When I played the original release of Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water on Wii U, I really didn’t like it. It was a game that, on paper, sounded exactly like my kind of thing, but all I found was squandered potential. In reviewing it (for another site that’s no longer around—bless the Wayback Machine), I gave it measly 5/10, describing it as “a game that’s atmospheric as hell, but that does nothing with it.”
In more recent years, I’ve thought about that review a lot. It wasn’t exactly an outlier, but it was at the lower end of the scale, and I wondered if I’d been too hard on a game that deserved better. But more than that, I know that what I look for and value in a game has changed a lot in the five years since Black Water first dropped, and I wondered if maybe I just wasn’t in the right place for it back then. If I played it again, now, would I find the magic I missed the first time? Alas, I’d long since passed on my Wii U, so I haven’t had a chance to test that theory.
Replaying it again today, with fresh eyes and a better appreciation of what it’s trying to achieve, Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is something remarkable.
The basic concept of a horror game whose combat revolves around photographing ghosts to damage them and defend yourself is deceptively clever, and has been since Project Zero very first hit the PlayStation 2 some 20 years ago. The natural inclination is to run, to hide, to not look the ghost in the eye, to try get as far away as you can—but here’s a game that asks you to do the opposite, to stare fear in the eye and get as close as you can for the perfect, and therefore the most damaging, shot.
Movement is deliberately clunky, not to the point of being frustrating, but enough to add a layer of tension to encounters with ghosts that can suddenly drop out of view and freely relocate at will. The camera controls are comparatively smooth, especially with the aid of the Switch motion controls—which are optional, but work well in conjunction with more standard right-stick-to-aim to help for precise aiming. Some of the novelty of the Wii U’s dual-screen set-up is lost—having the camera view on the controller in your hand while the TV showed the standard third-person view had its charm—but in its place you’ve got something far more practical, whether you’re playing in handheld or docked mode.
Project Zero isn’t an action game, so encounters are relatively sparse. But when you are under attack, the combination of these different factors—the awkward movement, the creepy ghost designs, and the ingenuity of a combat system that revolves around ignoring that ever-present urge to flee—come together for fraught, tense, terrifying moments.
But despite the “Fatal Frame” title that the series carries in the Americas, those camera-based fights are just a small part of what makes this game stand out. When it comes to capturing the spirit of Japanese horror, not just in terms of film and games but in the yūrei folklore that informs all of the above, Maiden of Black Water is up there with the best of them.
Though they often are, yūrei stories don’t usually exist to be “scary”; rather, they tend to be tragic, sorrowful affairs. At the centre of almost every tale is an innocent person who’s been wronged, so badly that the anger and sadness they leave behind takes a ghostly form. And while these ghosts may be creepy, they may be violent, they may lure the innocent and unsuspecting to horrific deaths, they’re sympathetic creatures in the end that you almost want to cheer for, just so they can have someone in their corner.
In keeping with that tradition, the fictitious—though loosely based on real places—Mount Hikami, on which Maiden of Black Water takes place, is similarly tragic. With a strong connection to the spirit world, it was once home to a shrine dedicated to helping people pass over, but legends tell of a mass murder of shrine maidens that’s left it haunted. Today, it’s known as an infamous suicide spot, where people are seemingly lured by otherworldly forces into throwing themselves to their deaths.
It’s a place that three different protagonists all find themselves drawn to, for various reasons. The “main” protagonist, Yuri, is a reclusive girl with the rare gift of being able to see the dead. Chance (fate?) brings her to Hikami, but there she finds a calling in searching for missing people and, hopefully, bringing them back to the world of the living before their souls are too far gone. Miu Hinasaki and Ren Hojo have their own reasons for braving the haunted mountain, though they’re much more shrouded in mystery. Through the three of them, Maiden of Black Water slowly unveils a ghost story that’s both unsettling and moving, drawing on the kind of creepy melancholy that only the yūrei tradition can truly deliver.
In my original review, I described the characters as lifeless and “wooden”, but they’re anything but. Rather, they’re subtle, not necessarily given to big displays of expression but draped in sorrow. Maybe they are lifeless, but it’s a deliberate and fitting lifelessness that feeds the tone of the whole game far better than more vivid displays of terror ever could. Maiden of Black Water has it’s shocking moments, but its story unfolds in the quiet moments as much as the dramatic ones, and the writing and acting is a big part of what makes that so effective. It’s reflective and thoughtful as much as it is “scary”, and contrary to popular opinion, those things go hand in hand: the quiet moments help to build suspense, and the terror informs and explores the sorrow at the heart of this tale.
Granted, the pacing can be a little uneven at times, especially around a middle act that feels a tad too drawn out. But these are minor blemishes on an otherwise captivating story—not because it has you on the edge of your seat the whole time, but because of the way it quietly gets under your skin and pulls you into its depths.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water isn’t scary so much as haunting, and that’s an important distinction. Where plenty of horror games begin and end with trying to scare the pants off their players, this one looks for something much deeper, and turns to the long, rich history of yūrei folklore to find it. That’s what I missed when I first played it five years ago, but a remaster is a perfect opportunity to revisit and reassess—and I’m so glad I did. This is a game that deserves a far better reception than it originally got, and I just hope I’m not alone in giving it the benefit of the doubt a second time round.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water
Developer: Koei Tecmo Games
Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Release date: 28 October 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.