Review: Haunting Ground (PS2)

Haunting Ground
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Survival Horror
Release Date: 05/10/05

I’m not a fan of Capcom’s use of “Survival Horror.” Mainly because they are all but guaranteed to do an awful job of it. By this I mean they have no concept of terror or horror. The definition of Horror is, “An intense, painful feeling of repugnance and fear.” Capcom’s games are not scary. Resident Evil? It’s people with guns and a ton of modern weaponry blowing up zombies and a few genetically created monsters. It’s Castlevania set in modern times. It’s an action game. There is nothing scary about it. Same with Dino Crisis? Again, there’s no concept of fear in the game. Just a bunch of monsters you have to kill. I’m not going to harp on the controls, because this isn’t the point of this pre-review rambling. The point is Capcom can’t make scary to save its life.

You want fear? There’s the Fatal Frame games. Spooky, original and creepy. There’s Eternal Darkness which is again more an action game than a true survival horror game, but it gets the Lovecraftian aspects down just right. The Suffering too is an action game with horror elements, but a lot more than Resident Evil or Dino Crisis has. The original Alone in the Dark, awful controls notwithstanding, captured the feel perfectly.

And then there is the epitome of the genre in Clock Tower. It’s got the theme perfectly. You run like hell from a giant psychopath with an abnormally large pair of scissors. The first two Clock Towers (First 2 in Japan. We got Clock Tower 2 and renamed it just Clock Tower in the states and started numbering from there) are games that it looks like no one will ever match in terms of concepts like terror, fear, and horror. And of course when Capcom picked up the license from the sadly defunct Human, they butchered it so badly most long time CT fans refuse to admit that piece of crap exists.

Capcom misses the fundamental aspects of the genre. Fighting back should be rare if ever, and needs to be in ways where you outthink the enemy, not beat them physically. Inevitably, Capcom makes awful AWFUL Survival horror games, but decent to very good ACTION games with monsters in them. Even our own Matt Yeager, who is an RE 4 zealot says “RE is intense, but you’re never scared or creeped out by it.”

That’s why I was so eager for Haunting Ground. It was being touted as Capcom’s first attempt to make a survival horror game that fits the name properly instead of a killing spree game catering to the lowest common denominator. Hey, it’s true. Most gamers want to kill things, and not actually have the experience of “ohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrap” when an enemy is near, knowing full well you can’t really hurt them.

So I had high hopes for Haunting Ground. Capcom was attempting to do the genre right. We had the unstoppable enemy aspects of Clock Tower, the insanity/panic aspects of Eternal Darkness, and a whole new addition involving training a dog to be your cannon fodder.

So I was quite willing to put aside Capcom’s track record and hope that Haunting Ground was their way of saying, “Yeah, that Clock Tower 3/4 incident? We’re really sorry!”

So did Capcom finally get it right after a decade of trying?

Let’s Review

1.Plot

Haunting ground revolves around two characters. The first is a young girl named Fiona who is the sole survivor of a car accident and awakens in a cage inside a spooky mansion. The other is Hewie, an albino Alsatian, a type of dog whose breed I can’t say without thinking of Blackadder the Third and the episode with Samuel Johnson. Both characters find each other and bond in order to survive traps, Ignis Fatuus, and the caretakers of the various buildings you will encounter within the game.

Most of the game lacks any real plot. It’s you solving puzzles and running from things. There’s a large deformed retarded man who wants to play with you but just doesn’t get his own strength. There’s a creepy maid, there’s a hooded, butler, and one more enemy. That’s really it. It’s just the same relentless characters stalking you throughout the game. Which is good. It’s got a Scissorsman aspect to it. You get used to the music changes alerting you to the coming of potential death and so on.

All Fiona can really do is run and occasionally kick something. She panics easily, and has to rely on Hewie to buy her enough time to hide. And sometimes, the bad guys catch on to your hiding spot. Oops.

