And so we come to what is, at the time of writing, the grand finale to the Project Zero series: Maiden of Black Water on Wii U.
While the nature of the series means that it’s entirely possible we’ll see some more games in the future — and indeed unverified “my uncle works at Nintendo” rumours circulated earlier this year that a Switch installment was in development — Maiden of Black Water is an interesting game that acts as a suitable swansong for the series if, indeed, that is truly “it”.
But then Mio and Mayu from Deep Crimson Butterfly and Yuri from this game are putting in cameo appearances in the impending Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, so you never know what might happen… Ahem. Anyway. Let’s look at Maiden of Black Water in detail.
Maiden of Black Water was announced in 2014, a full two years after its previous release, the Wii remake of the second game, Deep Crimson Butterfly. There actually wasn’t a lot of time between its original announcement and its Japanese release; the game was revealed in an April 2014 issue of Japanese magazine Famitsu, and it was on Japanese store shelves by September. It would be nearly a year later before we’d get a localisation, however, and much to the chagrin of North American fans, only Europe and Australia got a physical release in strictly limited quantities. This makes it, at the time of writing, one of the most expensive, rare and sought-after Wii U games for collectors of physical releases.
The announcement of Maiden of Black Water was actually very late into its development; planning for the new title actually began in 2011 while development was still ongoing for Deep Crimson Butterfly on Wii, and prior to the Wii U’s release. Series co-creator and producer Keisuke Kikuchi saw great potential in the use of the Wii U’s GamePad controller to simulate the series’ iconic Camera Obscura, and the following few years were spent getting to grips with the potential that both the new console and its unusual control scheme offered for a series like Project Zero.
Unlike the previous two releases, Grasshopper Manufacture was not involved in development this time around; Maiden of Black Water was co-developed with one of Nintendo’s Software Planning and Development (SPD) teams — specifically SPD production group number 4, who are probably best known for the Mario Party and Wii Party games. While this might seem like a rather odd choice, it’s not as strange as you might think; besides their best-known games, SPD Group No. 4 also worked on a couple of narrative-heavy games with more “mature” influences such as the noir and mystery genres. These include the Hotel Dusk series on Nintendo DS, and Another Code: R for Wii; while neither of these games are outright “horror” as such, they definitely have a more pensive, brooding atmosphere about them that demonstrates SPD Group No. 4 is perfectly comfortable with getting a bit grim when required.
“We all began thinking from the fundamental point of whether we should really continue on with a ‘Japanese style’ as the theme,” explained Akira Ohtani from Nintendo, who joined the Project Zero team for the first time with this game. “And all kinds of ideas were presented, but we all arrived at the mutual consensus that what we should aim for with Zero was the absolute scariest game.”
“The first thing I thought was that, instead of trying to get the game out to a broader, more general range of customer, we should make current fans of the series and people who like horror think, ‘this game is really scary!” added Nintendo’s Toshiharu Izuno, who previously contributed to Mask of the Lunar Eclipse. “The Wii U [was] Nintendo’s [first] HD console, and I thought it would have to be the hardcore fans who would be the first to leap on board with such high-spec hardware, so we did narrow down the target.”
Note that Izuno’s desire to focus the game’s target audience didn’t mean he wanted to limit its appeal to just fans of the Project Zero series; he also wanted to attract “people who like horror” who perhaps hadn’t played a game in the franchise before. So with that in mind, the team decided to make certain aspects of the game a little more accessible for newcomers. We’ll get onto the mechanical aspects in a moment, but in narrative terms, the game features a lot more in the way of “conversation scenes” at the start and end of chapters to make the overall story more explicit. That said, like previous Project Zero games, Maiden of Black Water’s overall narrative is multi-layered, and significant components of it are up to the player to discover and interpret for themselves.
The new game deliberately brought on board a variety of “new blood”, mostly from Nintendo, to bring some different ideas to the table and brainstorm some ways that a new installment in the series on brand new, significantly more advanced hardware might push things forward. In conversation with Famitsu around the time of the game’s announcement, Kikuchi noted that the ideas they decided to run with were “a horror with lots of kinds of fear; places where you could experience realistic ghost spots; lots of beautiful girls; and the charm of the expression of being wet”.
