Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Fatal Frame 5: Maiden of Black Water


Fatal Frame 5: Maiden of Black Water
Hints of the earlier, slower-paced Fatal Frame games make Maiden of Black Water a passable experience for players looking for a new survival horror game in 2015, but, completely devoid of the puzzles and with healing items abound, the game comes off as the last, fading specter of its long-dead genre.

Featuring more spooky dolls than you can shake a camera at and a cast comprised primarily of breathily voiced young women in incredibly intricate attire, Fatal Frame's fifth installment, Maiden of Black Water, certainly nails the look and feel. The icons for "Herbal Medicine" and "Type 14 Film" are just as you remember, and the high-pitched whine of the ghost-busting Camera Obscura loading its next shot should still send goosebumps straight up the arms of any veteran. But don't be fooled: this is Fatal Frame updated for a modern era, with frequent checkpoints, plentiful healing items, and an on-call Ghost GPS to guide you towards your next objective, should you somehow get turned around traveling through the game's largely linear levels.

The theme is "water," and Fatal Frame 5 finally indulges in the essential genre iconography popularized in the West by Hideo Nakata's films, Ring and Dark Water. Here, you'll endure scores of drenched, dolorous specters and fistfuls of soaked, semi-sentient hair, lacquered to a shine by Fatal Frame's stock plot: these wet, dead women weren't murdered, their (dubiously voluntary) sacrifice sealed the cork on some ancient hell mouth or other for the good of all humanity--though their altruism in life doesn't seem to make them any less grumpy in death. For a series making its first foray into HD graphics, trudging through stagnant ponds and fording waist-high rivers makes for a nice technical showcase.

In J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, David Kalat cites the distinction of "wet" vs "dry" culture--that is, stories based on feelings versus stories based on reason--as crucial to J-Horror. It's not about mundane serial killers in spooky masks, it's about emotions. So "wet" encompasses not just the genre's watery graves, but also its focus on intuition and, usually, a fluid, transitive grief, psychically shared between antagonist, a young, murdered girl, and protagonist, an innocent woman doomed to die. Fittingly, Fatal Frame 5's main character, Yuri, is a psychic (in training) cursed with crippling empathy, able to experience the sadness and sins of anyone she touches. Yuri spends her days trekking to Mt. Hikami, a defunct mountain resort turned suicide hotspot (a la Mt Fuji's Sea of Trees), with her mentor Hisoka, psychic private eye extraordinaire, rescuing adolescent girls who wander off into the woods at the behest of insatiably angry (and conspicuously cleavaged; these are some comically over-endowed ghosts) shrine maidens with nothing better to do than cajole BFF highschoolers into impromptu suicide pacts. One such wayward teen is Miu, who bears a similar psychic aptitude as Yuri and is herself in search of her mother, Miku, protagonist of the first game. Rounding out the playable cast is Ren Hojo, who isn't psychic, but fills a role essential to the series since Fatal Frame 3: he's the dopey male lead who just happens to be around (and who, bereft of true spiritual power due to his maleness, tends to be a lot less fun to play).

Breaking free of the large, insular mansions that characterize every previous Fatal Frame, Maiden of Black Water spreads itself over the whole of Mt. Hikami. Yuri, Ren, and Miu roam through abandoned hot springs, collapsed highway tunnels, lakeside beaches, and ancient temples filled with spooky coffins and giant, gilded columns. Somehow, the broader scope results in the same amount of backtracking you'd endure in the earlier games. Worse, really: Maiden of Black Water has no qualms about sending each of its three characters through every location, usually a couple times. That's a trick the series has pulled since Fatal Frame 3 expanded the playable cast, but this game's straight-forward areas mean you're less often returning to unlock a new door or slot in the next puzzle piece than you are making a beeline through somewhere you've already been on your way to the next place you've already gone. By the midpoint, you expect any given chapter will fade in at that exact-same derelict cablecar (helpfully restocked every visit, as if by some friendly poltergeist, with a cache of healing items), an objective pop-up urging you to go to that exact-same Shrine of the Ephemeral. Returning to each forbidding landmark time and again, you start to wonder how no tourists or traveling businessmen have stumbled upon the "Womb Cavern," where the sanctified bodies of suffering priestesses lay trapped in ornate reliquaries for all time, considering this most sacred site can be entered not just via a secret passage beneath a crumbling temple, and not just from a tunnel branching off a nearby highway, but also by way of a convenient door in the adjacent abandoned hotel.

