The Project Zero series, or Fatal Frame as it’s known in North America, encompasses some of the most beloved horror games ever. Although never in the mainstream, the series has always been well regarded thanks to its terrifying concept of not actually having any conventional weapons to defend yourself with. Your only protection from vengeful spirits is a camera. Yes, taking snapshots of ghosts in order to ward them away. While the series was originally rooted in the PlayStation brand, Koei Tecmo seemed to have switched the series to Nintendo, with them actually playing a part in development and publication duties.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is the fifth mainline game. It was released in Japan in 2014 and although a western release wasn’t originally planned, we eventually saw it almost a year ago today. Sadly North America only got an eShop release, Europe faired slightly better as we had a physical special edition that was only sold on Nintendo’s online store. Naturally it sold out instantly leaving most people no better off. So, is maiden of black water worth the eShop or extortionate eBay price? Let’s find out.
Project Zero 5 takes place around the fictional location of Mount Hikami, a location notorious for suicides and disappearances. The story mostly follows Yuri, a young assistant to antique shop owner/personal investigator Hisoka who soon goes missing on the mountain. As Yuri is looking for her she rescues Miu, who later goes on to search for her mother, and also a male character called Ren who is researching the history of the mountain, later to discover his ancestor’s involvement with events leading up to the mountains curse. There are references to previous games in the series apparently, but as I wasn’t aware until afterwards, it’s not necessary to play them.
The ending is clear (at least the good one), it just takes a very muddled road to get there. There are too many supporting characters with too many mysteries surrounding them. Everybody has a mystery and keeping up with them is difficult. There’s too much searching for people, then re-searching for them, finding them, then they go missing again.
I can’t say I’m a massive fan of how the story appears to develop. At times it feels like your accomplishments in certain chapters become pointless. You make one step forward and then one step back. While the game isn’t long particularly long (about 15 hours for a first play) it takes a while before you start to feel you’re achieving something. Now this does help in the overall miserable feeling of the game though. And I mean miserable in a good way. It’s just horrifically depressing the whole way through and I kind of like that. I Just wish there was a slightly better sense of progression.
A lot of the story is told through picking up notes and diaries but there are plenty of cutscenes too, although these are hit and miss in the quality department. The delivery of lines from the English cast is stiff and emotions, body language-wise, are less than believable. Sure, the main character is a shy, socially awkward girl, but that doesn’t excuse the total lack of terror she should be feeling. The only voice actor that comes away with any credibility is Ren’s. He actually appears to be a professional on occasions.
Possibly my favourite bit of the game are the flashbacks which can be found by coming into contact with spirits you’ve just defeated. The cutscenes are stylised with either vintage footage or VHS filter over them, almost like a found footage sort of thing. It is really effective and adds so much to the atmosphere and creepiness. It’s what I looked forward to more than anything. I was always excited to discover a new one.
The majority of the gameplay takes place around various locations on Mount Hikami, and while there are quite a few varied locations, you’ll be seeing all of them a lot. Depending on the chapter, you control one of the three playable characters from a third-person perspective. It’s a horror game, so naturally the walking is painfully slow and it really adds to the tension of the game, especially early on. Turning is awkward and pathways are tight. Some might call it archaic design, I call it classic horror.
The environments are nice and pleasingly creepy and I think the lighting is fantastic, one of the strong points of the game. It’s these two things that sort of make up for the outdated graphics. The Project Zero series has never set sales records so they’ve always been on the budgeted side, especially here on the Wii U. A niche game on a system barely anyone has. You can’t blame them for the character models or the iffy textures. The visual effects and filters they use help mask that anyways.
Scattered around Mount Hikami there are plenty of vengeful spirits laying in wait. The only thing you have to protect you is the Camera Obscura which is a hilariously bad name and I’m not even sure why. This antique camera can deal damage to ghosts. Being an antique though it is slow, and weak. At least at the beginning. Depending on how you fair in a chapter you can earn points which can be used to upgrade certain parts of your camera. Sadly, each character has their own camera so you’ll be dividing your points between three cameras. You can upgrade the damage output, the reload speed and the spirit absorption capabilities. There are also extra lenses which have unique abilities, maybe stunning the spirits or even absorbing health. Their effectiveness can be upgraded too.
Curiously, the camera has different types of ammo. The base ammo is weak and slow but has infinite usage. There are better ammo types that can be picked up and they are generally plentiful. Personally, for the most part I persisted with the base ammo for standard fights but brought out the big guns for bosses.
