Frame your enemies and face your nightmares in this horrific first-person shooter.
When discussing horror videogames, there are a few key franchises that seem to dominate the market. Series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are key players in the genre, with other titles like Dead Space, Amnesia, and Outlast more recently achieving critical acclaim. However, there is one particular series of horror games that I've seen mentioned repeatedly amongst fans of the genre, to almost universal praise: Project Zero. Also called Fatal Frame in many regions, the series focuses on traditional Japanese horror and an unconventional first-person shooter style gameplay, utilising a mysterious spiritual camera known as the Camera Obscura.
Now spanning over two decades, this cult classic series has released on numerous consoles including PlayStation 2, Wii, 3DS (as a spin-off), and mostly recently Wii U with the latest entry, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water. Considered the 5th game in the main series, Maiden of Black Water originally released in 2015 exclusively for the Wii U, and cleverly utilised the console's Game Pad as a viewfinder for the Camera Obscura. Now over 7 years since its initial release, the game once again rises from the dead in a remaster for PC, Xbox One/Series, PlayStation 4/5 and Nintendo Switch. So does Maiden of Black Water manage to expertly capture the true essence of horror, or does the game lose focus and end up as a Project Zero/10? Read on and find out.
"Water purifies all - we are born from water, and to the water we return. The water connects us all."
Ancient texts tell of a mountain shrouded in mystery, a hallowed bridge between our world and the afterlife, a location both feared and revered by those who may glance upon it: Mt. Hikami. Although it may appear picturesque, this mountain is no place for leisurely hiking; most who set foot on Hikami-yama will never return, driven to madness and eventually committing suicide in horrific and gruesome ways. It is said that even watching the sun set over beautiful Mt. Hikami is said to be an omen that will foretell one's imminent death.
Though being a spiritual place, Mt. Hikami was once home to a group of sacred Shrine Maidens, guardians of the mountain purified in water, who protect the lost and guide wayward spirits. But that all changed when Hikami was flooded by the Black Water, a liquid essence of Netherworld beginning to seep into our own. The sacred maidens have since disappeared, now replaced by Reliquaries - ornately-decorated caskets that are scattered across the mountain, beckoning new souls to become trapped and suffer within for eternity.
Tasked with unravelling the mysteries surrounding the mountain, our story follows three brave (or foolish) protagonists, each of whom have a deep connection to not only the mountain, but also to the spiritual world. Yuri Kozukata, a young girl who can see into the spiritual world and retrieve the souls of the lost, Ren Hojo, an esteemed author whose curiosity for the mountain leads to his descent into madness, and Miu Hinasaki, whose mother Miku (a previous Project Zero/Fatal Frame protagonist) is believed to have committed suicide on the mountain. Equipped with the Camera Obscura, these three face innumerable terrors in order to piece together the corruption now spreading across Mt. Hikami, and the cursed Maiden of Black Water who haunts them.
Despite a complete lack of weapons - not even a single gun - Maiden of Black Water is in essence a first-person shooter, albeit one of the most unconventional you'll ever play. Where most other games would have the player defend themselves with an entire armoury, sometimes a flashlight, or occasionally even a vacuum cleaner, Project Zero instead opts for a mythical Camera that can damage spectral enemies, essentially exorcising them through means of photography.
With the Camera Obscura as the player's only defence, each of the three characters must progressively ascend Mt. Hikami, which is divided into numerous different locales, each with a distinct Japanese flair. In an over-the-shoulder style similar to the likes of Resident Evil or Silent Hill, each location is littered with secrets, simple puzzles, and of course enemies that attempt to scare the player at every opportunity. Through use of the Camera Obscura, objects hidden in plain sight must be captured in each area in order to progress toward a specified location, often revealing Psychic Photographs that task the player with photographing particular locations.
While this might seem like a leisurely mountain stroll, enjoying some photography along the way, the spirits of the dead will make this visit to Mt. Hikami all the more thrilling. Every location is littered with those who have died on the mountain - horrific, incorporeal beings that can only be damaged with the Camera Obscura. By using the camera's viewfinder, the player must take precisely positioned photographs to overcome these apparitions. Using the PlayStation 5 controller's buttons or motion controls, the camera's frame can be adjusted around each target to maximise potential damage. Each enemy has several hit markers and positioning 5 or more in a single frame will unleash a devastating attack. The key to survival though rests in a Fatal Frame, a method by which a shot is taken with perfect timing as an enemy attacks, stunning them and unleashing a deadly ghost paparazzi barrage.
Using the Camera as a weapon is surprisingly creative, as it offers gameplay that sets itself apart from standard FPS horror games. Where most other games emphasise weapon upgrades, Project Zero instead focuses on upgrading the camera itself, equipping it with different film types to vary damage, or unique lenses that provide extra abilities like life-absorption or rapid fire. I've never been particularly adept at shooting games and find them quite challenging, but the camera combat of Project Zero was simple to learn and satisfying to master; a real breath of fresh air from so many other stale shooting games.