Maiden of Black Water builds its combat on the motion controls of the 3DS spin-off, Spirit Camera. When a ghostly presence makes itself known, you lift the gamepad towards the TV and use its screen as a viewfinder. If you're really into it, you can stand up in the middle of the room and put your hips on pivot, swiveling back and forth to snapshot enemies closing in on either side. Spinning a quick 180 to bullseye a ghost that's sprung up behind you imbues your living room with presence and the mechanics with bodily interplay--for as long as the gamepad's fickle gyro cooperates. An option for traditional controls sits right in the menu, but this choice brings its own can of worms. Analog controls combined with the new lock-on button, a necessary band-aid for motion-assisted aiming, turn an already easy experience into a cakewalk. Battles become languorous games of chicken, where you hold the left trigger and watch your enemy strafe aimlessly back and forth, waiting for them to charge so you can convert their attack, with last-second timing, into a Fatal Frame, which triggers a reflex mode, allowing for several high-power follow-up shots. Nailing a succession of Fatal Frames has always been the series' crunchiest mechanic, but the satisfaction is less potent when tied to your use of the convenient lock-on button.

It's hectic enough in the moment--ghosts attracting your attention from the front while their cohorts flank you, or feinting an attack and teleporting away just as you fire--that it's still fun to go through the motions. Maiden of Black Water splits the timing-based critical techniques of past games, Shutter Chance and Fatal Frame, into two separate conditional attacks. Where before Shutter Chance was essentially just a weaker Fatal Frame, now it amplifies damage when you snap multiple targets in one shot. Here, the motion controls excel. Tilting and twisting the gamepad, you rotate your viewfinder between portrait and landscape mode, finding a perfect angle to capture everything on screen. Weak photos shave of flecks of spiritual energy that hover around your foe, increasing your damage if you can capture them all at once. As a bonus, whatever high school girl you're currently escorting home amps up your attack power as well as any ghostly target, so there's a bit of conceptual fun in maneuvering her timid visage into frame with your howling enemy for an impromptu photobomb.

Aside from the linearity and lack of difficulty, the gameplay is pockmarked by mechanics of questionable value. When picking up any given item, there's the chance a spooky ghost hand is waiting to lash out grab you. The first time it happens it's spooky enough, but as the game goes on, the canned, five-second animation that precedes every item pickup inflicts more damage to your patience than the occasional dismembered ghost grip does to your life bar. Being a spirit medium, Yuri can elicit a Fatal Glance by touching the spirits of defeated ghosts. Sometimes, this offers a brief, Ring-style video dripping with the exact texture and atmosphere (and film grain) missing from the rest of the game. Flickering in and out of focus on the kimonoed backs of six identical women, unmoving, in the hazy distance, these micro-stories suggest something ominous and hidden--so of course, there's only a sparse handful of them in the game, and the Fatal Glance's more common reward is 500 points to apply to your cameras' unexciting boosts to Damage, Load Time, and Range. As with every Fatal Frame, you'll find a variety of special lenses that add effects (healing, stun, etc) to your shots; as with every Fatal Frame, you'll forgo all of these in favor of humbler options that simply boost your damage. Characters have a “wetness” gauge that fills as they take damage or stand out in the rain. Powerful enemy attacks can spike the meter, poisoning you, but you'll glean the system's true purpose the first time you catch the hint of a bra strap through Yuri's sodden top, now scandalously see-through. Ren also has a wetness gauge, but his smart vest/button-down combo (and aforementioned maleness, presumably) immunizes him from this foul, revealing fate.