The combat itself is really awesome and unique. The Wii U Gamepad is perfect in the role of a camera. Using gyroscopic controls to frame your targets comes naturally and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The fights have surprising depth to them. Just taking a picture of a spirit’s face will make the fight last forever. You need to get as many targets into one frame as possible to deal a sizeable amount of damage. Thankfully one ghost has a few targets on its body to make things better. You generally want to get five targets into one picture as this will do serious damage to them all and send them flying backward. Adding to the depth are the afore mentioned lenses of which I only found a few of them useful, mainly the health restoration one. One cool aspect is initiating a fatal frame moment whereby just before an attacking enemy is about to strike you can counter it. Doing so will allow you to fire off multiple snapshots earning you lots of points and dealing massive damage.
While combat takes place in plenty of open places, the tight knit corridors is where the real tenseness and often frustration can come in. The clunky controls and movement combined with very little space as well as multiple spirits coming at you through walls culminate in difficult moments for sure. On a horror level, it works well, but sometimes it can seem unfair. There is just no room to move!
One mechanic that I probably should mention, just because it was supposed to be a big thing is the wetness meter. With the whole theme of water hanging around the game, the water also has an effect on the character. If your character gets wet, either by rain, falling in the water or getting attacked by special spirits; the wetter you are, the more damage you take. On the other hand you also deal more damage yourself. If it gets to extreme levels, however, then it will start to deplete your health. You can cure it by using purifying embers which often lay around the place. In all honesty, I barely noticed its effect. In fact I wouldn’t have known had the game not mentioned it. The only thing I noticed with the perviness of it.
It’s not a difficult game at all on normal mode. Health items are plentiful, but that doesn’t make getting hit unfairly any better. Once you complete the game you can unlock nightmare mode which as you’d expect ramps up the difficulty. Although it’s not something I have the motivation to play.
This Project Zero, for me, is the kind of game you only need to play once. While it does offer reasons to go back with many collectibles, costumes and ranks to achieve. I can’t imagine me needing to do it. The gameplay is fun and great, but just as a one time thing. Anymore and i think it would become a chore. To me that’s the game as a whole. The reason it’s taken me so long to do is because I played one chapter of the game per day. I felt like I had to. It’s not a game you can play for an extended period and I think an hour a day is fair. I don’t think that’s a criticism of the game, some are like that and it’s fine, you can take your time with a game.
Project Zero 5 is a sort of an anomaly in today’s video game market. It’s one of the rare instances of a mid-tier budget game, sandwich between the inflated AAA games and Indie games and quick cash-ins. Back when the series was born on the PlayStation 2, these middle ground games were fairly prevalent and often produced some solid games and hidden gems. And I think that’s why I have a little bit of a soft spot for Maiden of Black Water, I’m giving it a little bit of benefit of the doubt. There really needs to be more games like this from big publishers. Have a modest budget and a modest sales success. Maybe that’s why I’d never make a good businessman.
Regarding collectability, Project Zero is very interesting. It’s actually the most expensive Wii U game for collectors. For a start it was never physically released in North America, only in Europe on exclusive to the Nintendo online shop. This immediately caused a panic and it sold out straight away. Since then, eBay prices are through the roof with sellers asking for ridiculous amounts, sometimes over a hundred pounds. Sadly, I missed out originally, so I had to pay over the odds. Mine was about 75 pounds, which is not ideal, but I think it’s okay for the current climate.
The funny thing is, this whole Nintendo online exclusive/sold out immediately makes the game sound like it’s the rarest Wii U game money can buy. But if you look online, you’ll see dozens of people selling them or trying to sell them. Project Zero is not the rarest Wii U game, there are a good few more games out there that could have that title. The dust hasn’t quite settle on Wii U collecting just yet, but I’m sure there’s enough Project Zero’s to go around for everyone.
The game actually came with a poster, an art book and some post cards, nothing really special. For such a cool game with a cool premise and style, the box art’s a bit naff isn’t it? Especially the back. The collectors box fairs a little better, but the lack of anything interesting is just disappointing. I guess they just thought no one’s going to be able to buy this based on the box, so let’s not do anything.
Overall, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water isn’t the best game in the world. It’s got tonnes of flaws, but it’s still an interesting game. It may frustrate some but being a Wii U exclusive, I think it’s worth a play. At its current price is it worth it? Physically? No, only if you’re a Wii U collector like me. Digital download isn’t much cheaper, but maybe the better option if it is ever on sale. An average, but interesting and unique game with a high entry price. It’s a difficult one to answer.