Haunting Ground (PS2) - Review by Kim Fidler
Have you ever seen a news story on TV that made you ask yourself why anyone would do such a thing? Haunting Ground, Capcom's latest horror offering for the PlayStation 2, is exactly the same type of thing - a voyeuristic adventure that begs to be played, even if it can at times feel quite unsettling. It is not unlike a car crash that is gawked at by onlookers and rubberneck traffic as they pass by, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they know they should not have seen.
Haunting Ground puts players in the role of Fiona Belli, a stunning young blonde that has found herself in a very strange situation; being naked (except for a strategically placed bed sheet), in a cage, and in some fat guy's blood splattered basement. Sound strange? Well, it only gets more and more disturbing as she gets out of her confinement and begins to explore her surroundings. In almost every conceivable way, Fiona is a stark contrast to the type of lead, female or otherwise, that usually headlines games. She is fragile, weak, and doesn't have an abundance of options going for her in terms of defending herself. In other words, she is easy pickings in the demented world she's been thrust into.
That's where Hewie comes in. Hewie and Fiona meet very early in the game, and almost immediately he is cast in the role of her protector. Instead of being another gun-toting, fast-talking, military sort of character most players are accustomed to having around to fend off the forces of evil, Hewie is instead a simple dog - merely a companion that will help Fiona solve puzzles, reach certain places that only a dog could reach, and do his best to slow down any of Fiona's pursuers. It's a fresh approach and definitely one of the defining traits of Haunting Ground.
Rounding out the cast are the antagonists of Haunting Ground. Daniella is a gothic hottie who has taken a rather disturbing interest in the enjoyment in pain that she cannot feel. Riccardo is the mysterious keeper of the house that does a good job of being... well, mysterious. And then there is Debilitas - quite possibly one of the most original and disturbing creations in survival horror to date. All of these characters play their roles perfectly, while maintaining their own separate identities. Without spoiling much in terms of story, suffice it to say that getting to know each of these personalities makes up a great deal of the enjoyment to be had in this game.
One of the first things to be noticed about Haunting Ground that makes it different from other titles in the genre is the absence of 'filler' enemies. Gone are hundreds of nameless zombies, werewolves, and other clich� monsters players have become accustomed to killing in waves. Instead Haunting Ground employs the use of fewer, more fleshed out characters, giving players a better understanding into how they live and why they act the way they do. It provides the player a look into the creepy lair of Haunting Ground that houses the personification of sins everyone tries to hide, and brings them to life in the shape of Fiona's adversaries.
Haunting Ground's gameplay does not follow the standard formula adopted by most other survival horror titles. Instead it relies on the basic mechanics utilized by less conventional titles such as the Fatal Frame and Clock Tower series. By relying on the main character's fragility, Capcom has created over 130 rooms that will challenge both the player's reflexes and brain. In some cases Fiona will be trying to figure out a puzzle barring her advancement only to be interrupted by someone who is out to kill her. Unfortunately she has to abandon her current task and run away as she is unable to fight off her assailant.
Instead of giving her an arsenal of bazookas, assault rifles, and grenades, Capcom has stripped Fiona down to the basics of kicks, shoves, and mixtures that can be thrown. If caught in a situation without Hewie, or a hiding spot, Fiona is essentially a sitting duck. Reduced to running around for her life, this is where one of the most interesting features of Haunting Ground comes into play.
The panic meter is never visible but a player can easily tell when Fiona is close to going out of her mind. As she gets more stressed, the screen will begin to distort, the sound will begin to get more and more grating, and Fiona will become harder to control as she stubbles about in her efforts to get away. The nice part of the feature is how it evolves over time. At first Fiona will be running just fine, only to tire down to a jog. As she slows down, the pursuer will gain ground on her until the panic meter reaches the point of pure adrenaline, oftentimes making the player (on some level at least) share in her need to escape.
Hewie is what makes the gameplay in Haunting Ground both fun and frustrating at the same time. While Hewie is a great character when he is retrieving keys or pushing boxes, he is unfortunately one of the most difficult to control companions in videogame history. Thankfully, as time goes on, and as he is praised for his accomplishments, Hewie eventfully becomes a bit easier to handle. The player never actually gets to physically control Hewie, but they can use the power of suggestion to get him to do what they want. By utilizing the right analogue controls, a player can give Hewie commands such as follow, sit and, in battle situations, the command to attack. In exploration sequences, the possibility exists to have Hewie explore the area, and occasionally he will turn up some great items to help Fiona out. Mastering Hewie's control scheme makes the game infinitely easier, and many times more enjoyable for the gamer; plus it can lead to the opening up of some great secrets.
The graphical style of Haunting Ground is nothing that has not been seen before, however the game does show how far the developers have come in terms of creating expressive, more well-rounded characters. Every personality in the game reacts to situations, and it is actually possible see and read the emotional responses in their faces. It goes a long way in being able to connect to Fiona as a character when a player is able to see the fear in her face whenever she encounters someone who wants to kill her. The other characters are modeled and animated in ways that would be expected of the type of personality they employ. Debilitas' mind of a 5 year old somehow translates over flawlessly in his huge mutant body by the way he moves, giggles, and stalks Fiona. Daniella moves in a cold, stiff manner that not only fits her demeanor, but it actually makes her a very creepy adversary in the way she follows Fiona around, devoid of any emotion.
Aurally, Haunting Ground delivers in the all the right areas without reinventing or brining anything totally new to the genre. The voice acting is surprisingly very well done, and the characters' tone is always right on target. What really stands out about the audio in Haunting Ground is how each pursuer is accompanied by original theme music. Debilitas has the tortured score to accompany his personality, while Daniella's industrial theme is both strange, and appealing, just like Daniella herself. The sound is very well done, and it's nice to see the genre make such strides in recent years.
Overall, Haunting Ground is a great game for fans of survival horror titles. It does what it sets out to do very well, without truly breaking any new or significant ground. The gameplay itself is very much in line with what has come to be expected of the genre. Similarly, the story, while appropriate, is tired at time, but even when it stumbles it never comes off as being in any way inappropriate or detracting from the overall experience. Haunting Ground is disturbing, demented, and very fun to play for those looking for something genuinely startling. Anyone wanting a game to keep busy with for a dozen hours on a dark night should give Haunting Ground a try.