The actual horror aspects of the game are wonderful. And it’s the best job Capcom has ever done. You find your heart racing as you run into one of the enemies. You swear as Fiona trips and falls losing you valuable distance. You swear when you lose total control of the character as she panics so much she loses all rational thought and you lose all control of the character, and you get pissed when Hewie just stands there while you get clobbered even you repeatedly jam on the attack command. You get into the character worries and fear, something you couldn’t with any other Capcom horror game. Truly a step in the right direction.

But as regards to an actual story itself? There really isn’t one. You’re trying to get out of a creepy house. Any plot in the game is convoluted and the further you get into the game, the more your previous actions and occurrences make less and less sense. And when the game ends, even with the “A” ending, you find yourself going, “What the hell just happened?”
Haunting Ground focuses far more on the fear aspects on the game than any story aside from “Big spooky things coming for you. Just run.” This is really disappointing to me, as they could have told an excellent story. As much as I show disdain for the RE series calling itself “Survival Horror,” they still have a great sense of plot. It’s as if Capcom decided they could have horror without plot or plot without horror, but not both eggs in the same basket. Dissapointing.

So in terms of plot, there’s not much here. Just run and scream. In terms of that running and screaming, you’ve got a pretty realistic excellent version of this aspect of the game that doesn’t involve point and click style gameplay. If you’ve ever played Dark Messiah/Hell Night, the feeling in these two games in regards to the antagonists is very much the same.

Story Rating: 5.5/10

Graphics

I’m not a fan of the character models. Fiona looks like she’s got male pattern baldness, Debilitas looks a little too much like Sloth from “The Goonies”, and I was underwhelemed with the rest of the cast. The sole character I liked the design of was Hewie. He was a very nicely done dog and he moved and looked like a dog. Hewie looked REAL while the other characters looked like early PS2 character designs.

Character designs aside, the background and actual interior designs were good, but not great. In some areas it felt like they used shadow and dim lightning to mask the fact the rooms just didn’t look that good. But those were few and far between.

As well, there are sometimes when the graphics weren’t as defined as they could have been. In one room for example it appeared you could go down a staircase where you were, but in actuality you had to be in a different spot, but the camera angle totally obscured this. Another example is in the first boss fight where you need to get the Incredible Hulk wannabe to hit to levers, but even when you think you are lined up for him to run into them, it turns out you aren’t and so you spend a few different tries playing “Guess and check” hoping he hits it THIS TIME. Better angles on a lot of rooms would have helped immensely with issues like these.

Some of the graphics are amazing. One good example is at the beginning of the game when Fiona is wearing bed sheets. The sheets ripple and move as if they were actually silk/satin. I was very impressed by this scene, and a lot of the cut scenes in fact.

Overall nothing visually impressed me, but it was quite nice to look at. When I had the time to explore without being chased within an inch of my life that is.

Graphics rating: 7/10

3. Sound

The voice acting was not very good, in my opinion. All of the enemy voices acting made me laugh at first. They were poorly done and didn’t fit the characters at all. Debilitas was a high pitched boy, while Riccardo and Daniella’s voices were just off. I wasn’t a fan of Fiona’s either.

Hewie at least sounded like a dog. Spot on there.

The normal gameplay music was average at best. It did its best to be ominous and spooky, but it was more annoying than anything. However the music does pick up a bit when you encounter an enemy. It fits the chase and frantic nervousness and panicky aspects of Fiona pretty well. But you’ll be hearing it a LOT and it’s the only music or noise you’ll hear during this time save for the same repetitive poorly spoken dialogue from Fiona and her antagonist at this time, so if you don’t love it, you’ll quickly come to hate it. Contrast this with the well done “Scissorsman is nearby and he likes to disembowel things” music from Clock Tower. You can tell Haunting Ground is trying to do the same thing, but like all the games is it try to emulate at the same time, it falls short of the mark.

Like the plot, the sound effects, music, and voice acting are tepid and not a high point of the game.

