Do you love photography? Great. How about visiting infamous suicide spots in rural Japan? Amazing! Boy have I got the game for you! Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water marries these together in a very unconventional way that will genuinely keep you awake at night. Long after you turn the console off, every noise in the house will make you tick as the eerie moans of lost spirits linger in your mind. This is survival horror unlike any other you have ever played. There are no guns or grenades. Just you, your torch, and your Camera Obscura.
The Project Zero games, otherwise known as Fatal Frame in Japan started out in 2001 on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. After three games, the focus was shifted to the Nintendo market, presumably because motion controls are good for snapping creepy ghost pictures. Games were released on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS which used AR to take pictures of ghosts in your own home. Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is a port of the last game which was released on the Wii U in 2014.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water – Brown Trousers Await
Developed by Gust and published by series creators Koei Tecmo (Nioh, Dynasty Warriors), it will be released on October 28th, 2021 on all major consoles and PC. This is also the first game in the series to be released on a PlayStation since 2005. As a huge fan of Japanese horror, this is a series I have always wanted to try but never had the chance. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to check this out on the PlayStation 5.
If, like me, you love your horror games then check out my review for Song of Horror here. I’ve been looking for something to scare the pants off me since I first played Outlast. Song of Horror came close, but can Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water match the quality and atmosphere of the J-horror movies I love? Let’s take a look.
Our story takes place near an infamous suicide spot called Hikami Mountain. Throughout the game, you will find notes deepening the lore of the game and telling some interesting, but deeply sad tales. Urban legends say that before people kill themselves, they see the spirit of a shrine maiden. Shrine maidens used to live on the mountain, that’s until they were murdered that is.
Throughout the story you will play as three different people; Yuri Kozukata, Ren Hojo, and Miku Hinasaka. Each has their own reason for being there but they are spookily connected. It’s in the second stage where the game really begins. It is between stages one and two that Yuri’s friend and mentor Hisoka Kurosawa goes missing. Why had she not returned from this doomed mountain?
The first stage is quite short as it acts as a brief tutorial. You play as Yuri who has gone to the inn at the mountain to investigate with Hisoka. These two are bonded by kagemi, this is literally the Japanese translation for ‘shadow’. They have the ability to see what is not seen.
It is here we are introduced to the Camera Obscura. This is a camera unlike any other as it is your only weapon in the game. It is extremely rare and is usually acquired through hand-me-downs and is a much sought-after object for paranormal enthusiasts. It is often believed that cameras capture the spirit of the soul. Well, this does quite the opposite. You will use this to fend off and exorcise the malevolent spirits of the damned, as well as capture images of wandering lost spirits and see objects that the naked eye can’t see. You will also learn you have the gift of Zanei, or Psychometry as it is known. When you touch an object, it will reveal the shadow of a person. You can then follow that shadow to track them down.
These battles with the dead can be quite an anxiety-inducing affair which is what we all want from a good horror game. I mean, who doesn’t love anxiety, panic, and fear right? It’s a real attack on the senses. The vengeful spirits will attack without warning. Throw in the music and ultra-creepy distorted moans and howling of the fallen, it can really set you in a panic. Battles generally start fairly tame but grow with intensity as they attack you or disappear from view completely leaving you frantically looking to see where have gone before they attack you in your blind spot.
When doing damage to a hostile ghost they will break off into fragments called Reihen. The more of these fragments you can get into the frame on an attack, the higher the damage you will deal. Also if you manage to snap them while they are attacking you then that will increase your damage further. The snag here is managing that proximity. You don’t want to be loading your film while it is attacking. If it gets too close and your film is loaded, your frame will flash red and you can get that important fatal frame. This doesn’t exorcise the spirit but does deal a huge amount of damage.
It’s not the jump scares that got to me though, it’s the ghosts you see that aren’t attacking. The ones that you see out the corner of your eye for a split second before they disappear. Some are really subtle that you question whether it was there at all. For example, I was crawling through a hole in the wall and just about I could faintly see some feet dangling in front of me. This kind of thing gets to me more than jump scares for some reason. I love this!
There are various types of film you can pick up and change with different attributes such as loading the film faster. There will also be lens upgrades available to you, but some come with pros and cons. For example, you can take 4 pictures in one go, but it will take significantly longer to reload your film.
