Flick through tourist brochures, and you would be hard-pressed to choose Mount Hikami as your next holiday destination. Once considered holy ground revered for the mysterious beauty of its clear waters and ancient forests, it had once been the centrepiece of a doctrine in which water was seen as the manifestation of the divine – people believing themselves to have been born from water, and would therefore eventually return to it. Those nearing the end of their lives would journey to the mountain to be blessed by its waters, and in doing so believed that they would leave the world peacefully.
However, a devastating landslide has left the area in disrepair. With roads suddenly cut off and the flow of water through the mountain forever altered, Mount Hikami has since gained notoriety as a suicide spot. Reports of tragic events and mysterious disappearances surround the mountain to this day, and traces of the doctrine’s curious traditions and occult ceremonies continue to be uncovered.
Such an eerie location naturally serves as the perfect ghost-hunting ground for Koei Tecmo’s Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water – or Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water to those in North America – the Wii U exclusive entry in their long-running survival horror series. But, while the game is a work of fiction, it takes real-world inspiration from Japan’s Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest, that lies at Mount Fuji’s base.
Episodic by design, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water‘s first success comes in the way that Nintendo has approached releasing the game to western audiences. from the Nintendo eShop, letting you play through the game’s prologue and first two episodes. That’s more than enough time to introduce you to the three playable protagonists – Miu Hinasaki, Yuri Kozukata and Ren Hojo – and enough of the chilling narrative to intrigue you toward potentially upgrading to the full game.
Each character is drawn to the mountain for their own reasons, but their fates are inevitably intertwined. Having vanished when she was a child, Miu travels to the mountain when she hears rumours that her mother had been sighted. Gifted with second sight, Yuri travels to the mountain in helping mentor Hisoka Kurosawa in her search for lost objects, whereas author Ren is driven by his interest in a mysterious custom unique to Mount Hikami referred to as postmortem photographs. Their search for the truth inevitably leads them to encounter the supernatural, apparitions and otherworldly beings making their presence known as they look to uncover the mountain’s secrets.
The antique Camera Obscura makes an expected return, the now staple spirit deterrent letting you battle and seal them away by repeatedly taking photographs. It’s interworking the contraption with the Wii U GamePad that allows players to more expertly wield it in comparison to the game’s predecessors. Tap the X Button to activate the camera, and players can rely on the GamePad’s built-in accelerometer and gyroscope to line up the perfect shot by lifting the controller in front of you. Those with an aversion to motion control can turn to physical input, but, as we’ve found in games such as Splatoon, it’s far more responsive to play as intended.
You’ll be required to aim the viewfinder at the tortured soul trying to attack, taking a snap to deal damage. As you do so, Spirit Fragments will break away and lining up successive shots that capture these – turning the GamePad for portrait and landscape snaps – in allowing you to deliver a knockout blow to your supernatural adversary. Helping to dispel such apparitions more efficiently, players are encouraged to take a Fatal Frame – a photo snapped immediately as a ghost is about to attack you. These deal extra damage and activates Fatal Time, which is a window where you can quickly take photos without using any film up. Whereas another power comes in Glancing, which allows you to approach any defeated spirit to witness a harrowing flashback that reveals how they met their untimely demise.
Speaking of supernatural powers, Shadow Reading will save you from forever feeling lost in that it allows players to trace shadows of the past that will lead you to your current objective. This is assisted by the Camera Obscura, that can also be used to reveal hidden objects – important in discovering clues. And, while it is a weak device early on, over time it can be upgraded with new types of film that will reload faster and a selection of lenses that will help stun or deal more damage to the ethereal phantoms that chase you. Photos of ghosts will reward you with points that affect your score and rank for each episode but may be used to upgrade the Camera Obscura and buy recovery items.
Water has a role to play beyond purely being a plot device. Whether from rainfall, wading through rivers or allowing yourself to be grabbed by drowned ghosts, a Wetness Gauge will steadily fill. Once full, more ghosts will appear and damage taken will be heightened. But, this can also work in your favour as you will similarly deal more damage and the Camera Obscura will absorb more Spirit Power. This is taken a step further by tainted ghosts that turn the gauge red, which will gradually drain your health despite increasing the benefits as before.
Koei Tecmo has gone to great lengths to reflect this in the protagonist’s character models, which appear increasingly damp as the gauge rapidly fills. With the graphics engine having reportedly used technology from Dead or Alive 5, facial animations are particularly lifelike and emphasis was clearly placed on trying to perfect them during development. However, the surrounding environments that you wander weren’t treated with as much attention. The forests and temples that you scurry through are fairly bland, even if the game as a whole still manages to capture that rare, haunting atmosphere.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water suffers in other areas as well, in that character movement is particularly awkward. While players are granted 360 degrees of control, they must hold the ZL Button to run at which point it feels as if you’re steering a whale. Turning while walking is as simple as pulling back on the Left Stick, but then it’s left to the player to re-centre the camera every time. Whether this is purposeful in trying to induce the player’s panic as spirits swarm around them is questionable, but it somehow manages to feel antiquated by design.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water presents another horrifying and, in places, graphic tale that is let down by outdated design choices in places. Another perfect demonstration in putting the Wii U GamePad to work, this is a haunting ride that genre fans shouldn’t be without, with dread awaiting you around every corner…