Sound Rating: 5.5/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Sadly in a game about precision timing and needing absolute control, Haunting Ground manages to royally screw the pooch in this aspect. There can be anywhere from a one to FIVE second delay in command giving and for it to actually happen on the screen. Oh man, especially with praising Hewie. You’ll tell him to sit, then try and praise him, and the game will often freak as if it doesn’t know whether to say “Good Boy” or pet him, as both are possible options depending on location. And god help you if you praise him in battle or while being chased and the compute decided to have you go over to him and pet him. ARRRGH!

And speaking of Hewie, the right analog stick is how you issue him commands. For the same reasons you NEVER use an analog stick in a 2-D fighter, they really should have assigned the D-Pad to Hewie Commands. But because the controls for Fiona are the left analog, it made sense layout wise for the right analog to control Hewie in order to do both at the same time. But because we’re talking analog, sometimes the commands you give get garbled. Say you want Hewie to sit and then shake. Quite a few times you will just keep saying, “Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!” Instead of “Sit! Shake!” Why? Because both commands involve pressing in the Right analog stick. So even when Hewie is sitting, you tell him to sit? Yep, that’s Haunting Ground’s controls for you.

There are other delays as well. Like closing a door? It’s very easy to open one (unless it’s locked of course), but closing them? It’s as if you have to stand in an exact spot that only the computer knows for Fiona to get you are pressing the O button to close the door and not for your own health! Another is with ladders.

There are also the aspects of gameplay where Fiona panics. The more scared she gets the more she will fall, freak out, and you will lose control of her. She will only be able to plead for help instead of issue commands to Hewie, and eventually you just won’t be able to do anything with her but let the fear subside. It’s a great idea, and you can tell Capcom tried to implement a lot of what Silicon Knights did with Eternal Darkness, but like the Clock Tower Homage’s, this falls short. You have items to stem off panic, but you have to use them right away as when you get to scared you can’t use them. And of course when you use them, the panic starts climbing again anyway, making them rather useless.

Hiding can also be frustrating. Where there are lots of places to hide, the game seems to be flighty as to when you can use them or not. There’s an alchemist room only you can fit into at the beginning of the game. Sometimes you can hide in there even when your monstrous pursuer is right behind you. Other times you can’t. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Again, annoyance and frustrating are adjectives best used to describe the gameplay here.

Aside from lag in a SURVIVAL HORROR game and the Hewie control issues aside, Fiona controls quite well and handles seamlessly. The controls are very basic and you can learn them very quickly, especially as for the first hour of the game, you are walked through all the different abilities and commands you can do in the game. But that’s about the only shining point in this area.

I was amazingly disappointed with the controls for the most part. But then I remembered it was a Capcom horror game and it all made sense. But they are a decisive improvement from the old Resident Evil controls we had to deal with for so many years.

The delays and horrible interface with Hewie really brought down what should have been the best part of the game. Nothing’s more frustrating than having maxed up your friendship with Hewie and telling him to attack, only to have him stand there looking at you wondering why you’re not enjoying being pummeled or slashed to bits.

If you can handle a good deal of frustration and living with yourself saying, “No! Don’t sit! BITE!” or “Hide! Hide! He’s nowhere around, get in the damn closet! You did it when you were exploring! Do it now! NOW! Oh crap here is he. Attack! No! ATTACK!”, then you can be able to enjoy the aspects of this game that are in fact fun.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 3.5/10

5. Replayability

Haunting Ground is very linear in plot. There are some hidden cut scenes you can find by backtracking when you don’t have to, or some special one time hiding spots that earn you some good cut scenes. But as for replaying the game over?

Well, there are quite a lot of endings. You have your usual assortment of end game scenes, although none of them are very rewarding or really explanatory of what just happened and why you went through all of this. The game gives you some mumbo jumbo about life force and alchemy, but it’s shallow and thrown together.

However, there’s also a lot of getting killed endings that I found. All are quite well done and I appreciate the fact that Haunting Ground leaves certain things up to the imagination rather than showing them. Imagination can always outdo graphics after all. The getting killed endings, like in most well done horror games, are always better than the actual “endings” when you beat the game.