The plot is all setup. For whatever big ideas it has about existential agony and communal grief, Fatal Frame 5 spends much more time playing Madlibs with its lore, remixing its five or six proper nouns into an intimidating pile of documents which all rehash the general hypothesis of "girls suffering in water=no calamity?" A note reads "to the locals the water is a source of the soul, and where the soul returns in death," the next goes, "the water is life, and in death the soul must return there," and the third follows suit. The sheepish, wilting cast can't buttress the hollow world. Even though Yuri and Miu suffer from obliquely-mentioned past traumas, and Ren gets one on loan from a nearby specter, the overflowing exposition of the game's journal entries is completely missing from the spoken dialogue, leaving you feeling like you're getting a third of three separate stories instead of one whole one.

The characters spend most of their time tromping up the haunted, horrific Mt. Hikami to rescue whatever friend/client/casual acquaintance wandered up the mountain to off themselves this time. Then, during the occasional off-mountain chapter, the growing cast of runaways, all women, lapse into their grief&ghost-induced comas while Ren plays protector, staking out their home base, an antique shop, via CCTV. Security feeds and fleeting apparitions are a time-honored combo, and these interstitial chapters pack a decent amount of punch--when you catch the hint of an giant woman's legs traipsing down the hallway stairs, or when the camera flickers back to the very room you're sitting in and you see yourself surrounded by ghosts, boo!--but the game doesn't do anything with the voyeur mechanic beyond the superficial. Instead of forcing you to scrutinize the security feed or playing with your perception, these chapters are more about blundering through battles only made difficult by the setting; the confined spaces of a modern Japanese home don't leave a lot of room to maneuver. Compared to the foreboding atmospheres of Silent Hill 4 and Fatal Frame 3's safe zones, the antique shop isn't a place you learn (and learn to dread) chapter-by-chapter, room-by-room, it's just somewhere for Ren hang out and shoot a ghost or two while the girls take a power nap. Mostly, you wait for it to be over so you can go back to playing as Yuri or Miu, whose special attacks are way more satisfying.

This is Fatal Frame 5's most disappointing modernization: timidity. In the face of big hitters like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, Fatal Frame always felt like the Littlest Horror Series That Could. It might've spent four games (and a spin-off, and a couple remakes) retreading identical haunting grounds, but there was something stately about how it stuck to its guns (well, cameras) while all survival horror around it mutated into high-octane third-person shooters. They've finally decided to shake things up, but the best parts of Maiden of Black Water are the parts where it folds back into tradition and sticks you in a house of porcelain dolls or a flooded temple, places with lots of rooms and little guidance. In these few hours spent rattling the handles on locked doors, scouring the dilapidated environment for a lattice window that matches the spectral hint photograph in your inventory just right, hounded by ghosts you wish would stop respawning for just one second, you could squint and almost believe you're back in 2002. Otherwise, the game is so terrified of boring or frustrating its audience that it refuses to sprinkle even a single progress-stymying puzzle into the mix. A riddle, a secret switch, hell, even a math problem, anything would've been fine.

Many contemporary games, Maiden of Black Water included, have only one major vector of physical interaction with the world--combat--and therefore, it often feels like their geometry might as well be made of blank white boxes, for all they seem to care about seating you in an actual environment. If survival horror was good at anything, it was creating obstacles out of things other than combat encounters, giving you a sense you were overcoming not just zombies or spirits, but a devious and hostile territory full of traps and tricks. Snapping photos of Fatal Frame's ghost hasn't lost its luster, but the rest of Maiden of Black Water plays like a log flume, a strictly delineated path you follow en route to the next cutscene or stringy-haired boss fight. Splitting its attention between tradition and accessibility, Maiden of Black Water comes across as a Fatal Frame doppleganger, a pod person. It knows the social cues, but it's always a hitch out of step. Modernizing its design while trying to keep the window dressing of the series intact, Fatal Frame 5 ends up being something that won't please the diehard fans completely, and probably won't please anyone else at all.

Overall : C+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : C+
Presentation : D

+ Solid, snappy Fatal Frame combat survives intact, a handful of decent spooks show the series hasn't completely lost its way
Linear levels with limited interaction lead to bland exploration

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