The big issue with horror games is, as with most horror films, that they fail to build and use tension effectively. Horror movies can at least get part of the way there before they squander their efforts with cheap jump-scare moments, but games pretty much always miss the mark because there's so much that the player needs to focus on besides what’s happening on screen. The constant barrage of making sure to press the right buttons, managing items, checking menus etc is a very effective way to remove any fear apart from that of realising you're running a little low on healing items. With this in mind it was always going to be a bit of an uphill battle for Project Zero : Maiden of Black Water to manage a scare or two but, surprisingly, it seems to have cracked the code.
The plot of the game is admittedly a bit minimalist. There’s a big scary mountain and surrounding forest which has a reputation as a place where people go to commit suicide. The game's protagonists are drawn to the mountain over a series of nights to find people who have gone missing, as well as trying and discover what makes the mountain such a dangerous place to begin with. Luckily each of them has a special "Camera Obscura" that can both see and pacify ghosts, though I didn't find much of an explanation of that in this title (Wikipedia helped fill in the blanks).
As settings go it’s about as basic as you can get. Ghosts want to jump out and go "boo!", people therefore need to be given an excuse to go into the place where the ghosts are so that this can happen even though they all know exactly what’s going to happen. This familiarity of setting works in the game's favour though as the makers have clearly understood that the ghosts themselves are not really all that scary and therefore the fear comes from the environment and the anticipation of the scare. It’s the classic Alien model – things are more scary when they AREN’T there.
On this front the game does a fantastic job. The environments, from ancient shrines to abandoned stations, are spooky, dilapidated and atmospheric with some truly excellent sound design which really works to build the tension to absolute breaking point as you go longer and longer without seeing a ghost! Even the simple act of picking up an item becomes a tense moment as you wait to see if you’ll be punished from trying to get it too quickly.
This is a port of an old Wii-U game but it holds up well enough to do it’s job and in particular has some nice lighting and water effects (which is fortunate given that water is a key theme of the game). The water mechanic is pretty interesting too, as the weter you become the more likely you are to be attacked, which matches up with your character's clothes going from dry to clingy and finally translucent (a mechanic that somehow manages to feel both a little pervy and not pervy enough as its a bit inconsistent as to how the fabric looks and reacts), meaning that a small pool of water could prove much more hazardous than it appears!
On the downside however, there are a few issues which really needed to be addressed. For starters there really shouldn’t be a need for each room to be separated by a door opening animation to conceal a loading time – certainly not on current generation consoles! This becomes particularly annoying when the game starts sending you on seemingly endless hunts to take pictures at specific locations in order to proceed which involves a lot of back-tracking. This kind of forced longevity might extend the play-time, but it's not fun or particularly excusable in the current year.
The game is very inconsistent in terms of when it will and won’t tell you where to go next and even when it does, the button that triggers the guide also moves and locks the camera. This means that your character's head generally blocks your view of the way to go…
When the ghosts do appear, they're just not all that scary - the anticipation rarely pays off, making it a bit of a chore to fight them as you don’t really have a way to tell how effective your attacks are. The game tells you different types of film do more damage, but you can’t really tell which means that you often end up wondering if you’re doing anything at all in fights that can last for what often feels like several minutes.
It must also be said that whilst the sound design is fantastic the voice acting is not. The cast seem don't seem to be remotely interested in what they’re doing and their reactions to the on-screen happenings is more like that of a tired parent pretending to pay attention to a child who is showing them the same trick for the thousandth time.
There are some really really solid ideas within this game and it’s a shame that they can get a bit lost under the weight of some of th technical and mechanicaal issues that it's inherited. If you’re an avid horror nut, and particularly if you love classic Japanese horror tropes then you’ll probably love to explore the great atmospheric areas the game provides and you’ll likely forgive many of the issues. For me personally it all became rather frustrating and a struggle to get properly engaged.