Kikuchi claimed in an interview for the game’s official guidebook that the game’s more “sexy elements” were suggested by Yuki Sakamoto from Nintendo, who was one of these newcomers.
“The Zero series’ games are also attractive because of the beauty and sexiness of their female characters,” he noted in the same interview, “So I gave opinions on what’s my specialist field.” Ohtani joked that Sakamoto’s unofficial role on the team was “head of sexy”.
The game actually drew some criticism — even from Japanese publications, who are often a little more tolerant about such things than their Western counterparts — for the costumes its female characters are depicted as wearing, with some suggesting that, in the words of the interviewer for the guidebook, “no-one would wear those outfits to a horror spot”. Kikuchi countered by saying that you could quite feasibly say this about the whole series, and it’s true; Project Zero’s female protagonists have always used exaggerated femininity — particularly through costume design — to emphasise the fragility of the characters in a situation that is beyond their control.
“I think there are lots of people who aren’t so great with horror games and maintain a respectful distance,” noted Sakamoto, “so I hoped that the emphasis on the sexiness in this game will have acted as a gateway that makes people think, ‘this is scary, but I want to give it a go.'”
Part of the game’s use of “sexiness” involved one of its core visual themes: water and wetness. As you might expect from a game called Maiden of Black Water, there’s a lot of water throughout, both on the ground and falling from the sky. As it turns out, at least some of this concept came from Project Zero stablemate Dead or Alive 5, whose first release was in 2012.
“There’s a system in Dead or Alive 5 where the characters sweat,” explained Osawa, “but I wondered if there wasn’t also a way to use it to express the scariness of water in a horror game.”
“I liked Dead or Alive 5,” added Sakamoto, in a statement that, by this point, should be a surprise to nobody. “Since it was also a game by Koei Tecmo Games I really wanted to use it to highlight the sexy elements. I had only thought of it as a kind of visual thing, but we thought we had to tie it to gameplay in the Nintendo way.” And indeed, the final product ended up incorporating the idea of “wetness” as both a visual theme — with character costumes “clinging” to the characters when they are soaked — and in mechanical terms.
So let’s talk about those mechanics a bit. Considering the Project Zero series as a whole tends to involve the same fundamental gameplay concept throughout — go into spooky place, photograph ghosts, unravel mystery — each of them have ended up feeling markedly distinct from one another, and Maiden of Black Water is no exception to this. Specifically, part of Izuno’s desire to bring in new people to the series — those who liked horror but hadn’t played a Project Zero before — involved upping the overall pace of the experience so that it was a little more like an action game. Note: like an action game, not actually an action game.
With this concept in mind, elements were added such as the ability to sprint in outdoor areas, which the game featured many more of than in previous installments. The gyroscopic controls of the Wii U GamePad meant that aiming could be a lot quicker and more precise. And the fundamental way that the Camera Obscura determined damage was completely rethought, giving combat a markedly different feel.
Most of the previous Project Zero games — with the exception of the original Crimson Butterfly — determined how much damage the camera would do according to how long you pointed it at a ghost before hitting the shutter switch. There were variations on this; Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, for example, made this charge faster the closer a ghost was to you, and in all games the charge would accumulate more quickly if you had more than one ghost in frame at once.
Maiden of Black Water abandons this system in favour of a mechanic that emphasises the necessity of framing your shots carefully — entirely appropriate for the “photography” concept. In simple terms, the more “targets” in view at once, the more damage you’ll do, and the knockback-inducing, attack-interrupting “Shutter Chance” mechanic this time around requires you to have at least five targets in frame at the same time.
This might sound like a challenge given that past Project Zero games have typically involved no more than one or two ghosts at most simultaneously. However, there are a few more twists on the formula that make this mechanic work. Firstly, each ghost in Maiden of Black Water has several weak spots, so simply by framing a shot of a ghost’s complete body well, you can accumulate a fair amount of charge.
Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, each bit of damage you do to a ghost results in “fragments” breaking off them, which are regarded as separate targets so far as this mechanic is concerned. In other words, you can chip away at a ghost with a few shots, then unleash a major blast using their “core”, all their weak points and the fragments you’ve broken off. However, you can’t wait too long to line up the perfect shot; waste too much time and the ghosts will re-absorb the fragments, restoring their health.
