Although there were a number of reasons that I finally decided to purchase a Nintendo Wii U console this fall, the thing that really tipped the balance was the announcement of the release of Fatal Frame 5: Maiden of Black Water.
Fatal Frame is one of my favorite video game franchises, and Fatal Frame 1 is one of my top two favorite horror games ever. I really enjoyed Fatal Frame 2 as well, 3 was good, and I never got to play 4 as it wasn’t released in the US. So when I heard that Fatal Frame 5 was being released for the Wii U I was super excited, and so was my roommate. It’s a tradition that we play all our survival horror games together, so we set aside as much time as we could to get through it. Unfortunately, we weren’t super impressed, and here’s why. (Spoilers ahead!)
The first two Fatal Frame games had a fairly contained and not particularly complicated base story. There’s some sort of ritual that some group of people is doing in order to keep the evil underworld at bay. Something, somewhere, somehow, goes wrong – boom, all sorts of ruination and death. And then, at some point, our main character stumbles into it and has to figure out exactly what is happening. The saving grace of the simplicity of the major plot is that it’s interwoven with a lot of other, smaller stories, that you get the full sense of as you play through the game – and if you miss items or scenes, you miss chunks of relevant (although not necessarily critical) backstory. These sort of mini-plots are actually some of my favorite parts of the games; each major enemy has their own storyline about how they became an angry ghost. This makes seeing them over and over again fresh and interesting, since you keep learning more about them. (Even when they suck to fight. I’m looking at you, Blinded.) Even when it’s been a really long time since we’ve played the first two Fatal Frame games, we still remember the names of our favorite side-story ghosts. Fatal Frame 3 is a little weaker on the story front but it’s still enjoyable.
Story-wise, Fatal Frame 5 falls down on two fronts. First, the main storyline has GAPING HOLES IN IT. It’s like the developers were so excited by the idea of multiple endings that they forgot there should be some sort of consistent plot regardless of the ending. So we have one character that may or may not be descended from someone dead who promised to ghost marry one person and then fell in love with a second person – but didn’t ghost marry either of them, and instead went off and real life married someone else. Now that he’s dead, apparently both of the dead girls are waiting for us, the descendant, as an extension of dead guy, to join them for eternity.
But you can only pick one of the girls? And you’re somehow supposed to be able to decide which on the first play-through, without much information about what’s going on with them at all. Dating should not be this complicated. On top of that, you’re also supposed to figure out how each girl is relevant to the overall plot. Hint: as far as I can tell, only one of them actually is. The other one just shows up and is kind of there? I don’t know why. She doesn’t seem to be related to the failure of the ritual at all. And you can’t deal with her AND deal with the other girl, who is actually the reason the ritual failed. You must pick one or the other. Also, unlike the first two Fatal Frame games, where you knew exactly why the rituals had failed and pretty much how as well, here you don’t figure any of that out until after you actually make the choices that complete the ending – despite the fact that the reasons DON’T ACTUALLY CHANGE regardless of the choices you make. The ritual always failed for the same reasons, it’s only the outcomes for the individual characters you play that vary, so there’s no real reason to hide the ball.
Secondly, there are all these wonderful opportunities for the mini-plots that were so fulfilling in the first game, and they just aren’t there. The only opportunity we get to learn more about the ghosts that we see is from ‘glancing’ at them, also known as touching their melting ectoplasm and having a vision, and that’s really only a couple seconds of cutscene backstory. So we get a really shallow view of a bunch of side characters, but never really enough to get a sense of their personalities and their lives, which makes their deaths and subsequent ghostiness a lot less compelling.
We also keep seeing references to something that I, personally, would have totally preferred to play a game about rather than dealing with a couple of dead shrine maidens who were pissy about getting dumped: a massacre of shrine maidens. That’s a hella good reason for a ritual based on shrine maiden participation to fail. I want to know about the massacre – why did the guy slaughter all the shrine maidens? Why put out their eyes? We got a little bit of an answer that they “saw something” with their mystical ability to ‘glance’ into people’s souls, but what did they see? Why did knowing they saw it make this guy go mental and kill them all? Did killing all those maidens actually have an effect on anything other than making some shrine maiden ghosts, or was it just no big deal?
There are a lot of little things that just didn’t get enough attention in this game. There’s a watery hole in one of the houses, and the backstory we got through a journal says folks used to drop effigy dolls through it. We got effigy dolls, but we were never allowed to drop one in. Why not? That would be an awesome trigger for a terrifying ghost fight. There were about a million areas that would be perfect for jump-scaring folks by having a ghost pop up when you looked through a window or the camera viewfinder. There was a whole side area dealing with the issue of the “sacred flame” but we never got it or got to use it – only its embers were a usable item, and that item description says that they light the “forbidden flame”, so we never put it together while we were playing.
