Japanese horror is arguably the best and scariest branch of the genre that will literally turn your blood cold. Cinematic beasts from the east, such as Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge, are profound examples of how mind-crippling Japanese horror can be and Maiden of Black Water certainly pulls on those chilling strings.
Released as the fifth entry in the Fatal Frame series – known to Europe and Australia as Project Zero – Maiden of Black Water first released in 2014 and was originally published by Nintendo for the Wii U. Developer Koei Tecmo, has now recouped publishing duties for the survival horror’s remaster for eighth and ninth-generation consoles and Windows. Previous titles were named Crimson Butterfly, The Tormented, and Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, and Maiden of Black Water uses lore and water mechanics to its advantage.
This terrifying installment puts the fictional Mt. Hikami at the center of a number of unexplained disappearances and suicides in the area. During the 15 hours or so of gameplay, I was able to control the three protagonists leading these spooky investigations: Ren Hojo, Miu Hinasaki, and Yuri Kozukata. Each character has their own abilities, such as “shadow reading,” to aid in piecing together the various notes and mysteries laid at their feet, with frequent appearances by the gifted, Hisoka Kurosawa. The “mountain of death” serves as a foreboding shadow to the entire game, as I was tasked to search a number of locations with the help of my colleagues in order to find the poor souls who had vanished.
Note: This review is spoiler-free, however, themes, characters, and monsters are briefly discussed.
It could be debated that Maiden of Black Water didn’t necessarily need a remake for newer platforms, especially since not a whole lot has changed. Sure, the graphics are sharper, rounder, and the ghosts have an extra amount of horrifying crookedness to their faces, but these survival horrors sometimes work better with older-style graphics, especially when photography is involved.
My photography comment, of course, refers to one of the main mechanics of the game, where your protagonist must use a camera to firstly capture evidence of ghosts, find objects that cannot be seen by the human eye, and more importantly, to fight off ghosts. The Camera Obscura is a returning mechanic in the franchise and a unique one at that, bringing another Japanese horror film, Shutter, to mind every time you’re required to snap a shot of the undead. By framing the ghosts that haunt you just right, it can inflict more damage on the spirit and eventually cause it to evaporate – that is if you hold your nerve. There will be plenty of brave souls, myself included, who will initially trigger bash the camera mechanic like hungry paparazzi, in order to create some distance between you and your black-eyed enemies.
The spirits you encounter of the so-called vanished people, as well as the titular maidens, are nothing short of petrifying. This reaction is not directly caused by their classic washed-out, gaping mouthed appearance, but instead by the horrendous moaning and screaming they produce when they surround you, or worse when you vanquish them. The sound design is therefore one of the more effective qualities of the game and something that will stay with you until the sun comes up after a restless night’s sleep. As the narrative progresses, however, the scares become few and far between and ghost appearances become a repetitive annoyance rather than a relentless nightmare.
The sound design is therefore one of the more effective qualities of the game and something that will stay with you until the sun comes up after a restless night’s sleep.
Maiden of Black Water often has you navigating narrow corridors or woodland paths with sharp turns and the sensitive controls do not accommodate that so well. If I did not make the character sprint when moving from point A to B, then it was a laborious journey. While this slow pace was rather effective in dark forestry or when I was surrounded by ghosts – initiating a sort of nightmare sequence – it was rather painful to complete tasks during daylight hours when checking everything interactive was already a bit of a chore. Even sitting through the unusually long cutscenes to open doors or drawers added to the mundanity of tasks first issued at the beginning of each section.
Additionally, the jumpcuts and general editing in between picking something up, getting grabbed by the hand of a ghost, and returning to my original stance were all a little rough to witness and cut my immersion into the true horror of the game short. Another factor that distracted me was the game’s old-fashioned approach to designing female protagonists, where revealing outfits and unnecessary jiggles made my viewing seem a little tacky. The dialogue between characters was also fairly bland, with my curiosity only being truly piqued when the lore of the mountain or history of the characters came into play.
The storytelling and unraveling mysteries at the heart of this game is the elixir that keeps the camera rolling in its neat runtime, but the clumsy basic controls and mundane filler scenes hold the survival horror back from truly being a horrific work of art.
In summary, Maiden of Black Water nails the horror elements and Koei Tecmo knows how to exploit those underlying fears we have of being alone, being watched, and being haunted. The storytelling and unraveling mysteries at the heart of this game is the elixir that keeps the camera rolling in its neat runtime, but the clumsy basic controls and mundane filler scenes hold the survival horror back from truly being a horrific work of art.
It may not be the most compatible game to navigate, but Maiden of Black Water’s sound design, lore, and general aesthetic brings the horror of Japan’s real-life Aokigahara forest to life and will at least leave you churning with insomnia this Halloween.
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