The “Fatal Frame” mechanic, whereby you can unleash a combo of “free” shots after perfectly interrupting a ghost’s attack, is once again present and correct, and this time around it provides an opportunity to rapid-fire a series of shots with quick-reloading film until a timer expires. While this has the potential to put you at a distinct advantage in a fight, the way it is implemented is clearly intended to induce panic, with the alarm on the camera chirping relentlessly, the ghost writhing in agony right up in your face and you hammering the shutter button as many times as you can possibly muster in those couple of seconds. And this isn’t even getting into the fact that the way you trigger this under most circumstances is by deliberately allowing a ghost to launch themselves at you while standing your ground!
The aforementioned “wetness” system in the game plays into the mechanics in a few ways. Firstly, there are situations where you’re knee-deep in water, and this affects your mobility significantly; inevitably, when you’re in such a situation you’ll probably find a ghost encounter following in short order.
However, the main use of “wetness” in mechanical terms comes through a gauge in the corner of the screen that indicates how saturated the character is with water. This increases gradually any time they are outside in the rain or beneath a waterfall, and many ghosts’ attacks also increase the gauge. There’s a trade-off here: if you’re fully saturated, your attacks will be more powerful, but you’ll also encounter more ghosts and take more damage. You’re also at risk from ghosts that carry the yomi nure status effect; get hit by this when you’re already wet and you’ll be afflicted by a debilitating condition that blurs your vision, lowers your defense and gradually drains your health.
Exploration has had a bit of an overhaul, too. Besides the aforementioned ability to sprint in open areas, a mechanic called “Trace” has also been added, whereby holding down the right trigger on the GamePad causes the character you’re playing at the time to conjure up a psychic vision of the person they’re attempting to track down at any given moment.
By following this, you’ll be taken directly to the next main story beat — though much like in previous Project Zero games, it’s in your interests to veer off the beaten path as much as the present chapter will allow you in order to recover as many of the generous health and film item drops as possible; even if you don’t use these, they convert to points at the end of a chapter, which contribute to both your letter grade rank for that chapter and your ability to upgrade the Camera Obscura.
Discrete puzzles have been completely eschewed in this installment in favour of pure exploration and observation challenges. In their place are a number of situations where you have to take “psychic photographs” of places where objects should be, then locate a particular environment depicted in the photograph and recreate the scene. On the one hand, it’s a shame to see the back of the puzzles as for many people they’re an integral part of the survival horror genre; on the other, their absence contributes to the overall faster pace of Maiden of Black Water as a whole, so personally speaking I didn’t really miss them all that much.
On the whole, the game gives you a bit of freedom within each chapter to explore and get to know each part of the game’s overall “world”, but it prevents you from going too far off course — usually by preventing you from entering a particular discrete “zone” of the overall map that isn’t immediately relevant — until the completely open final chapter. This may feel a bit restrictive at times, but it makes sense; the complete map over which the game unfolds is pretty substantial and easy to get lost in until you have a good idea of how the various areas relate to one another. This, coupled with the “Trace” system, means that you’ll always know where to go next, so if your priority is just seeing the story rather than attempting to get good times, ranks and scores, you can romp through the game on Easy relatively quickly.
There are also other interesting things to seek out throughout the game that add to your overall understanding of the story. Most notable among these is the “Fatal Glance” mechanic, whereby after defeating a ghost they take a few seconds to writhe around and scream a bit before dissipating. During this period, you are able to run up to them and touch them to “Glance” their memories and see the tragic or traumatic events that have caused their spirits to remain so restless.
Most of these “Glances” are depicted using a deliberately lo-fi “analogue” video method which adds a really distinctive sense of style to the game, particularly when contrasted with the sharp, high-definition graphics of the main gameplay. Rather delightfully, this effect was not created with clever digital effects, but by the team literally dubbing the prerendered scene onto a VHS cassette they got at a 100-yen store, crumpling up the tape and then playing it back again.
