REVIEW: “Fatal Frame” fights ghosts with just a camera

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In “Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water,” Nintendo’s happy Wii U hosts a dark, somber horror story that focuses on an intriguing mechanic: you fight murderous ghosts by taking pictures of them. Equipped with a special camera that damages spirits by popping flash bulbs in their faces, you will slowly follow a trail of clues and reveal the gruesome mystery behind the forbidding Mt. Hikami.

This mountain has a bad reputation, thanks to an ongoing string of suicides and local legends of unspeakable rituals in decades past. Nevertheless, people find themselves drawn to the black forests and abandoned shrines of Mt. Hikami. Whether their reasons are to locate missing loved ones or to complete historical research, the game’s characters are quickly and repeatedly beset by ghosts who try to trap them on the mountain.

The central gimmick – using a camera as a weapon – demands that you consider what makes for a good photograph as you fight. You’ll do more damage with shots where the enemy ghost is centered and close, and if you take the picture while the specter is doing something especially interesting (like swooping in for an attack, or posing maliciously), you’ll trigger other ghost-fighting bonuses. “Fatal Frame” lets you get up close with ghosts and build a spooky scrapbook of your favorite shots.

Divided into replayable chapters, “Maiden of Black Water” operates on an interesting points ranking system, where each photo you take adds to your score for that chapter. You also earn points for having inventory items remaining at each chapter’s end. The best “Fatal Frame” players will use items sparingly and be excellent photographers.

When you aim your camera at a ghost, the game changes into a first-person, through-the-viewfinder perspective. You can use the Wii U’s motion controls to further the illusion that ghosts are all around you, meaning you can stand in the middle of your room and hold the GamePad out in front of you like a real camera. This is fun for a while – and the ability to follow ghosts around in 360 degrees of movement is impressively smooth – but commiting to this fantasy ends up being too tiring. Thankfully, “Black Water” gives you the option to turn the motion controls off and use more traditional video game controls. In fact, you can play this “Fatal Frame” entirely on the GamePad screen, entirely on the TV, or utilize a combination of the two.

But will you want to? “Fatal Frame” is marred, ironically, by the in-game camera that helps with character movement. It’s too easy to have characters walk in the wrong direction or to get mixed up by the game’s viewpoint going haywire. Camera combat, as novel as it is, also ends up being a largely bloodless affair where you simply point-and-shoot while a ghost floats around you in circles. The only challenging fights involve multiple vengeful spirits, and even in those cases the game is so packed with health-restoring items that you’d have to really try to fail out of a chapter.

“Black Water” is only available as a download from Nintendo’s Wii U eShop, with the first portion of the game available for free. Both the demo and the complete game are substantially sized downloads, so you may need to make some room on your Wii U’s built-in storage or upgrade to an external hard drive.

“Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water” will go down well with fans of Japanese culture and slow-burning psychological horror. Others may feel stymied by the technical clumsiness, but at least the game is initially free to check out.

This review is based upon product supplied by the publisher. Image courtesy Nintendo of America.