When playing Maiden of Black Water, there are many times when you'll certainly be reminded of the game's age. This is a remaster (not a remake) of a game now 7 years old, and the visuals certainly reflect that. While it may have looked excellent back in 2014, we have since been spoiled by photorealistic graphics like those in Resident Evil Village, which put the graphics in this horror game to shame. But while Project Zero: Maiden of Black might lack the incredible detail of modern games, it almost entirely makes up for this through its brilliant artistic design.
The entire series takes visual inspiration from staples of Japanese horror, often featuring female protagonists, a focus on the psychological and spiritual, and incorporates elements of Shinto religion. There are many elements of realism that can be found in Maiden of Black Water, despite its clearly fictional nature. Environments convey a legitimate sense of Japanese culture, as each location draws inspiration from real-life Shinto shrines, grave yards, and sacred locations, all of which carry an authentic tradition that is reflected in the game's art. Here are some excellent examples of the game's beautiful yet macabre design:
Enemy design too is a crucial component of a chilling horror games, and Maiden of Black Water is a prime example of this. Many of the spirits are horrifying, decaying and decapitated, lurking in the player's peripherals or appearing suddenly at unexpected moments. In contrast, the game's most terrifying enemies are particularly beautiful, with gorgeous shrine maidens and brides used as a key component of the game, only to deceive the player when their faces distort and melt. This is most noticeable during the game's flashbacks, which are represented as stylised video footage that can be viewed upon defeating spirits.
Even the most terrifying horror game would feel incomplete without convincing sound design. Thankfully, Maiden of Black Water is still just as impressive in this respect, with subtle audio that expertly matches its setting. Don't expect over-the-top terror or a memorable soundtrack - this is a horror game where its minimalist audio proves that less can be more.
Each location is accompanied by an unsettling ambience, whether this is the creaking of an old shrine, the rustling of a haunted forest, or the wails and groans of distant spirits. When played with a pair of headphones, Maiden of Black Water will satisfy the ears of even seasoned horror enthusiasts.
Players will also be pleased to know that the game features dual-track audio, meaning voiceovers can be swapped between English and Japanese at any time. For a more authentic experience I'd suggest playing with Japanese voiceovers, though for those of you who aren't fond of reading subtitles, as least there's the option to play in English as well. It's always welcome to have these sort of options for preference or accessibility reasons.
For a linear, episodic horror game, there's a surprising amount of extra content in Maiden of Black Water. The main story spans approximately 15 - 20 hours depending on the player's aptitude, and this can be played on one of three difficulties, with players being awarded a rank at the end of each episode. Accumulating spirit points during each episode can be spent on camera upgrades, unlockable items, and additional costumes for the three main characters. There's also an entirely new post-game story available once the main game is finished, where the player takes on the role of a character from a completely different series, and removes the Camera Obscura completely, requiring stealth to avoid confrontation instead.
If snapping pictures of spirits isn't enough camera action for you, there's also a "photo mode" included that can be activated at any time. This allows the player to frame each setting however they wish, changing various settings and positioning character and enemies in each scene. It's simple to use, and can create some interesting shots with minimal effort, like the one below.
Lastly, if you're a big fan of the series, you might want to splurge and purchase the Digital Deluxe edition of the game, which is clearly aimed towards Project Zero/Fatal Frame fanatics. This DLC comes in the form of additional costumes based on previous protagonists, and a comprehensive digital artbook. The artbook is quite impressive, with concept art and entire soundtracks from each of the previous games to be explored. Disappointingly, it completely dismisses the existence of the fourth game in the series, Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, which has sadly never been localised.
As my first foray into the Fatal Frame/Project Zero series, Maiden of Black Water left me feeling both scared and impressed, an unusual combination. With a unique blend of creative combat and traditional Japanese influence, it's now clear why the series has gained such a dedicated cult following and a reputation for being one of the best in the horror genre. While the Maiden of Black Water may be showing her age in some respects, this is still a title that's bound to satisfy those who enjoy playing games on the edge of their seat. Above all else, this is a disturbing game that will leave you wanting more, and like the Maiden herself, will beckon its players to explore the rest of the series.
So, why should you play it?
Creative and satisfying camera-based combat.
Disturbing setting and horror atmosphere.
Beautiful yet macabre art direction.
Fond of Japanese culture? You're certain to enjoy this.
Great introduction to a cult classic horror series.
But why shouldn't you play it?
Unnecessarily repetitive gameplay and some tedious backtracking.
Visuals are slightly outdated, reminding you of the game's age.
Characters display the emotional depth of a cardboard cut-out, even in the face of death.
A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster
Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com