“I was the one who proposed Mitori [Glance] videos as a new element to show scariness,” explained Izuno. “When I was thinking about what would be the scariest thing to put into a Zero aiming to be the scariest in the series, I arrived at the conclusion that nothing could be scarier than the scene of someone dying. Moments of death that make you instinctively want to avert your eyes, something you don’t want to see but end up looking at. Zero deals with the ghosts of people after they die, so I wondered what had happened to those ghosts in their dying moments. I wanted to show those in videos.”
“We’ve been talking about wanting to have a game themed around a famous suicide spot since the start,” added series director Makoto Shibata. “And the talk of showing their moment of death settled it.”
Maiden of Black Water’s setting is the fictional Mount Hikami, which is regarded in the game’s lore as a notorious suicide spot. The wooded area that covers much of the mountain is said to be inspired by the real-life Aokigahara forest, itself regarded as the most popular spot to commit suicide in Japan. Rather than placing too much emphasis on real-world parallels, however, Maiden of Black Water instead crafts its own lore surrounding the mountain, its Unfathomable Forest and the reasons why it’s such a spiritual hotspot.
According to the story you uncover throughout the game, Mount Hikami became such a popular spot for people to end their life for several reasons. Firstly is the popular belief in the region that all life comes from water and returns to water at its conclusion, and the rivers, streams, lakes and waterfalls that cover the mountain certainly provide plenty of that water.
Secondly, and probably most significantly given that one of the narrative’s core themes is that of loneliness, traditions on the mountain involve people choosing to end their lives in the company of a shrine maiden so they do not have to be alone in their final moments. The reasons for this vary somewhat throughout the narrative; some simply want to be free of a life that they feel doesn’t want or need them any more, while others participate in a ritual called “Ghost Marriage” that bonds them with a sacrificed shrine maiden and helps her to maintain her protection against the cursed “Black Water” that brings misery to everyone.
There are a number of thematic elements in common with The Tormented throughout Maiden of Black Water, most notably the idea of a religious figure taking on the suffering of others and carrying it into death, theoretically allowing them to be at peace from thereon. The “Fatal Glance” mechanic in the game is a manifestation of this; the game’s shrine maidens are depicted as being capable of understanding a tormented soul’s deepest, darkest secrets and taking that misery into themselves; the ability of protagonists Yuri and Miu to do this suggests that they are descended from those who once had such capabilities.
Loneliness is by far the most commonly recurring theme in the narrative, however, and this is emphasised in numerous ways throughout the narrative. Firstly, it’s represented simply through the aesthetics; while each chapter tends to open and close with some dialogue scenes, after that you’re very much left “on your own”, often in an environment that is devoid of sound save for one simple, repetitive noise such as the ticking of a clock. The use of an antiques shop as the game’s main “home base” area is a very deliberate choice to play up this angle of the game’s presentation: the whole damn place is full of clocks, meaning there aren’t many places you can stand and feel like you’re completely at peace and free from external influences.
Aside from that, numerous aspects of the narrative play on the loneliness angle, too. Main protagonist Yuri is, we discover, someone who had contemplated suicide on Mount Hikami after being left alone by the death of her family, but she was rescued by a woman named Hisoka, who, having some psychic talent herself, recognised Yuri’s abilities and stepped in to act as both a guardian and mentor for her. Secondary protagonist Ren is wracked by recurring nightmares that he thinks might be repressed memories, and these have left him unable to look women in the eye; the only person whose company he seems comfortable in at the outset of the game is his rather androgynous assistant Rui. And third protagonist Miu is, we discover, the daughter of Project Zero and The Tormented’s Miku Hinasaki, and has been left completely on her own for a number of years with no idea of where her mother is or even who her father is.
Each of the characters’ respective stories concern how they attempt to deal with loneliness — and, in the case of Yuri in particular, how they might deal with feelings they don’t entirely recognise or understand. There’s very much an element of repressed sexuality throughout Maiden of Black Water as a whole, with it being most apparent in Yuri’s narrative.
One of the first things Yuri does in the game — ostensibly under the guise of a gameplay tutorial — is to take numerous photographs of Hisoka, who is, it has to be said, one of most painfully beautiful women ever rendered in a video game. This sequence puts us directly in Yuri’s position, gazing at and appreciating Hisoka’s beauty in several different ways. The subsequent early hours of the game see Yuri accompanying Hisoka on an investigation into an old inn as she attempts to understand her psychic abilities; during this period, we come to see how Yuri relies on Hisoka, and how Hisoka clearly has feelings of affection for Yuri as well as a desire to protect her from hardships.