With each picture you take of malevolent or lost spirits you will be awarded points. At the end of each stage, you will be awarded a rank, which is now part and parcel of Koei Tecmo games. This is calculated by the number of items used, the quality of your shots, and other such things. Points awarded can be used at the beginning of the next stage. You can spend them on health items for use or costumes. I mean, who doesn’t want to be running around the dark woods, ghost hunting in their swimwear right? Just a heads up, there are no bikinis like there were in the Japanese Wii U version.
Since water is a big focus in the game, you also have a wetness meter. This can be good and bad. The wetter you are the more damage you can deal, but on the flip side, you will attract more spirits. You will have to manage this well if it is raining. Wetness can be nullified with Purifying Embers found in various locations. Watch out when you pick anything up though. Randomly a creepy ghost hand will come out of nowhere and grab you, leading you into a mini-game to try and shake it off.
I find a lot of fun in fear, and there is no shortage of that. Even though you have the ability to run, I found myself walking everywhere. I didn’t want to miss a single spectre. This way I felt more prepared if a nasty ghost was going to come at me out of nowhere. Even opening doors had its own tension as it was so slow. This is by no means a bad thing. You never know what is on the other side.
Often you will have someone for company. In enclosed spaces, you can turn around and they’ll be right behind you, sometimes making you jump more than the ghosts. Even if they were in front of you before and you walk into a room, they might appear right in front of you. This sort of reminds me of ‘Creepy Watson’ from Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishment. That dude just teleported behind you staring blankly into your soul. Now I don’t know if this is a glitch or a feature, but it works with great effect.
Controlling your characters can feel a little janky and cumbersome at times. Even when walking it can be occasionally tough to turn smoothly. It’s like they will turn at angles and there is no in-between. Now imagine a ghost appears, you’re on edge anyway and you’re frantically trying to find this ghost. A little annoying. Not a massive issue but worth mentioning. Does this work to heighten your fear? Maybe it is supposed to be like that? I don’t know but it works. I personally would like a little smoother controls though.
Graphics & Audio
In a game that centers on photography, you might think it odd that it doesn’t have photo-realistic graphics. I think using this stylised type of graphics works well for this particular horror subgenre. It looked impressive on the Wii U but has now been enhanced and does look pretty good. I think using this stylised type of graphics works well for this particular type of horror.
Everywhere is dark and eerie and the subtle appearance of ghosts heightens your fear. It won’t win any awards for graphical detail, but both gameplay and cutscenes are wonderfully macabre. They fit so well together that you hardly notice any difference in the transitions. It’s perfect as it is.
Something I liked was that it felt like you were playing an interactive horror story. With the film grain and vignette present throughout the game and no HUD except when in battle, I really felt what the character was feeling. Occasionally the game camera would get stuck in enclosed spaces. A design flaw that has befallen many games, but couple that with the at times janky controls, it can make for a disorienting experience.
The audio, oh god the audio. There is so much going on in battle, in an otherwise quiet game. Ambient noise will have you wondering what is around the corner but it really steps up a gear when in battle. Even worse when you are fighting more than one ghost and you’ll turn around in a panic to find them. It’s not just the distorted screams and howls as they attack you though. It’s what they say when they are exorcised, sometimes has you feeling sorry for them. I remember one, that when I defeated it and it faded away it simply said “I’m sorry”. Creepy or what!
The sound design totally achieves what it sets out to do. By default, the game has English dubbing, but for that authentic Japanese experience, you can have the original Japanese audio with English subtitles.
Bring plenty of spare pants because you will probably spend 12-15 hours staining them. There is more to do if you are a completionist though. You may want to get an S rank on all the chapters, 100% all chapters, find all collectibles and snap every ghost. All things you will need to do for that platinum trophy.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is just what horror games need right now. Zombies are such an oversaturated idea and they are everywhere. So it is nice to have something truly scary in a paranormal survival horror. It is a great game to introduce new fans to the series who possibly weren’t even born when it came out. Though controls are a bit finicky, it is very unique and stands out well in a slew of subpar horrors that rarely even raise a whimper, let alone have you losing sleep at night. The drab setting, story, lore, and atmosphere created would fit snuggly amongst other J-horror media.
With jump scares here and there, it’s the subtle ones that got to me. What you think you saw, you did not see…or did you? If it raises my heart rate a little, that’s a good thing because horror doesn’t usually get to me. A job well done! Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water gets a Thumb Culture Platinum Award from me!
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.