Haunting Ground Reader Review
Okay, I may have dropped a few clues lately as to my sheer overwhelming LOVE of this underrated classic so it's probably best I justify my statements with a reader review.
Haunting Ground is an oddity from the Capcom stables, borrowing more from the Clock Tower series of games they bought up than any of their attempts at horror, and feauring a buxom-busomed young lady who does very little fighting. It's far more a puzzle horror than the Resident Evil games, more cerebrally challenging and deeper than first glances may appear to make it seem.
But let's get into the plot, shall we? Fiona Belli is a young woman on a holiday with her loving parents, when a horrid car crash spoils their day somewhat. Both her parents die, and she is dragged from the car to a nearby castle. In nothing but a dirty sheet, locked in a cage, a mysterous dog helps her out. From hereon in the game gets cryptic and mind-meltingly complicated, as Fiona quickly realises the inhabitants of this castle that she is supposedly inheriting now are a few barrels short of a laugh. Armed with a revealing outfit, a trusty canine sidekick called Hewie and her bleached-blonde brain, she rushes around the enormous trap-laden castle desperately searching for a way out. If you get too scared, the screen washes out a little until Fiona goes into a full-blown state of panic - running around, crawling around, running into closed doors. Fiona is vulnerable. Alone, with only a dog to call a friend. Against the odds and fighting for her life and her sanity. This is not a game for those who need to compensate for their tiny... erm... IQ! Yes, IQ. That's it. No no, I was not going to say penis. Honest.
Haunting Ground may have a plot that is difficult to digest, and a mechanic that is somewhat disorientating, but it blossoms somewhat after a while and you realise in a very strange way it all makes perfect sense. And to compensate, the gameplay goes on the mantra of less being more - and it is surprisingly effective at that. You're not going to kill your stalkers, not yet anyway, but with the aid of Hewie, traps and that old chestnut of hiding away from your persuers until they get distracted by a pretty butterfly you slowly make your way around the gorgeous castle - this game is probably one of the best-looking titles on the PS2 and that is no exaggeration. The attention to detail is incredible and the sheer depth of the winding story will leave you with an awful lot to think about on those long, cold nights that seem to last forever here in England.
Hewie is smarter than your average pup. The gorgeous albino alsatian is an invaluable friend and ally in this dangerous place, and with the deft flick of your right stick you can praise him for good deeds, scold him when he is naughty (and he will be naughty - let him get away with blue murder and he will pee on your leg!), order him to sit and stay or follow you and watch as your companion blossoms into an adorable furball of awesomeness. His barks and whines are a little on the mechanical side but this is such a minor niggle when the co-operation between Fiona and Hewie is so well designed, thought out and works - surprisingly working much better than a certain airhead from Resident Evil 5 does. Can we exchange her for Hewie? I'd rather have a companion with an IQ in double figures!
The progression comes in two forms. One are traditional genre-laden puzzles, but are done so with a zeal and relish that is refreshing and somewhat disturbing in equal measure. Whether it be finding a key in an oddly well-kept underground church, a strange new species of flesh-eating moth or pulling a Mandragora out of the ground and having to listen to it scream in agony as you haul it to a strange ugly creature to nosh on (is that vegetarian or carnivorous? One of the MANY questions you will ponder!) the game pulls no punches in making you fully aware that it IS messing with your head. It fully expects you to be freaked out or find some of the content potentially disturbing, and it is in this no-holds-barred setting that the tree bears fruit; you laugh, you cry, you cream your two-seconds-ago-pristine white underpants. It even goes as far to mislead you with items that have no use, and perplex you as you slowly use logic to decipher the mysteries of this strange place. Most games wouldn't get away with this, but Haunting Ground is already messing with your head so much that you quickly gloss over this niggle and think more about the task at hand. Whether by choice or by some miraculous stroke of luck, they get away with it.
The other progression trick is disabling traps to move onward. Traps are an insta-death mechanic but are never really unfair in their usage. You do kind of get the clue before you reach them, and it's usually not that hard or complicated to get around them when you think about it. With the aid of Hewie, you fast realise that this game intends you to use your head - something it does extremely well, and by using it you fast discover how wonderfully crafted the experience is.
However, for all of this Haunting Ground is quick to punish the inept, the stupid, the idle and the slow. There are many other instances of insta-death, traps aside, and for a while they do grate. It is understandable to be slightly offended by a game that is so eager to point out your limitations and stupidity, but it is the sign of a solid game when you curse yourself - not the game - for your ineptitude. If only I did this and maybe I should try that are lines you will be reeling off as you doggedly (Oh god the puns make them stop!) push deeper into the creepy world in which you find yourself in, trying to make sense of it all and hoping you'll soon find your way out.
Of course, there are boss battles against your various stalkers and these, again, are about using your head and your surroundings to the fullest effect possible. The ends of many of them are incredibly dramatic, played out in the gorgeous in-game engine, moving and tinted with irony and pity. You learn the inhabitants are as much a victim in part as yourself and with the issues they have, it is no small wonder why they have ended up being driven insane. It's the sign of an excellent script that for one of the stalkers, the ending is so potent and moving that you actually feel for her - you want to undo what you just did, because it is just not fair. It is in this setting that you realise that what you have in your hands is a game that goes against the grain and taps into that part of your mind that makes you doubt, feel and want to cry. It hits home that this is what horror should be - not just making you scared, but making you feel guilty for your own actions, however justifiable they may be in the circumstances.
Of course, Haunting Ground is hardly a title for everyone because it really is somewhat a purists title - somewhat predictably it even managed to flop terrifically in a market at the time starved for good horror (Competing with Resident Evil 4 probably did it no favours). But if you give it a bit of time, it wins you over, slowly but surely making you realise that to escape, you must stoop to the level your persuers are on. Constantly making you second-guess, making you think and feel. And with four different endings, one typically comedic one as standard, it is also a game that has a lot of depth and a lot of charm. Be it mandragoras, a haunted corpse, the maid or the Mammoth's Head in the corner of the room, there is lots of eye candy and lots of puzzles and surreal bites of humour that lift the mood from time to time. It is one of the best deviations from the horror mould in the last decade or so, and if you haven't tried it but love good, solid horror you owe it to yourself to get your hands on a copy and indulge in one of the most ludricrously guilty pleasures devised. With secret outfits that are simply obscene, a lovely soundtrack, lovely simple controls and a deep and rich castle so lovingly and cruelly laid out for you, Haunting Ground is perhaps one of the best things the horror genre has spat out in a long time and is the sort of bold, forward-looking game we should be encouraging games developers to take more of a chance on. It's got faults, of course, but it is so close to perfection you can almost reach out and touch that big 10 score. It's not a 10, sadly, but it's a very well deserved nine out of ten even despite it's twisted tendancies. That's what this game is, what it is about and it is what you grow to love and long for. For a game that is four years old, it still looks fabulous, still moves and is still able to hold its head high above the precipice, standing side-to-side with more current games whilst gently mocking their senseless violent tendancies under its breath.
Haunting Ground, in summary, is a wonderfully different deviation from the norm and if you like your horror, like puzzles and feel up to the task of letting your feeble brain process the sheer magnitude of mind-meltingly strange moments, it's a breath of fresh air in a market that is now starting to stagnate again.
And you lot never bought it.
Shame. On. You.
9 / 10