When Hisoka disappears early in the game, this then triggers what becomes Yuri’s quest for the majority of the rest of the story: tracking her down. Through Yuri’s reactions and the thoughts we uncover through her diaries, we determine that although Yuri is very much a tortured soul thanks to a combination of her grief and her abilities that she doesn’t understand, the thing she desires more than anything else is the feeling that she is not alone. And the prevalence of the lily flower throughout the game’s imagery, the concept of wetness making you powerful yet vulnerable — and, hell, even just Yuri’s damn name, which not only sounds similar to the Japanese word for ghost (yuurei), but is also inextricably tied to “girls’ love” fiction — suggest that it is more than just a simple platonic or guardian-charge relationship she’s after.
Sexuality and horror are frequent bedmates; good horror is “about” something other than the things it literally depicts on the screen, and the Project Zero series as a whole has always been good about taking this multi-layered approach to its narratives, themes and settings. In particular, the series has pretty much always explored something of a dark twist on “the power of love”; while this concept is typically used in a positive sense — especially in Japanese popular media — to reflect the utopian ideal of love being able to conquer any sort of adversity, throughout Project Zero it has always, always been love that messed something up pretty significantly.
In Maiden of Black Water it kind of goes both ways to a certain extent; while it’s clear that the love between Hisoka and Yuri saved Yuri from killing herself, the game’s main curse is once again caused by the main antagonist ghost being unable to let go of the feelings she has for the man she loves. And, in a nice nod to ongoing series lore, the man in question this time around is Kunihiko Asou, inventor of the Camera Obscura and someone we’ve typically only seen alluded to throughout the previous titles. Here, we get to both retrace some of his steps and actually see what sort of person he was. This also forms one of the ways in which Maiden of Black Water would form a suitable finale to the series were it not to continue any further; not only that, we also finally get some resolution for Miku’s story from the original game and The Tormented, too.
Sakamoto’s desire to play up the sexiness of Maiden of Black Water really works in context, too; there’s a recurring visual theme of people getting close to one another, and the sense of physical closeness is emphasised by the costume design, which often highlights parts of the body perceived as delicate or intimate without being overtly sexual — mostly collarbones, shoulders, armpits, thighs and legs in general. According to Osawa, Shibata “spent a lot of time thinking about collarbones for this game”. Hey, we all have our fetishes.
It’s also described more allegorically, too; we see a flashback to the immediate aftermath of Hisoka rescuing Yuri more than once several times over the course of the game’s narrative, and both times there’s an emphasis on the cup of coffee Yuri drinks to warm her up. This is described as “the difference a little warmth can make”; literally, they’re talking about the coffee, but they’re alluding to human warmth, too. And within that idea of “human warmth” there are also multiple layers: the metaphorical idea of “warm feelings”, which are important in staving off loneliness, and the literal feeling of people huddling together for warmth in harsh weather conditions — such as, say, the perpetual rainstorm that most of the game is clad in.
These themes are seen throughout the other characters’ narratives, too. Although Ren is depicted as gynophobic as a result of his recurring nightmares, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with Rui getting close to him — perhaps because Rui, unlike the rest of the female cast members, is not dressed in an emphatically feminine manner. Instead, she has short, boyish hair, wears a shirt and trousers and has some fairly boyish mannerisms; it’s pretty obvious to us, the viewer, that she’s female, of course, but she is also presented as being mistaken for a boy on one particular occasion in Ren’s narrative arc, and the ongoing side story of her apparently unrequited feelings for Ren is rather tragic, particularly given the four possible conclusions of Ren’s overall episodes.
Ren’s recurring nightmares involve a sense of physical closeness, which is partly where his phobia comes from. He has vivid memories of spending time with a young albino girl named Shiragiku, and of being very close to her — both emotionally and physically. In one scene in particular, the pair are shown playing a game of hide and seek, and the pair of them hide together, with Shiragiku clinging on to the young boy in a distinctly affectionate, romantic manner.
