It’s the middle of the night. Somehow, it’s always the middle of the night in Fatal Frame: Maiden Of Black Water, as you explore a cursed mountain literally drowning in ghosts. No matter which of the three playable characters you’re pushing around—Yuri, a young woman with an affinity for ghost tracking; Ren, a professor with a mysterious past; or Miu, the daughter of a previous Fatal Frame star—they move stolidly forward, a vacant expression on their face, opening doors like there couldn’t possibly be ghosts hiding behind them. And those doors open slowly.
Sluggish controls and laughably disconnected heroes shouldn’t make for a satisfying experience, yet something about these blank faces, and the patient unwillingness to flinch at what presumably lies ahead, works to the game’s advantage. There’s a fatalism inherent to Japanese horror often absent in its Western counterpart, a feeling that dread isn’t an outlier of human experience but its most fundamental element. By that light, Yuri, Ren, and Miu’s steady implacability isn’t stupidity so much as necessity.
The sluggishness of play serves a purpose as well. Very little in Fatal Frame happens quickly, and when it does, it’s nearly always bad news. The model follows the previous four games in the series, with players making their way through eerie, tunnel-choked environments (in this case, most of the action is centered on Mt. Hikami, a famous suicide spot and setting for much mysteriousness), solving occasional situational puzzles, and oh yeah, fighting ghosts by taking pictures of them.
It’s a nifty device, and this new Wii U installment goes one better on previous entries by having the gamepad serve as the camera lens. Especially early in its life, the Wii U’s existence was defined by designers’ perpetual, often desperate efforts to justify and/or exploit the system’s unusual main controller, and Fatal Frame seems to have hit on a winner. In practice, this approach is imperfect at best, if occasionally inspired. Hitting certain angles require strange contortions (although you can use the thumb stick to aim your viewfinder), and battles against multiple ghosts have a tendency to turn into slogs of backtracking and desperate spinning, with little sense of control or cohesion.
Maybe that’s the point, though. Ghost battles themselves serve as punctuation marks for the long, languid sentences of exploration, sudden explosive conclusions to questions that threaten to never end. And while this can occasionally become tedious (there’s a frustrating amount of backtracking in some levels), this generally creates a constant unsteady, acute nervousness. The vibe here is bad, very bad, and it’s possible that the occasional panicky clumsiness of the combat is thematically relevant.
Still, it could’ve done with some streamlining. Thankfully, Maiden fares better when it comes to mood, from the opening titles down to the intensely atmospheric sound design. The story, which deals with a lot of dead people, a shrine, and the Netherworld, is functional and really only serves as a framework to justify a whole lot of creepy set pieces. There’s little here that breaks new ground, but it doesn’t need to. The decaying buildings, water-soaked basements, and tangled forests work as settings just waiting for nightmares to arrive.
And these are some pretty good nightmares. Like the wooden boxes lying around that may or may not have dead girls packed inside them. Or the flashbacks that pop up when you touch the essence of a defeated ghost, designed to look like shoddy VHS tapes that have been gathering dust on a closet shelf for decades. It’s hard not to occasionally wonder if any of this adds up to more than a series of effective but ultimately forgettable moments, but if that’s true, at least the moments are generally well done and worth a few shivers.
At its best, playing Fatal Frame feels like a more interactive version of movies like Ju-On, putting the player in a terrible place where the only relief is the occasional pause before inevitable doom. The situation is slightly more optimistic, but the feeling of inevitability is hard to shake. Even the few supposedly safe spaces (Ren’s study, Yuri’s apartment) feel like flickering candles in a world of ever-growing darkness. At its worst, Fatal Frame is bogged down by repetition and a frustrating, if inspired, combat system. Your ability to overlook this will likely depend on your appreciation of candlelight.