For a while after playing Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water on Wii U I was slightly afraid of picking up objects. I wasn't afraid of the object, but what might grab my arm as I reach down for it. Provoking fear is one of the things this Wii U exclusive does very well, and it's the kind that lingers in the back of your mind, creeping out at 3am as you clumsily pile down a half-lit staircase on a mission to get some milk for your toddler: don't look out the window or else you might see the ghost of a hanged man, or worse, an actual real human. So, I was unnerved, but does Project Zero do more than that? Does it have to?
Although making its first appearance on current-gen, Project Zero (or Fatal Frame) and its brand of third-person survival horror has been around since the PS2 era, and the core ideas remain in Maiden of Black Water: you explore spooky locations and battle evil spirits using a special camera. By blasting these ghosts you drain their energy, and you can perform a number of special shots (such as just when the ghoul is about to attack), equip more powerful lenses and make various upgrades. The cool twist in this Wii U game is that you actually hold up the GamePad and look into the screen as if it's a viewfinder, which also gives players additional information.
Using a camera to capture the image of (and hurt the ghosts in the process) is a cool concept that has been explored before in Japanese horror, but the move to the Wii U GamePad makes combat feel more claustrophobic than before. Combat can feel fiddly at times, and you'll probably switch to using the right analogue stick to aim instead of the gyro, but it the mechanic as a whole certainly adds to the game's atmosphere.
Like I said in the opening, Maiden of Black Water is indeed incredibly unnerving. Even when you're not facing off against enemies, apparitions will appear in shot, waiting for their picture to be taken. Child-like mannequins move unexpectedly and without reason, or more often just sit there, staring at you. When you reach down to pick up items (notes, camera supplies, health) you can be grabbed by a phantom arm, making each and every occurrence far more tense than it has any right to be. You can avoid this if you pull back quick enough, but the initial, almost slow-motion reaching animation got to me every time.
As weird as all of this spooky stuff is, the actual gameplay never scared me. If you're after jump scares and proper 'new pants needed' terror, this won't deliver. Maiden of Black Water's scariest parts come during cutscenes, with one in particular using a first-person perspective, a flashlight and grainy video to create some wonderfully chilling moments. If the game proper had played like this, I'm not sure I'd have been able to stick with it for long.
Project Zero, then, is a nice little creepy game to play, but it's sadly built on some creaky foundations. Structurally, like in previous titles in the series, the experience is split into chapters, with you stepping into the shoes of one of the key characters each time. The problem is that there's a definite lack of fluidity, with each starting and stopping quite abruptly, often with a screen of text to fill in the gaps. You'll also be revisiting areas a lot, retreading old ground before seeing something new. It just doesn't feel very modern - although for some of you that might be a positive.
Quite why the female characters wander about, often in the rain or through swathes of water, wearing so few clothes is a little strange. A serious and disturbing tale is being told while you, the player, sits on edge, all the while the main character struts around in skimpy shorts. It's not scandalous, but it is jarring (having said that, some of the unlockable outfits are ridiculously pervy). Clothing issues aside, character and enemy designs are great, as are the dimly lit environments, with shadows doing everything but leaping out and attacking you, but some of the texture work scarred me more than any of the ghost encounters. And the English dub for the voice acting is terrible, often completely missing the tonal beats the scenes clearly demanded.
Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water is an old-school horror game with a dash of something new. If you're bored of relentless jump scares and would rather feel the same way you do when you catch the reflection of the fridge light in the glass of your back door, momentarily, irrationally believing something is about to get you, you'll probably get a nice kick out of this paranormal adventure.