Then there’s the whole retroactive rewriting of Miku’s story. If you didn’t play the first Fatal Frame, here’s the story in a nutshell (SPOILERS AHEAD): Miku’s older brother Mafuyu went missing when he went to a haunted house to search for his mentor, who had also disappeared. Miku went to find him, and ended up stepping into a house full of vengeful spirits that she had to defeat in order to save him. Where he ended up depended on the ending that you got in the game, but the canonical ending is that he stayed in the underworld with a shrine maiden to help her seal away the evil that had been released and killed everyone. In Fatal Frame 3 we see her again, totally devastated at the death of her brother and barely coping, although at the end of that game she says that she understands she needs to live on. In Fatal Frame 5, out of absolutely nowhere, it turns out that Miku ghost married her own brother (what) and had a kid from that union (ALSO WHAT) and now wants to go be with him again and leave her kid behind (WHAT FOREVER). Way to make that character just unbelievably warped, Tecmo. Life ruiner.
After we finished playing Fatal Frame 5 for the first time, I had to go to the internet to figure out what the hell had happened with a bunch of things, which is odd because my roommate and I are completionists about horror games (her more than me, frankly), and we try to get every item, especially the plot relevant ones, on our first playthrough. The internet told us the main character Ren is a descendant of Kunihiko Aso, the dead guy – maybe that was in a journal that we missed, but gosh, that seems kind of relevant considering that’s why these two ghost girls are all up in his grill. They never explained why Shiragiku was the only child sacrificed as a shrine maiden, or even (let’s be real) why the hell there were children on this mountain where the entire point to going there is to DIE in the first place. Nobody goes to this mountain to get married or raise a family. They go there literally so the shrine maidens can grant them a good death. Not a good vacation place for the kiddies.
Fatal Frame’s gameplay concept is fairly simple. Your character has a tool called the Camera Obscura, which allows you to take pictures of ghosts and absorb their spirit essence, basically destroying them. It’s a great mechanic because it forces you to face your enemies, sometimes at exceptionally close range. You can just take a picture of a ghost as long as it’s in your viewfinder, but each ghost has a ‘weak point’ called a Fatal Frame, when you can take a picture for maximum damage. The Camera Obscura also has a filament, which reacts in the presence of ghosts (and in this installment of the series, apparently random inanimate objects).
This game has some seriously clunky controls. You use the gamepad as a viewfinder for the camera obscura, but the information on the gamepad is not consistent with what’s appearing on the screen – you must choose to look at one screen and will therefore miss information on the other (most specifically, the giant dodge prompt appears on the main screen but only shows up as a tiny tinge on the corner of the gamepad viewfinder). There is no quickturn button, so any time a ghost circles you you need to drop the camera and turn around manually, or you need to twist around in your chair so that you have rotated the gamepad 180 degrees, which is impractial and probably bad for your back.
In the previous games, when you pulled up the camera it displayed a camera view exactly the same way that your character was facing. In this game, it is possible to change your character’s physical position without changing the perspective that the television shows (so the character is basically looking out of the screen at you). When that happens and you pull up the camera, the viewfinder will display the view you see on the television, not the view from the direction your character is actually facing. So you can have your character facing a ghost that is off-screen, pull up the camera, and find yourself looking at absolutely nothing while a ghost munches on your head from behind.
The ghosts in this game are glitchy in two ways. The first way is if you know where the right transitions to different game locations or to plot-relevant cutscenes are, changing locations or triggering a cutscene will automatically end any fight that you are in and all ghosts, wandering or otherwise, will vanish. We found ourselves using this glitch a lot to get out of repetitive and boring fights – just run to the next area, press the “continue” prompt, and the fight is over without ever having to take a picture, and the ghost will not pursue you into the next area. It’s cheap, but so is fighting the same ghost 8 million times for no reason. The second set of glitches is that for two ghosts in particular (Yomibito and Kagome), the camera will not lock on to them as a target except for a few specific circumstances, and those ghosts will literally circle you for minutes without giving you a solid target lock. This makes for an exceptionally boring fight.
There isn’t a great balance between the fights that are so easy that it’s basically a joke, and the fights that are so insanely difficult that it’s the equivalent of getting jumped by a street gang while armed with nothing but a teddy bear. You don’t even have shoes. It’s rough. There’s very little middle ground.
