among hardcore fans since its release, garnering criticism for its character designs and incoherent story. And it’s unsurprising that both of these things continue to drag this entry down.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water divides itself into segments with three playable characters. Players will spend time controlling Yuri Kozukata, Ren Hojo, and Miu Hinasaki as they unearth a mystery (and tragedy) surrounding Mount Hikami. At the start, the game introduces players to folklore surrounding Mount Hikami. Tales range from a derelict inn to the Doll Shrine located deep within a forest that draws inspiration from the real location of Aokigahara. For the first half of the game, these stories are mostly connected by thin threads. Characters only link together through the occasional note or sparse bit of dialogue. When the main cast is finally introduced, the narrative begins to pick up the pace! But not for the better. The more the story in Maiden of Black Water progresses, the worse it becomes.

Maiden of Black Water concerns itself with the taboo, specifically incest, to create shocking plot twists. Unlike previous entries in the series, it does little to examine the harsh traditions imposed upon the vulnerable or the unwilling self-sacrifice largely involved in the horrifying rituals for which Fatal Frame has been known. The inclusion of these rituals, and in Maiden of Black Water‘s case the use of ghost marriage ceremony, feels like set dressing. Certain bits of important storytelling are also relegated to the use of the Fatal Glance mechanic. This can leave players confused as to the connection of certain characters or ghosts within the overarching narrative.

Fatal Frame Maiden of Black Water review

Players will encounter a plethora of ghosts, all from different time periods. This is due to a plot point that revolves around Mount Hikami and its allure to those feeling hopeless or on the verge of suicide. Animations range from your stock-and-standard ghost wandering around the screen to reliving the moment of their death. It’s shocking but effective, given how it works into the general theme. And it’s one thing that Maiden of Black Water does well. Despite its focus on suicide and feelings of hopelessness, it doesn’t feel voyeuristic. Though players sensitive to this subject matter may want to avoid dipping into this title altogether due to the length of these animations.

And unfortunately, some of the ghost designs have absolutely not gotten better with age. This is a specific model of a maiden with her kimono pulled open in the front and her hair twisted upward to obscure her face entirely. It feels like overt and unwarranted sexualization. Again, horror can serve as an incredible medium to talk about a myriad of issues! But Maiden of Black Water doesn’t concern itself with this discussion at all. Instead, these models are fanservice, and feel completely out of place. It creates an inconsistent atmosphere. Some ghosts feel at home within the series, while others seemingly exist for titillation.

The controls of the game have also not improved. Veteran players of the series will enjoy that, but it will potentially turn new players off. There are two methods players can select, but it only swaps button placement. The controls feel clunky and outdated, which I personally loved. However, at times they were still frustrating! Especially when it came to navigating areas while attempting to fight off a handful of ghosts.

The motion controls for the Nintendo Switch version had me twisting my arms around my head to aim the camera. (Mostly due to my frantic flailing when trying to perform a Shutter Chance.) Like its original release, the Shutter Chance mechanic now revolves around getting five photographable entities in a single picture. I quickly ended up opting for the control scheme that relegated movement to the joysticks. This maps viewfinder movement to the back shoulder buttons. Players can also dodge out of attacks, though this requires precise timing.

Fatal Frame Maiden of Black Water review

Players can upgrade the Camera Obscura by photographing ghosts found in the various locales and defeating them with the Fatal Frame and Shutter Chance mechanic. You can upgrade the camera in four ways. These improve the range, damage, and spirit power absorption rate. Players can use their acquired spirit power to use special lenses, which can stun or deal massive amounts of damage to ghosts. You’ll acquire several different types of special lenses through story progression to use.

Maiden of Black Water layers these mechanics densely. This makes fighting ghosts more involved than before. Additionally, a mechanic from Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse returns. Players can now interact with objects by holding a button to slowly reach for it. There is a chance that they’re grabbed and damaged by a spectral hand. You can dodge this. Unfortunately, this mechanic breaks up any tension and is more annoying than it is scary. After roughly 12 hours with the game, I just wanted this feature to go away.

Another issue is the structure of the game. Instead of constantly being immersed in a single environment, like the first Fatal Frame and the subsequent releases up to Fatal Frame III: The Tormented, players visit several key locations. At the end of every chapter, the game grades players on their performance and gives a written summary of the chapter. Chapters also start with a written detail of what will potentially transpire when started. Instead of allowing the game to flow freely without interruption, allowing the player to experience the story as is, Maiden of Black Water breaks it up into these little segments.

Fatal Frame Maiden of Black Water review

One area of improvement for Maiden of Black Water is its visuals. The character models look great, and the environments remain incredibly atmospheric. The dark, rainy forests of Mount Hikami feel foreboding. The claustrophobic layout of the Kurosawas’ antique shop works in tandem with the ghost encounters that will appear in the later half of the game. But major performance issues pop up when more than three ghosts appear at any given time. The frame rate dropped significantly even when docked. It also takes a hit when players run, for some reason.

So much of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water holds promise. Ultimately, its execution and lackluster story lets it down. Just like how I wanted to love this game upon its initial release, I want to love it now. But there is just so much that prevents it from being a great entry in the series. And it’s a shame that the future of the series hinges on what remains ultimately one of the worst Fatal Frame titles to date.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and PC.

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water

6

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water remains a divisive entry in the series, as the title's greatest weakness has less to do with its controls and more to do with its story.

Food for Thought
  • The game contains sensitive material, including incest and depictions of suicide. Those sensitive to this material will want to steer clear.
  • The motion controls can be fun, even if they'll have you flailing around your room!
  • The sound design remains incredible, creating a great sense of atmosphere when fighting off ghosts or exploring environments.
    If you want to know more, check out Siliconera's review guide.
    Kazuma Hashimoto
    Translator and streamer, Kazuma spends his time playing a variety of games ranging from farming simulators to classic CRPGs.