An Unsettling Dream
I really expected nothing from Haunting Ground, a game I'd never heard of and a really cheap buy from ebay but it was a request from a comment on a video I made to review the game so I bought it. Most of the other horror games I'd been asked to review were lacklustre or frustrating and my expectations were really low... until I got to playing it. It started with this typical 2000's cutscene featuring some fractured events of a car crash, a large man and a cage before you were controlling Fiona walking round the grounds of a large castle in a towel. Couldn't stop myself from rolling my eyes, it's a Capcom game, got to have those boob physics in there.
Looking past that the atmosphere of this castle was incredible, most games use darkness to instil tension and fear into a player but Haunting Ground achieved this just by making Fiona seem vulnerable and have her trespassing in an unknown area. The music was sparse and gave way to the ambience of the area and after walking around I found my way up to the bedroom where the surreal dreamlike feeling that had crept in whilst I walked the gardens, breached the dialog too. Talking to the maid was really intense, she spoke very slowly and her movements and actions seemed very unsettling and while she never threatened me, I felt threatened. After that I was back to exploring the castle and found all sorts of weird things that weren't explained very well, what this game is best at is the surreal, things are there with no explanation be it a body just sitting on a sofa or a giant Golem made of earth standing in a doorway, you never quite know what the deal is with all the weird stuff and it keeps things fresh.
But after a while you bump into your first enemy and the real game begins with Fiona trying to escape the castle, avoiding hostile members of the castle staff with the occasionally helpful of a canine you meet, Hewie, which is Fiona's only means of protection. All she can really do is treat Hewie well and ask him to attack her pursuer and run away or hide, which he may not always do since he's a very accurate representation of a dog sometimes. You can also leave traps and hope the enemy gets caught in it, they only stun an enemy for a bit as the only way you can escape an enemy is to move onto the next area, where the next enemy takes over, so you're always under threat of being chased. That's where the game trips up for me, the chasing drives up Fiona's stress level. Being chased is supposed to drive up my stress level, not hers, it's deeply frustrating when you lose control of your character because they're terrified by the events. You have to find a bunch of calming items or Fiona just loses it and runs blindly in any direction and there's nothing much you can do about it. I don't think this should happen at all, the character being scared leaves me with a disconnect with them because it stops feeling like a representation of myself within the game, if she acted scared and panicked but relied on me to guide her to safety then I'd be more likely to be scared myself.
When you aren't running for your life you're solving some real strange puzzles that I actually really liked, be it typing directions into a type writer that makes a plate you can feed into the giant golem to make it move or something just as wild and dreamlike. They followed along nicely with the odd themes of the game which I often find is a bit jarring and strange when you find some abstract, ornate puzzle in somewhere like the Baker Residence (looking at you Resi 7).
The story is very surreal with lots of seemingly random events that were hard to follow, you get strange phone calls, the master of the manor seeks to wed you, the staff are all here to help you except they're trying to kill you apparently and then you're informed you have a god inside you that everyone wants. It doesn't make more sense and I have to admit whilst I'd complain about this generally with this game I let it slide because of the atmosphere, there isn't much quite like this. Shame about the running away though.
Haunting Ground is actually very good despite minor hiccups, it's far from perfect but it's much better than I expected.