These wouldn’t be traumatic dreams in themselves — aside from the fact Ren doesn’t remember them and isn’t sure if they’re even his memories — but one of the most frequently recurring scenes is one where the young boy kills an apparently willing Shiragiku as a ritual sacrifice. The dying Shiragiku urges the boy to take a “token” of hers to always remember her by and, indeed, it seems Ren is almost cursed to constantly remember her and their close physical relationship. This has, in turn, led him to associate physical closeness with a sense of loss and tragedy, so it’s perhaps understandable that he’s somewhat wary of intimacy in the real world; unwillingness to get close to anyone for fear of losing them is very much a real thing that people feel.
Miu, meanwhile, has probably the most mysterious narrative, with a number of questions surrounding it that the player is clearly intended to ponder themselves rather than be given specific answers. As we’ve seen in previous installments — particularly The Tormented — this is something that the Project Zero team has always been keen to emphasise and, it seems, the most mysterious narratives tend to swirl like a miasma around recurring character Miku Hinasaki — Miu’s mother.
Miu actually starts off the whole experience with an exploration of the main shrine on Mount Hikami, and in this sequence we get a sense of how physical closeness can actually be terrifying. Towards the end of her initial introductory prologue, she is beset by ghost hands attempting to grab her, completing removing any sense of agency she might have had and forcing her into one of the game’s sacrificial reliquaries — a recurring visual symbol throughout the game, but one which the player comes to associate with frightening things as the narrative proceeds.
Yuri is the one who rescues Miu from her predicament, and in doing so finds herself making use of her Glance ability to see the rescued girl’s memories. Miu interrupts her during this, however, hissing acidly that she should “never do that again”; there’s definitely a message about consent in here, since unwanted psychic intrusions are often depicted in fiction as being as much of a violation as non-consensual sexual activity.
Miu acts rather coldly to Yuri throughout the game, despite being “on her side”, as it were. She often hisses that if Yuri leaves she “won’t come back”, and generally has something of an aura of negativity and hostility around her. This is in stark contrast to her appearance; much like Miku, she has beautiful, porcelain doll-like features about her, and of all the cast members, she has the most obviously “feminine” costume, featuring a lacy sleeveless blouse, a short frilly skirt and thigh-high stockings. In popular media, we tend to associate this sort of appearance with correspondingly “feminine” behaviour and an overall sense of gentleness, but Miu is most certainly not gentle; she clearly harbours a great degree of bitterness and resentment for the belief that she was abandoned by her mother and her unknown father.
This does change somewhat when she finally tracks down Miku, however. Upon discovering what a toll the passing of the years has taken on her mother’s mental wellbeing, she softens noticeably and almost reverts to a child-like state in some ways. Of all the characters, Miu and Miku are depicted as being the most physically intimate with one another; indeed, the way they are shown embracing on the bed they share once they are both safely back in the antique shop almost makes them look more like lovers than mother and child, particularly as Miku herself still looks rather youthful.
There are several ways that each of the main characters’ narratives can be resolved in the lengthy final chapter of the game, and all concern differing ways to approach the idea of loneliness. Do you accept it and attempt to live your life as best you can without the comfort of physical intimacy and human warmth? Do you sacrifice everything for the sake of bringing comfort to someone important to you? Do you attempt to find a compromise where everyone can be happy? Do you let go of the things that have been holding you back from true happiness?
The game raises a series of fascinating questions over the course of its narrative as well as leaving a lot of its story up to interpretation. Some people have perceived this latter aspect as the game having “holes” in its narrative and it’s an understandable reaction, particularly as some of the earlier, more incidental narrative threads you explore seem to peter out rather early in favour of the main, overall narrative — but on the whole, Maiden of Black Water is a compelling, fascinating exploration of the concept of loneliness, and how the bleak feelings loneliness instils in us can lead us to increasingly desperate measures to try and bring ourselves comfort and release.
It’s not a happy game, make no mistake, but it can certainly get you thinking. And in that regard, I feel like it succeeds admirably in what it set out to do — and what the series as a whole has always tried to do, for that matter. If you have the means of playing it, it’s well worth the time to do so; not only is it a great Project Zero game, it’s a great Wii U game, too; yet another example of that underappreciated system’s small but beautifully formed library of fascinating experiences.
More about Project Zero
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