Platform: PlayStation 2
Genre: Survival Horror
Review Date: 6/25/07
Firmly in the mold of "Clock Tower 3," Capcom refines their "hide-and-seek with psychotic killers" gameplay mechanism to perfection in what could easily be considered a sequel in the series. "Haunting Ground" is a superbly crafted game in every regard, except that it is simply no fun to play. Eighteen year-old Fiona Belli wakes up naked in a steel cage one evening. Wrapping herself up in a sheet, she manages to escape the cage and starts to explore her bizarre and hideous surroundings. She's trapped in a giant castle that happens to be teeming with demented psychos that all have an unhealthy interest in her. As she starts putting together the pieces of her fractured memories, she realizes that her parents are dead and that she's the sole heir to the castle. She is also custodian to some mystical powers. Amusingly, when she finally finds some clothes to wear, it's a pervy gothic-lolita outfit that makes her breasts look hideously large and misshaped. Ick. Yes, this is definitely an M-rated game, and the voyeuristic presentation is disturbingly perverse.
Early on in the game, Fiona rescues a dog named Hewie who becomes her loyal companion and guardian. His cooperation is required to solve many of the puzzles in the castle, but unfortunately he's not very good at dissuading Fiona's numerous pursuers, so the only option Fiona has is to run and hide from them. The game presents a small handful of hiding places to use, but they can only be used once (if even that) before her attackers catch on. Like the "Clock Tower" games, Fiona is completely defenseless and is easily scared. Once she starts to panic, the screen gets all wiggy, the controls stop responding, and she blindly runs into things, making her more vulnerable to attacks. Not a good situation to be in. To make matters worse, you can't access her inventory for stamina restoring items while she's panicking, which leads her to certain doom.
The only way I was able to make it through "Clock Tower 3" was to enable a "no fear" cheat, but no such salvation exists in "Haunting Ground." The difficulty ramps up considerably about three hours into the game, which forced me to quit out of frustration and despair. This is quite disappointing, because Fiona's tale is fascinating, and the bizarre and twisted atmosphere of the game is so rich and compelling. Unfortunately, the constant "run and hide" routine sucks all enjoyment and immersion out of the game and is an annoying and increasingly difficult obstacle to making any progress. The frequency of these random encounters is quite maddening, but thankfully Fiona's enemies don't pop in and out of thin air like they do in "Clock Tower 3." Quite honestly, I'd be perfectly happy if the game had no chasing in it at all, as the story, character development, and puzzles are enough to keep me satisfied (even if some of the puzzles are completely illogical). Another in the long list of games that are more fun to watch than play. However, I doubt the gaming public would agree.
Production wise, the game is almost perfect. The graphics are absolutely gorgeous and the level design is superb. It creates a very tense and creepy atmosphere, accented by sparse musical cues, dramatic lighting, oppressive architecture, and distorted angles. Fiona is modeled well, emotes convincingly, and animates very nicely due to some excellent motion capture work. Likewise, Hewie's movements and characteristics make for a very realistic canine companion, and his interactions with Fiona truly express an emotional bond. "Rule Of Rose" probably derived some inspiration from this game. For the most part, the in-game cutscenes are well executed, but feature blatantly forced handheld camera movement and the ever-so-annoying Japanese triple edit technique. The voice acting is competent and the text translation for Fiona is very good. She reacts exactly how you'd expect a reasonable teenager to, and there are none of the clumsy linguistic artifacts that you usually see with English localizations. The only bad audio I noticed was Hewie's bark, which sounds scratchy and overly mechanical. His whines, growls, and whimpers sound great, though. Loading times are effectively non-existent and the seamless expanse of the castle is very impressive. Especially after playing "Death By Degrees," which brings up a paralyzing loading screen every thirty seconds or so. The controls are slick and responsive and the menu is quickly and easily accessed. My only complaint here is that the game map is confusing, not very useful, and you can't zoom into it. Perhaps that just adds to the tension of trying to find a way out.
"Haunting Ground" is not a game for everyone. It may be the final word in the "women in peril" genre, and really only appeals to fans of adult oriented psychological horror. I'm sure the game holds numerous rewards for those who can master the tedious, time-consuming, and overly difficult art of evasion, but for me, the pain of playing the game seriously outweighs the pleasure.