If there's a genre where Japanese developers most certainly rock, it's the horror genre. Drawing inspiration from their strong folk tradition - full of terrifying myths and legends, often extremely disturbing - Japanese creators in general (be it movies, comics, and video games) have always proved highly skillful when it comes to frightening stories. You'll no doubt think of Shinji Mikami and Resident Evil's first instalments (of course, before the series took that questionable turn into the world of action), or those terrifying events that we experienced from behind the sofa in the various episodes of the Silent Hill series, and - not least - Tecmo's famous franchise, Fatal Frame/Project Zero.
The latter, unlike its competitors that are more oriented towards western markets, preferred to stay true to its DNA, offering an interesting glimpse of exorcisms, Shinto rituals and scary ghosts, all strictly connected to Japanese folklore. Although it's so deeply tied to its origins, the Project Zero series has nevertheless succeeded in carving out an interesting space in the horror scene. In particular, since Nintendo became co-owner of this intellectual property in 2012, the brand is exclusive to Nintendo platforms and it takes full advantage of the particular nature of both in-house platforms (Wii and 3DS), making for an even more immersive experience.
The next step that the series will take - nearly fifteen years after its debut - will be on October 30 when Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water, the latest chapter in the series, will debut exclusively on Wii U. Taking advantage of the interesting dynamic afforded by the second screen, the new Project Zero seems even more frantic than past entries. Finally the Wii U GamePad shows its great potential, although all that glitters isn't gold.
In Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water, we follow three characters, who are determined, for different reasons, to uncover the truth behind some mysterious suicides in a forest on Mt. Hikami. Thanks to the mystic power of the Camera Obscura and the ability to perceive the shadows of the disappeared, the player - through the three characters - explores several locations (among them, an eerie sanctuary with human-size porcelain dolls) in an attempt to solve the disturbing puzzle, to kill spirits that are literally shooting at them, and gradually uncover a scandalous secret that seems to have its origins in the waters that flow and surround the cursed mountain.
As you might have guessed, all these elements - at least from a narrative point of view - make the new Project Zero a good horror game. Thanks to an exquisitely scary and well packaged plot, but also thanks to its deep and well defined characters, each one moved by strong personal convictions. Tecmo's new work in partnership with Nintendo has chilled our blood to perfection, creating, with almost surgical precision, great suspense. But a good story is not enough to make a game fun and appealing to an audience of increasingly demanding players. That's why the game offers interesting and innovative gameplay that takes full advantage of Wii U GamePad's potential, and it proves to be our one and only weapon to defeat the evil spirits that haunt Mt. Hikami.
The second screen performs a variety of functions: first of all, as we said, it is the 'material version' of the Camera Obscura - the special camera in the game, able to identify and exorcise the ghosts that haunt and threaten our lives in the different locations we visit. It's easy to use and intuitive from the very first moment: by pointing the device in the direction indicated by a red icon on the screen, we begin our pursuit of the spirit. Once identified, we block the target with "ZL" and identify the secrets of the particular enemy.
Before shooting with "ZR", the trick is making sure that many weaknesses appear in frame in order to make a more powerful attack. In addition to the "standard" attacks, there's also the titular "Fatal Frame", a truly lethal attack that it is essentially needs patience and calm under pressure, where the player has to wait for as long as possible as the spirit approaches before shooting. The longer you can hold off, the more damage is inflicted on the enemy. Special films which have different properties can also help increase the damage.
As a weapon, the Camera Obscura can be modified and enhanced thanks to the scoring system - you can collect points by the identification of some harmless ghosts and, of course, by killing your main enemies. You unlock special lenses, increase the speed of charging the film, and there's many other enhancements that, especially later on, are critical to your success given the increasing pace and the number of ghosts.
In addition to its primary function, the GamePad doubles up as the map, which can be consulted at any time as you proceed on the main screen. It's also a useful inventory, which you can access at any time (press "Y" on the GamePad ) for getting to med kits and several potions that can restore your health or slow/inhibit the attacks of the spirits.
So far this review seems to suggest that Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is excellent. Unfortunately, there are many aspects that negatively impact the experience.
There are some notable issues from both a technical point of view and in terms of gameplay variation. Visually the game is a bit rough, and appears a bit dull throughout. A similarly dull feeling can be attributed to the amount of backtracking involved; we regularly return to the same scenarios, killing the level bosses the same way, retracing the same steps over and over again - in the long run it creates a sense of deja vu. It's an aspect that tends to dampen the sense of terror that the story brings with it, and in the long run it might annoy some. We get a rank at the end of each level (based on the scores and kills made during each pass), and even if it does motivate the player to take up the game once completed, it's tarnished by a sense of boredom, the result of the structure of each level, which all feel very similar.
The experimentation in Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is partially successful. Although it offers a strong and intriguing plot and innovative and fun mechanics, Koei Tecmo's new game fails to reach its true potential, and as such it's suffocated by repetition that makes it hard to fully enjoy the experience as much as we would have liked. Here's hoping the developers pay attention and work on these aspects of the game, as there is a great deal of potential in the concept, plot and mechanics.