There’s one horror/mystery film I’ve seen once and that was enough, never again. Not because it’s bad, in fact it’s just too good at terrifying me and left a hell of a lasting impression. That film is the Japanese original, Ju-On. The Project Zero (or Fatal Frame) series is a rare kind of Japanese horror game that focuses more on the ghost and paranormal side of terror rather than the grotesque or bizarre. The series has always been steeped in Japanese horror tropes and the gameplay will switch between slow paced third person spooks and fast paced action photo taking. The PS2 originals were always classics to me and the Wii Japanese only game Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse had a lot of uniquely brilliant terror to it (there’s a fantastic fan translation online) Now I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original WiiU release of Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water but with Halloween knocking on our doors will the PS4 release make this the perfect spooky Halloween experience or is it just a wet blanket?
For all its issues the WiiU had games that were essentially ahead of the hardware they were on. Almost every Switch big success has come from the WiiU and ran a lot better for porting to more powerful hardware. Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water wasn’t fantastic on WiiU. The novelty of a motion controlled camera with the WiiU controller screen showing the photos was cumbersome and the performance wasn’t great. Now it’s running on the significantly more powerful PS4 (and PS5 if you picked up that version) it carries across the motion controls as an optional extra and everything runs a lot smoother. Everything in Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water is as smooth as you’d expect and the resolution bump and clean up of text and visuals give it more polish than I was expecting.
Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water feels like its story was written during the PS2 era of horror games. Although the plot wants the antagonist to be the Bayonetta-like shrine maiden it ends up largely being the mountain itself. The story is cut between 3 main characters but it does feel incredibly arbitrary with more of a focus on each of the npcs in a specific chapter than a grand overarching plot. At times I had to check I wasn’t repeating myself doing the same stage twice. Every character in Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water is doll-like not just in appearance but in the way they control and move. There are two separate gameplay modes, one in third person where you’ll be guiding your floaty tank character around a Silent Hill feeling hellscape, the other is a frantic first person action combo focused photo frenzy. The cutting between the two gameplay modes gives Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water a unique horror feeling more like a ghostly fps with slow moments.
The camera obscura gameplay of Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water really is something else. Not quite an FPS and not quite Pokémon Snap but somewhere between. You’ll need to be incredibly snappy switching to it at a tap of the triangle button but once there you’ll be moving around and shooting like you’ve a BFG for killing ghosts. Like any good survival weapon you can upgrade it with points and switch film (ammo) to take different sized shots. Although you can opt for only right analogue stick for aiming I found the combination of motion control and analogue to be fantastic. When needing to quickly take a shot I’d be rotating the controller to rotate the frame and smashing R2 trying to kill the ghosts. It’s a shame dodging is assigned to X and there’s a very small timer to catch it. The focus is more on trying to parry attacks than dodging. The problem is the 3rd person mode is clunky so often you’ll move in 1st person simply because it’s more responsive. You’ll also need to take shots of objects to link them to others (eg a locked door to the key) but what seems like a cool idea for puzzle solving becomes frustrating attempts to take the exact shot to unlock the item.
I can understand a horror game building up tension by being slow on purpose but Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water is far too slow in all the frustrating ways. As you walk around areas you’ll be following faint shadows of past people in the area and this shifts your character to face the right direction, a genius move to help combat the slippery walking but really soaks in how cumbersome the character walking is. Unfortunately picking up items off the ground is the same button as sensing shadows so you can expect to be fiddling to get an item near a corner or path. Every door is opened so painfully slow that by the 2nd chapter you won’t be terrified of what’s potentially behind the door but bored senseless and wanting nothing more than to kick it down. It’s the same for the slow reaching for items and touching ghosts, it’s so slow that the rare instances of ghost interruptions aren’t registered. These moments are no longer a rare shock and more a quick wiggle of the analogue sticks to carry on.
Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water is genuinely chilling at times and could really do with some content warning about self harm before starting. When you see a character or spirit’s past echoes they appear in a fuzzy VHS footage style and this makes the often disturbing scenes that much more intense. A few times jump scares caught me off guard but unlike western horror the scare is telegraphed beforehand in subtle ways and it doesn’t leave you cursing the game but yourself for reacting to it. More than one occasion I’d be looking at the indicator on the screen for an item and realise it was a ghost, turn and the bugger would be right behind me attacking. It’s these natural scares that give Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water the spooky vibes, not the heavy handed bass and sounds that play every time you hold the button to see an echo or pick up an idea. There was one particular moment that just had me close the game and take a moment before coming back, there is horror here it’s just inconsistent.
There is the option for English dubbed voices but Project Zero is so Japanese I recommend playing it in Japanese with subtitles. The voice acting can be whispery quiet and at times this can fit the doll-like characters but often they are so slow to react to anything the weight of their performance gets watered down. Ironically any atmosphere or build from the music and background ambient sounds is drowned out by being far too heavy handed. Often you’ll hear a beating bass, the controller will vibrate with a heartbeat and it makes everything feel like a ridiculous haunted house. The ghosts and horrors themselves lift the experience from being an endurance as the groans and screams constantly caught me out and on more than one occasion caused the area to become a lot more intense. It’s full of moments that are horrific and then the delay in reaction makes them farcical.
Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water has more in common with Resident Evil when it comes to how much is packed in to unlock. Your cameras have various upgrades depending on the character, there are various types of film and items to help with each stage. Characters have costumes, accessories and all of these unlock with points that you collect from playing stages. Each photo can get you more points depending how well it’s taken and the combo it was taken in, the better the photo the better the points. There are fast reaction moments with non-aggressive spirits where a snap will add in a bonus and each stage giving a ranking at the end. There’s a choice of difficulty between stages and an option to spend points on consumables before starting but you’ll find yourself easily able to get what you need without grind. The review copy I had unlocked an artbook in game and as with previous digital artbooks its a nice thing to look at but fundamentally redundant and only for the hardcore fans. There’s a really customisable photo-mode to and this feels like it was very fan focused and a good and bad ending to the story encouraging a lot more time behind the lens.
If it wasn’t obvious from the artwork and cgi promos for Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water the doll-like designs are all a little too sexualised. The white and orange outfit for Yuri is designed to show how wet your character is getting without bumping the adult rating as the water and ‘wetness’ is a conduit to more and stronger ghosts. The starting prologue has Miu not only almost entirely in white but also soaked. There’s the ridiculous jiggle physics at work from time to time and some of the bonus unlocks are the usual swimsuits. There is a little air of good design with the previous character outfits and the way Hisoka is dressed, her clothes are spot on for a badass sprit investigator but even this falls flat when you turn a corner and it’s like Dead or Alive. Every shine maiden seems to be a ridiculously proportioned identical doll and you start expect the ‘sexy nurses’ from Silent Hill 2 to turn up.
Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water is such a strange game to summarise. For almost every good clever unique moment or gameplay element that’s enjoyable it has a tediously annoying pointless one. It feels like a much older game than the WiiU original in the 3rd person controls and tone but feels modern in using motion controls and snapping fast combos with the camera quickly using items and buffs. There’s a lot of text and collectibles that feel redundant but the past scenes are incredible. The motion controls need a reset button in the same way VR controls do but you’ll be swapping in out of camera mode so often and quickly it becomes less of an issue and more an irritation. In a way Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water is terrifying despite itself and there’s something about the way it handles the horror with real craftmanship that carries itself despite the jank.
6/10 – Maiden a project that was a bit too watered down
Code provided by Koei Tecmo Europe Ltd. Check out their games here
Project Zero: Maiden Of Black Water is out on PS4 & PS5 now!