I purchased a WiiU because I shipped a game for it and figured I should actually have one to play on. My first two purchases were (naturally) ZombieU and Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water. I’ve completed every Fatal Frame game to date (excepting FF4, which I got stuck in), and the series has always occupied a place in my heart as part of the trifecta that put survival horror on the map. With Resident Evil you get bombast, zombies, and recursive map unlocking. With Silent Hill you get introspection, symbolism, and hell. You go to Fatal Frame for high-end ghost stories as only the Japanese can tell them. It’s been almost twenty years since the first Fatal Frame shipped, but playing the fifth installment of the spectral series in 2019 feels as if the gap in time has been surgically narrowed, years and console generations stitched together to produce a modern rendering of a tried-and-true formula. Fatal Frame 5 is a dyed-in-the-wool Fatal Frame game, and I love it.
The premise of Koei Tecmo’s latest girls-vs-ghosts romp revolves around a mountain that has become a popular suicide spot. There are, of course, some shrines on this mountain, and if you’ve every played any Fatal Frame game you already know that some Bad Shit went down at these shrines sometime long ago. And if you weren’t sure, Maiden of Black Water will show you these transgressions in extremely well-rendered black and white flashbacks. Like Fatal Frame 3 before it, you play as several different characters, each has a reason to go the mountain and a deep, dark secret. On the way they’ll encounter a variety of ghosts that can only be dispatched by use of an antique Camera Obscura.
All of this should sound pretty standard for fans of the Fatal Frame series. In fact, what piqued my interest about this title was the news that it was designed and produced by the dudes who created the series, Makoto Shibata and Keisuke Kikuchi. Everything about Fatal Frame 5 is familiar. The combat system based on timing your camera shots properly. The unlikely outfits worn by the protagonists. The ghosts’ propensity to relive their deaths in front of you over and over as part of their attack sequence. Lost Japanese villages and shrines, ancient torii gates, and rooms full of hina dolls. It’s all there.
I think the areas that are the most interesting are those where the design differs from the formula. My favorite is the Fatal Glance system. When a spirit has been defeated there is a small window of time when their phantasmal visage can be touched. If you’re fast enough to reach them before they evaporate completely, “glancing” the ghost shows you a blurry video of their final mortal moments. The video is highly distorted, a VHS tape after too many copies, rendered in black and white or chromatically aberrated blues and greens. The cursed video from The Ring, except there are tons of them, one for nearly every ghost, and each tells a mini story about the awful ways that these people met their ends.
In Japanese horror, the antagonist is almost always presented in a sympathetic light. Ghosts in particular often operate on onnen, the concept of emotion so powerful that it persists beyond the grave. Those that die in the throes of emotion are more likely to return as vengeful ghosts, and that implies that these people suffered cruel deaths at the hands of others. Thus we find many stories, antique and contemporary, of dangerous ghosts who were made that way by the cruel actions of others. They may be monsters now, but their origins are pitiful, and many stories focus on the path to the antagonist’s salvation. This pattern is part of what gives Japanese horror its unique flavor, and if you’re interested in this topic you could read my article about the fundamentals of Japanese horror.
Fatal Frame 5’s Fatal Glance system turns the concept of onnen, which runs like a subterranean waterway through the stories of the series, into an actual game mechanic. The ghosts in the Fatal Frame series have always been mini-narratives themselves, suggesting (or even reenacting) their moment of death with their appearance and attack sequence. The woman who falls from above and then attacks with her neck broken and sideways. The girl who was pulled into the well and now resides there forever. Intrepid players have even noticed that a few ghosts wear their kimonos with the right side covering the left, the way that corpses are dressed, suggesting that they were given a proper funeral. But the Fatal Glance system takes this idea and dramatically amplifies it, creating a tiny story for every ghost. Finding and collecting them is a pleasure, and more than a little creepy.
There are a lot of mechanical issues with Fatal Frame 5, and many of them have plagued the series since its inception. It’s still nearly impossible to fight in closed quarters because the ghosts can go behind walls where you can’t target them. Fighting two or more enemies at once is a recipe for frustration. The story repeats its details, over and over, until all subtlety is lost. The over-the-shoulder camera system introduced in FF4 (replacing, to my great dismay, the amazing system used best in FF2) returns, but moving around with this system in any direction but forward is highly awkward. Using the WiiU tablet as the camera interface seems cool, but in practice switching your attention between screens is awkward.
But none of these issues stop Fatal Frame 5: Maiden of Black Water from being a highly satisfying game, particularly for narrative detail seekers, with a quality of execution that has no peer in the genre.