Horror games very often centre on scary monsters that stalk you throughout, but on the odd occasion there are franchises like Project Zero (or Fatal Frame in the States) that combine a spooky atmosphere with a unique twist on the genre. Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water brings a particular trope from Japanese horror – the “Onryō” – and makes it the primary antagonist, albeit one with moisture issues. While not exactly terrifying, the spookiness is at times disturbing.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water centres around Mount Hikami, the site of some ghostly goings on. Three protagonists, Yuri Kozukata – a medium in training – is sent to the mountain along with her boss to find a missing person, Miu Hinasaki is seeking her long lost mother, while Ren Hojo and his assistant Rui are exploring the mountain for research. It’s a captivating hook, but it has problems.
As diverse as the cast may seem on first glance, the delivery of the lines is a little on the stilted side. Some dramatic scenes come off as underwhelming attempts at showing fear, while the script doesn’t help things with lots of exposition and by playing the “pronoun game” a little too much. The Maidens themselves seem to be hell-bent on getting people to kill themselves, which makes for some rather uncomfortable moments.
Where Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water does get it mostly right is in the presentation. This is one creepy mountain with dark forests, abandoned inns, and shrines littered with ceramic dolls with stoic faces. The atmosphere makes it all the more shocking when ghostly hands try to grab you as you reach out to pick up items. There’s a little bit of screen tear on occasion, breaking immersion somewhat, but it happens infrequently enough for it not to matter a great deal.
When you do encounter ghosts, their presentation is unsettling, especially their vacant expressions looking directly at you as they attempt to kill you. Even their screams and wails are unnerving, sounding distorted as if they’re communicating from another plane of existence. You get an ability early on that allows you to touch a defeated ghost before it goes away to reveal how they died, with the flashbacks filmed with a grainy effect that only adds to the ominous tones of the main game.
Like other Project Zero games, your aim is to explore the haunted locales, finding clues and taking snapshots of foes. Split over more than a dozen chapters, your perspective changes between each investigator, each with their own unique trait. Yuri’s camera has slots for different lenses with various abilities, while Ren’s camera has a quick snap ability. It’s decent variety, which is furthered as you upgrade your effectiveness with your camera and its lenses.
As this is on the Wii U, the controls default to a mixture of gyro motion and the right analogue stick for movement of the camera when in photo mode. This gives you the notion of using the Wii U Gamepad as a digital camera, meaning when ghosts come at your face, it is truly creepy to see them close up in the viewfinder. You don’t have to use the gyro controls though, as the game supports more traditional control methods. Taking photos of enemies when in mid-attack allows for a brief period called “Fatal Frame” where you can take a quick succession of photos.
The biggest addition to Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is the fact that getting wet is a bad thing. Should a character take too much damage, get caught in a storm, or even fall in water; the flower on the bottom right will slowly fill up until it blooms.
Bloomed flowers mean increased encounters with ghosts, while red flowers mean you just got attacked by a Maiden’s special attack and you’re being corrupted by the Black Water, slowly edging towards death as a result. Thankfully you are able to recover by either staying in the shade or using Purifying Embers.
I’d love to wrap it up here, but Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water has one major bugbear. As horror games go, it’s too easy. Not only do you get far too many items to begin each chapter with, you also find healing items and camera film in plentiful supply. Perhaps the only item I ever did run out of was the Purifying Embers, which cost a lot of points to get above the starting supply.
Taking this into account, the game is far too easy once you get to grips with the combat. Chapters rarely last longer than an hour or so, depending on how much you got stuck by some of the rather obscure puzzles, or if you saw only occasional encounters with ghosts if you played smartly. You can play again for improved rankings, but it’s not difficult to get around an A ranking.
In fact the only place I properly died was during a chapter where I had to run from the Black Maiden herself. Taking photos of her was impossible and the only option was to run away from her down a windy pathway. Trouble is, she can teleport and has a couple of ghostly minions floating around as well. One touch from her means you lose a Mirrorstone (an item that grants an extra life), and it’s game over if you don’t have one.
Those looking for a spooky adventure for Halloween can certainly find one in Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water. Taking photos of ghosts while trying to keep dry is enthralling, while Mount Hikami’s forests and shrines are among some of the spookiest locales in the franchise. Once you have gotten used to the mechanics though, it’s far too easy to just plough through the game and the characters themselves are almost as vacant as… well ghosts! An enjoyable treat at least, but not enough tricks.