Everybody say "haunted fuzzy pickles!"
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water first released in Japan in September of 2014, making its way westward in October of 2015. As a Wii U exclusive at the time, it kind of got swept under the rug especially in the west where it was a digital only release on a dying console that few people owned. But now, much like almost every other Wii U exclusive there is, Fatal Frame is being given a new chance at success not only on the Switch but everywhere else as well. The question becomes whether or not the Switch is the best place to pick up this haunted adventure, and I personally think the answer might be yes.
In Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water the player is put in control of three protagonists throughout the story: Yuri Kozukata, a young girl that has become the apprentice of occultist and antiques dealer Hisoka Kurosawa. Ren Hojo, an author researching the practice of postmortem photographs alongside his assistant Rui Kagamiya. Finally, Miu Hinasaki, the daughter of a recurring series protagonist searching for her mother. Armed with a Camera Obscura that has the ability to exorcise ghosts, all three of these characters become submerged in a tragic and ghostly tale on the cursed Mt. Hikami. As they slowly unravel the mystery of the mountain with a history of human sacrifice and furious slaughter, they learn of the dark forces now at work on the mountain as a result. The world and lore building around Mt. Hikami is genuinely interesting, and settings are varied enough that it never gets visually boring. Unfortunately while the world around them is fascinating the cast of characters are really not, with everybody essentially having the same bland cardboard personality.
Gameplay in Fatal Frame is controlled from a third person over-the-shoulder perspective, while using the Camera Obscura brings the game into a first person perspective for combat. The Camera Obscura view can be controlled either using the right analog stick or through gyro controls, with the latter being closer to the original release which used the Wii U game pad as the camera. I personally found the gyro controls to be hard to get used to when playing docked using a Pro Controller, but as expected the handheld gyro controls worked much better. The analog stick works fine, but it is noticeably slower than using gyro aiming. Combat is quick, simple, and satisfying. When photographing a ghost you will see small circles on their body or floating around them, and the more of these you can capture in a shot the more damage that picture does. If you manage to snap a photo right before a ghost attacks you will enter Fatal Frame mode, which allows you to take rapid fire pictures for a brief period without having to worry about reloading film. Character movement outside of combat has a lot of issues though, with every character's turn radius just slightly too wide, something that becomes increasingly annoying when walking through more narrow areas such as hallways. Turning around is also consistently a bit of a pain. There is a quick turn function activated by holding down on the left stick, but I found this only really worked some of the time and even when it did, the camera does not move with the character. Instead the character now faces the camera, and the act of moving the camera yourself will often lead to your character turning around halfway there to put the camera behind them.
My final issue with gameplay in Fatal Frame is its use of the ZR button, which does several different things depending on what's around the player. ZR is used for picking up items, seeing a defeated ghost's final moments with a "fatal glance", viewing a "trace" which serves as a guide to keep the player on the critical path, open doors, open drawers, and interact with objects such as books or places of note. This is too many things for one button to do, and the game understandably gets very confused about which one to perform when close to multiple options. This doesn't happen all that often, but I found it to be incredibly annoying when it did. Speaking of picking up items, doing so in Fatal Frame is a slow and tense action, with each time having a random chance of a ghostly hand reaching out to grab you in the process, which you can avoid by letting go of ZR before it can do so. I actually found this feature to be very interesting, as it is well balanced in that it happens frequently enough to keep you on your toes but rarely enough to keep it from getting annoying.
Overall Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a fun action horror adventure to play through, with the specters of Mt. Hikami providing an interesting backstory and a fun combat experience. While the characters are more bland than I had hoped, this doesn't necessarily take away from the story all that much. Some control issues do get annoying over time, but even they couldn't stop me from continuously returning to the beautiful and creepy environments of the mountain. If you're a fan of horror games with a bit more of an action feel, you could certainly do a lot worse than Fatal Frame, and now might just be the perfect time to dive in.