The filament in this game is ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE. It doesn’t actually point at anything – it shows up on the screen but it’s not actually reliable about indicating where an object is. It is entirely possible to be standing in front of an object and looking at it while the filament is strongly suggesting that it is off to the side, or perhaps directly behind you. Maybe in the next room? And it’s not that much more accurate in terms of pointing out where the ghosts are, either.
There are several spots in the game that are plot-relevant that require you to activate the camera and take a picture. The issue here is firstly, sometimes you just don’t want to take a picture (these are not memories you really want to immortalize on film, thanks), and sometimes you want to put the camera down when you’re done taking a picture, but you can’t because someone at Tecmo has decided that it’s funner to watch plot happen on grainy black and white film with a camera viewfinder on the screen. I like the idea of having hidden ghosts that you don’t need to fight, but can capture for extra points – but really, these scenes kind of take all the options out of it. They aren’t hidden ghosts, they’re required ghosts that you don’t fight.
While the environments in the game are great (more on that later), they’re also pointlessly long in some areas, and this game will force you to walk through the same 6 or 7 areas over and over and over again. In fact, a lot of the chapters of this game are exactly the same. “Someone has gone up on the mountain! Oh no! I should go retrieve them before Bad Things ™ happen!” Then you go up the mountain and save them. Next chapter, that same dumbass that you just saved has decided to wander back up the mountain, because apparently we have no sense of judgment at all. You now have to go back up exactly the same way, to exactly the same places, and save them. Again. Fighting all of the same ghosts, which spawn in basically all the same places. This isn’t a game where you start out in a small area and gradually expand to explore more; in fact, the mapping is rather counterintuitive – you show up on top of the mountain (no idea how you got there) and go around and save some folks, pop up as another character to the top of the mountain and do some stuff… then a couple chapters later the game tells you “Oh, there’s a tram that takes you to the top of the mountain, BTW. Just thought you’d like to know you’ve been using it all along and we never told you – oh, and now there’s a side area off of this tram that you literally had no idea that you were using at all ever that you should go explore because now the tram is busted from ghosts. Bye now!” Awesome.
One of the more awesome things about the Fatal Frame games in general is their use of lighting and environment to set the tone for a game, and this game is no exception.
There are a lot of really creepy settings (like a shrine filled with hundreds of pale, staring dolls, a room full of caskets, and a section of forest with tons of dolls hanging from the trees by nooses) and the lighting scheme doesn’t disappoint either.
There are some issues with navigability in the environments – decorative elements like pillows on the floor that your character can’t step on and will therefore get stuck behind; holes in the wall big enough for the character to climb through that we weren’t allowed to go through; spots in the wooded areas where the path and impassable foliage looked remarkably similar; and places where there were paths off of the main road but an invisible wall would block you from exploring. These are irritating issues but are not deal-breakers – it just means that the game isn’t as open-world as previous installments. (The first two games would just punish you by sending random ghosts around if you strayed too far. Here you just aren’t really allowed to stray at all.)
The real rough part of the graphics is the character design. The hair in particular is really pretty dreadful – it’s chunky and blocky and, frankly, something I would have expected to see on a game for the Nintendo 64, rather than on the newest generation console. Do I expect perfection? No. But if you can’t animate long, flowing hair, you shouldn’t try, because nothing looks stupider than wiggly giant chunks of hair.
I’m also frankly irritated by the design for both of the female main characters. Yuri, the “main” main character, is dressed in something that I can only describe as a negligee that looks like a t-shirt and a corset got into a fight and both lost, complete with garter belt and mini shorts underneath. Maybe they’re real shorts, maybe they’re boy-short style underwear, it’s hard to say.
Miu, the other playable female character, is wearing a ruffly white halter top and short skirt, which is actually not particularly bad. However, almost every single female character in this game, whether playable or not, has a ridiculously large bust (seriously guys even the ghosts have a huge rack), and the developers included a game mechanic so that when the characters got wet (like if it rained, or they fell in water or were pulled in or whatever) their clothes got more clingy and revealing for added sex appeal. After you finish the game, you unlock an extra sort of prologue story featuring Ayane from Dead or Alive, who legit is wearing a corset and lace-up leather pants that ride so low you spend most of her chapters looking at her buttcrack. Side-eye.
Despite all my complaining, I’m glad I purchased this game. I’m a fan of the franchise and I’m not above throwing some money at a rough product in order to support a line of games; maybe they’ll make a Fatal Frame 6 and it will be more like the first two. There were a lot of solid elements in this game – they just didn’t add up enough to make it anything other than a miss.
Fatal Frame 5 is only available for digital purchase. One good thing is that you can dowload a preview of the game for free to try out the mechanics and see how you like it before you buy the full version.