There’re unlockables as well such as different costumes for both Fiona and Hewie. Each one affects gameplay in someway.

Finally, a very fun reason to play through the game again is to see what happens to your memos/diary on your second playthrough. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s great.

Look, I may have bitched about the control issues this game has, but once you resign yourselves to them as we all did Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil and all the other games that have rewarding qualities except for gameplay, you’ll find a lot worth pursuing in this very short (under ten hours) game. Heck, there’s even a way to beat the game in less than 3 hours!

There’s a Hard Mode as well, which unlocks you more costumes, one of which makes Hewie invulnerable, which I find amusing as you just beat the game on the highest difficulty, so what need do you have for it then?

In all there are a lot of hidden things you’ll probably miss in Haunting Ground in your first playthrough and it’ll be worth a few more look-through. Especially as you are now used to the controls.

Replayability Rating: 7/10

6. Balance

In some ways, this game is quite hard, and in others it is quite easy. The computer has excellent AI and is always faster and stronger than you, so you have to outthink it. But be careful not to do the same thing over and over again, as the AI will catch on to your hiding spot of choice and you’ll be a sitting duck. This is again reminiscent of Clock Tower, but your options are more limited here.

The odds are stacked against you and very rarely will you and Hewie be able to defeat an enemy, even with explosive items that can actually do damage. You’ll have to make/find boots that double or quintuple (!) your damage in order to stand a chance.

If you’ve never played a game in true survival horror fashion and are just used to killing things, you’ll find this game quite hard at first. If you’ve played anything remotely like this, you’ll find Haunting Ground quite easy and repetitive. But no matter what, there are some challenges in dealing with the computer controlled assailants. Too bad your computer controlled helper is an idiot.

Balance Rating: 7/10

7. Originality

The dog training/interface is quite unusual, and unique to a survival horror game. It’s just too bad it wasn’t done better. It’s a great idea that I’ve only seen touched on in a few other games like Obscure, Ico, and heck, even Sonic 2 had a computer controlled sidekick, but Tails just merely mimicked your actions. In Haunting Ground, you’ve actually got to train the puppy to respond to your controls correctly the first time and quickly. Good luck with that though.

However, this is not the first Survival Horror game where you have a partner you have to use as a target while you run or that can fight since you can’t. That game would be Hell Night/Dark Messiah (Euro/Japanese title), which is a first person survival horror game that is amongst my most favorite games of all time. There your partner is anything from a little girl to an insane serial killer. Haunting Ground reminds me a lot of Hell Night when it comes to Hewie, except that in hell Night the controlling of your partner was spot on and the game was a lot more fun and had an excellent plot.

Aside from that, “Girl trapped in spooky mansion” is amazingly trite, and as there is little to no plot or character development, it’s rather frustrating as it would be very nice indeed to have more details of what has occurred and why.

American only gamers will think Haunting Ground is highly original, but the truth is it takes the innovative and most fun aspects from Eternal Darkness, Clock Tower, Obscure, and Hell Night and tries to put them all into one game. The problem is, Haunting Ground does a second to third rate job of each of these aspects. But as all of these games save Eternal Darkness are cult hits and little known to the average US gamer, Haunting Ground will get a lot more praise for originality than it actually deserves.

Originality: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

Although I enjoyed the first 10-20% of the game, it got old quickly. The AI for the computer may be good at finding you, but other than that, the game is amazingly repetitive and contains way too much backtracking. When I got over my niggling annoyance at the controls, I ended up just being bored at the game. It’s a consistent “Explore, find an item or solve a puzzle/run from monster. Repeat for 10 hours.” There’s little thought or brain power needed after the first boss and the game still plays pretty much the same past him.

I was also bored with the puzzles. Why are there puzzles in a horror games. Especially puzzles based on pushing blocks around? And in a boss fight. When these happens, the suspension of reality came crashing down and it completely wrenched me from my empathy for the characters. Sometimes, even in a horror game, there are some things so absurd and illogical you can’t justify them. There’s a lot of this in Haunting Ground.

