In many cultures around the world there are a variety of beliefs and superstitions surrounding the relationship between photography and the afterlife. Here in Australia, there are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alive today who refuse to be photographed in the belief that the process captures and traps the souls of the subjects. Drawing inspiration from Japanese photography folklore, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water (as it’s known in PAL regions) arms players with a supernatural camera and sets them off on a journey to unravel a mystery surrounding a series of local paranormal events.
As a heads up going in to this review, I have never played a Project Zero/Fatal Frame game before. Maiden of Black Water drew me in instantly when it was announced with its Japanese horror trappings and predominantly female leading cast. I was also genuinely intrigued by the central premise of photography as a means of exorcising hostile spirits (which has been core to every game in the series since its inception). It was a game I wanted to get my hands on and review as soon as I could, because I could tell there would be a lot to say about it.
At the heart of it all, Maiden of Black Water is a game about reconciliation. It’s about reconciliation between history and modernity; between superstition and rationality; between the natural and supernatural. It follows the exploits of Yuuri Kozukata, Ren Hojo, and Miu Hinasaki whose lives are brought together around unusual phenomena taking place on a neighbouring mountain. The mountain has been the subject of local superstition and folklore across many generations now, housing abandoned shrines and religious landmarks, and much more recently has become a place associated with a string of disappearances and suicides. On the trail of missing people, by using their own sixth senses the three protagonists uncover the mysteries of the mountain, and its relationship with water and the now deceased Shrine Maidens who were once involved with local rituals on the mountain. It is a mystery that will put them in harm’s way as they begin to encounter hostile beings from the afterlife.
Players control Yuuri, Ren, and Miu from the third person, following behind their character models as you steer them through the various dark, creepy mountain locations in which the game sets its story. The game is broken up into chapters of around an hour or two, and each chapter requires the player to navigate a relatively small environment with a number of branching pathways. For example, you might be exploring the various rooms of an abandoned, dilapidated inn, or the walking tracks that snake around the forests and cliff sides of the mountain. Along the way you encounter various useful items to pick up, bits of story and lore to collect, as well as hostile spirits to fight. Picking up these items is a slow and tense process. Rather than simply pressing A to have the item instantly collected, instead the player must hold down a button while the character leans down and reaches out towards to item with an open hand; leaving themselves open to a sudden attack as you do so. The balance between finding a useful, even life-saving, item and having a potentially harmful and startling encounter with a ghost makes for a creative, psychological risk-reward system.
On the topic of sudden attacks, ghosts will appear without warning as you explore, and must be exorcized before you can progress further. The hostile spirits are appropriately elusive, and drift about quickly as you attempt to both steer clear of them and take well-aimed shots at them with your camera. The camera is aimed through a combination of motion controls in the Wii U gamepad, as well as the more traditional right thumb stick. Rather than giving players a choice between two styles of control, Maiden of Blackwater cleverly integrates both thumb stick and motion control aiming by setting their tracking at different speeds. This means that you can quickly move the controller around like a camera in order to take quick, sweeping aims and then using the slower right thumb stick to steady the aim and fine-tune it before taking the shot. It actually works really well, especially in keeping with the frantic, panicked feel of the fights themselves. Because each shot with the camera has a cool-down time, it is important to make sure you land as many shots as possible – which is tricky when the ghosts drift about the air with a complete freedom of movement not normally seen by enemies in video games. Don’t get me wrong, the combat does feel quite messy a lot of the time, but it’s a control scheme that effectively makes you feel just vulnerable enough to make you appropriately dread each new otherworldly encounter. If you feel powerful in a horror game, you are unlikely to ever feel scared.
In addition to these hostile spirits you can also catch brief glimpses of non-hostile ghosts and paranormal occurrences that can be photographed for bonus experience points if you’re quick enough. I really liked this feature and thought it was an excellent way to use a quick time event in a non-punitive way to replicate how actual paranormal photography operates in the real world. If you’ve ever seen a grainy video of some lights in the sky or an out-of-focus photo of a shadow emerging from the Loch Ness, then these moments in the game do a fantastic job of embracing this motif.
As you can probably deduce from the title, water and wetness play a key role in the story and mechanics of the game. As well as having narrative importance, water is often something that must be traversed in order to progress the story. Wading around in waist- or thigh-high bodies of water does a lot to build tension as it soon becomes clear that your freedom of movement is severely hampered, whereas hostile ghosts are completely unaffected. There is also a wet/dry mechanic used in the game that determines the amount of damage you deal as well as the frequency with which enemies appear. But it’s not just mechanics that are affected by wetness. Channelling a fetish known as “wet look”, the young women you play as wear the kind of clothing that starts to get quite clingy and transparent as it gets damp. So as you progress in a level Yuuri’s white shirt will become slightly translucent and Miu’s miniskirt will hug up against her buttocks in a way that is definitely intended to be tantalising to the player. Whilst I appreciated the majority female cast and largely enjoyed them as characters, the game definitely has some sexual objectification issues to work out.
Treatment of its female characters isn’t the only problem with the game. Save points are automatically created throughout the game and can be a little poorly placed at times. There is a moment in the game where you are asked to navigate several rooms on a scavenger hunt for three items needed to proceed in the chapter. I collected all three and then died in ghost encounter just afterwards, which set me back around 10 minutes because I had to redo that scavenger hunt puzzle. Pro-tip folks: don’t force players to replay the most boring bits of your game. Another issue I had was the way each chapter would vary wildly in length from about half an hour up to around two. Between the infrequent autosaves and the unpredictable chapter lengths, the game makes it hard to manage your free time around playing it. There were times in the latter half of the game where I delayed starting a new chapter simply because I didn’t want to be locked into an unspecified number of hours without a reliable means of taking a break.
The game has a lot of peaks and troughs and is a little too long overall really. Each chapter essentially has to cook up a new reason for these characters to go back to the haunted mountain and by the game’s end a lot of the effective design choices lose their lustre. Considering the one, slender body type all the women (and that one guy) have in the game it’s kind of ironic that the game itself if so unnecessarily blubbery. The game opens and closes very strongly, but there are a few hours from the middle of the game that could certainly be safely cut.
Finally, while the game does a lot to create a haunting and oppressive atmosphere, it very rarely feels actually scary. Part of this is to do with the way the characters are constructed. Personally, I never really felt like any of the characters in the game felt fear, and therefore neither did I. The game developers obviously put a lot of effort into making the female cast look sexy, but unfortunately they forgot to put any effort into their facial expressions. Whether they’re staring into the cold, dilated eyes of a shrieking ghost or taking a nice, relaxing bath, the characters walk around with the same vacant expressions on their faces throughout the entirety of the game. They never scream, or shriek, or even get startled, despite the fact that there are about a hundred valid reasons to do so presented throughout the game.
Overall Project Zero: Maiden of Blackwater is a game that is mostly good. It has some flaws and rough edges that grow more and more obvious as the story plays out, but I still enjoyed my time playing it. I wrapped up my time with it fully intending to dive back in soon to unlock some of the extras, see the other endings, and try my hand at the hardest difficulty. If you can look past the flaws you will find a game with a really strong, unique, Japanese horror flavour.