Fatal Frame exists in such a specific place in horror game spheres. A little too well-known for a lot of niche fans to rally for it, too obscure to really keep the franchise profitable. A game where you see messages like “Nice shot! 500 points!” in the middle of some of the most terrifying visuals in fiction. And more than anything, it's a horror franchise with a specifically feminine focus. The central protagonists are always young girls, trapped in a bizarre hellscape of unforgiving rules and monsters that can be conversed with but never appeased. Returning home is only a temporary reprieve. The spirits have their sights on you and they’re ready to take you back.
The reputation I understood of Maiden of Black Water is “the horny one.” And that’s certainly true. There’s a noticeable jiggle to how the girls move now that wasn’t present in previous entries. Unlockable outfits include bikinis and track suits (with American WiiU version replacing some costumes with Zero Suit Samus or Zelda). And much of these mechanics connect to the Wetness Gauge, which is the real title. The wetter your character gets, the greater danger you face. Ghosts respawn faster, spectral hands interrupt item pick-ups, and the outfits become easier to see-through.
It's weird. It's uncomfortable. But it's also stupid. And it's easier to laugh at stupid than truly offended. My partner and I spent a solid hour in Snap Mode just rotating protagonists around to see how elaborate these physics got. And when you spend enough time laughing at something, you kinda can’t help but get endeared to it.
And then somewhere along the way, you start to notice the genuinely high quality work.
Characters have always been very demure in the Fatal Frame games, which is still true. But they also interact with each other to a far greater degree than before. There’s less isolation. Characters are exchanging information, covering each other’s weaknesses, keeping watch. And there’s a sense that they’re putting together information in a way that previous Frames generally left to the players alone. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the previous protagonists too! But it feels like I have to do less work to find their internal identity. Although maybe that’s a broader issue of how fandom engages with female characters. Audiences always perceive depth in male characters that they aren’t willing to do for female characters.
The sacrifice is that the ghosts both do and don’t get more focus. An incredible new feature is the “Fatal Glance” mechanic. By taking a very precise photo related to the ghost’s death, you get an opportunity to experience a vision of their demise. It requires careful targeting and focus, and it also requires you to touch the ghost personally as they play out their death animation. Keeping the ghost alive enough to take the right photo and then positioning them in the right position to make sure they don’t die off the map. It provides a solid motivation to fill out the complete ghost list, to uncover all the different tragic circumstances behind their current state.
At the same time, so much effort was put into this new mechanic that some of the other aspects of a ghost’s life sort of fell to the wayside. Journals and diaries no longer have the same personal touch. They’re rote explanations of rituals from academics. There’s not a lot of personal interpretations or micro-stories. Just explaining the Lore and its mechanics. Fatal Frame 5 is a more character focused story, but it often comes at the expense of the identity of the ghosts themselves. I understand their roles within the Mt. Hikami rituals, but their relationships with each other is much harder to pin down. The ending gives both the ghosts and the living a lot of emotional catharsis, but there’s not a lot of information conveyed before that catharsis lands.
Yet this is easier to forgive when the gameplay feels so good. The existing photo mechanics get a special bonus: getting a Fatal Frame (which allows for rapid-fire photos to be taken) now means only the first of your film gets used up. As a result, a lucky shot with one of the more expensive film types can do massive chunks of damage with very little cost. There’s a certain loss of challenge and resource building, but the pure satisfaction can’t be denied.
On top of all that, many of the little experiments the game makes are fantastic additions. Chapters 8 and 13 switch the normal exploration playstyle into a sort of Five Nights at Freddy’s/tower defense game. You’re placed in front of a security system, reviewing the feeds while watching over the heroes. As ghosts invade your home base, your responsibility is to fend them off and protect the cast from these outside threats. It’s a sudden burst of variety that jolts some life into the expected state of play.
The rotating cast of characters also help revitalize revisiting areas. Characters experience different ghosts in the same areas, altering the kind of relationship a protagonist has with a space. Yuri strolling through the Shrine of the Dolls is defined by the search for her friend and how the Shrine’s ghosts are harming said friend. Ren’s journey through the same Shrine is defined more by how much the Shrine ghosts want to capture Ren. People pursuing or avoiding different problems. It shouldn’t make such a profound distinction, but it works.
Above all else, the game is just charming. The flaws make a warmer package in a bizarre way. It's not going to the top of the Fatal Frame ranking by a long shot. But it's easily the most pure fun the games have ever been. Hard to get mad at that.