Most of my time playing through the game the first time was annoyance at the controls mixed with apathy. The second play through, it was all apathy. I was thankful for the “quick ending.”

Maybe it is because I’ve played games that did everything Haunting ground has done, and did it better, but I just couldn’t get into it.

Addictiveness Rating: 4/10

9. Appeal Factor

I think long time Capcom fans aren’t going to know what to make of this game. They’ve been conditioned by the company to think “Survival Horror” is “OMGWTF! KILL MONSTERS DEAD.” They turned the genre into action hack N’ slash. Haunting Ground is their first effort to make a true horror game where them emphasis is on survival. I applaud their efforts, especially after their horrible raping of the Clock Tower license. It’s not as good as the games I’ve mentioned repeatedly through this review, but it’s far better at hitting these aspects than any other game they have made before. The question is have they conditioned their audience with enough Pavlovian conditioning that they will in fact rebel over what they should have done in the first place? Sadly, I’m guessing yes.

However, for those actually looking for a game that gets the concept of horror right, you won’t be disappointed (save by laggy controls). This is the closest thing to a Survival Horror game on the PS2. The Xbox got Obscure and the Game Cube got Eternal Darkness. Now there’s one for each system. And of course there’s the Fatal Frame games!

Haunting Ground provides the casual gamer with an excellent experience they should appreciate and respect, even if it is not their bag. And for the gamer with more distinguished tastes in this genre, you’ll find yourself feeling nostalgic for the other games, but accepting Haunting Ground as a decent next gen successor.

Even though there are parts of Haunting Ground I find poor, it’s still an experience I would want most gamers to try, especially if they’ve never played a true Survival Horror game. It’s always good to go outside the box, you know?

Appeal Factor 6.5/10

10. Miscellaneous

Overall, I do have to say we’ve got an above average game here. It’s still not as good as Resident Evil 4 (according to the masses) or Obscure (according to me) in regards to the best Survival Horror game released this year. Haunting Ground however is a nice return to the style of survival horror I used to enjoy. It takes a lot of chances trying to reintroduce this style of gameplay to the gaming public again, and even though I loathed the controls at times or thought the aural aspects were mediocre, there’s a lot to really like about the game. It has great cut scenes, some good concepts and reminds me of all the little things that make me love this genre.

At the same time we have things that show Capcom still doesn’t get it, from block puzzles, to imprecise controls, and a wanton disregard for any depth to characters or plot. And sadly, Capcom has tried to impress upon the casual gamer that they do better Survival Horror than anyone else. Icky to that thought.

I look at Haunting Ground as the promise of what’s to come. It’s unpolished and sloppy in some areas, but the core of the game in wonderful and I have no doubt a sequel using the same ideas or even the same team of Fiona and Hewie will be an excellent game.

For Thirty Dollars you’re getting a game that does a lot of things mediocre. That’s not the same as half-assed. Capcom did a decent job with Haunting Ground and I’d rather see them do a lot more of these, then yet another zombie filled shoot ‘me up.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

The Scores
Story: 5.5
Graphics: 7
Sound: 5.5
Gameplay/Control: 3.5
Replayability: 7
Balance: 7
Originality: 6
Addictiveness: 4
Appeal Factor: 6.5
Miscellaneous: 6
Overall: 5.8
Final Score: 6.0 (Above Average)

Short Attention Span Summary
Haunting Ground is a short game you can beat over a weekend. That combined with annoying lag filled gameplay makes it hard for me to recommend it as a purchase. A rental? Definitely, but I’d rather see your 30$ going towards Eternal Darkness, the Fatal Frame games, or trying to import a copy of Hell Night, and even snagging a copy of Clock Tower on Ebay. Capcom’s made some heavy strides since buggering up Clock Tower 3 (actually 4), but Haunting Grounds not quite ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best the genre has to offer. Still, I’d rather play it than the first 3 Resident Evil’s or any Dino Crisis game.