With most traditional adventure game franchises content to morph into kill-heavy action spectaculars these days in a bid to tap into the lucrative casual gamer market, the traditional atmospheric, narrative-rich, puzzle-driven genre has started floundering on the rocks. Occasionally the adventure game corpse threatens to twitch into life, but most of us have long since accepted that its glory days are long gone. But then - confounding all expectations - Capcom quietly goes and releases an unpretentious horror thriller about a young girl trapped in a castle ("Not again!" you cry) with only a white Alsatian for company and all seems right with the world again.
Crafted by the same team behind the underappreciated (at least here in Europe, anyway) Clock Tower series and sharing one or two of its main design philosophies, Haunting Ground is a game without guns. A game without status bars. A game where your best means of survival is finding the most cunning hiding places from a lumbering perverted handyman and an assortment of weirdoes that would make the Addams Family seem well adjusted. A game that has you striking up a friendship with a faithful pooch. Haunting Ground isn't your typical videogame, and we're extremely grateful for that.
The Sisters Of No Mercy
The whole thing kicks off when the game's protagonist, a pretty young blonde called Fiona Belli, wakes from a car crash in which her parent's appear to perish to find that she's being held captive in a Gothic castle. A castle she's apparently the heir to for reasons you hope to find out. Running around the castle and its expansive grounds, grabbing some clothes "too tight around the chest" (Oh. Handy, that), it quickly becomes apparent that a great retarded brute of a man called Debilitas (the aforementioned handyman) thinks that you're his 'darling', while an ice maiden of a cook called Daniella seems to have plans to make you her next meal. So much so that the pair of them seem to stop at nothing to get their hands on your milky white flesh. Great.
Thus begins the greatest chase-based game ever. Think ICO and the regular pursuits by the swirly black menaces, only more like Bluto chasing Olive Oyl in this instance. And like Olive Oyl, Fiona has all the running power of a stereotypically hapless rubber-limbed girly girl, stumbling in a graceless panic as she almost dissolves in blind terror at the sight of a big hairy brute rubbing his crotch and swinging his big spade-like hands towards her, while he makes genuinely terrifying wordless grunts and groans on his relentless pursuit of this sweet meat. Daniella's not exactly someone you'd invite around for a game of Connect 4, either. Bunch of weirdoes, one and all.
Stray too near to your pursuers and Fiona's palpable sense of panic becomes extraordinarily well communicated to the player via a rapidly throbbing Dual Shock heartbeat, along with an increasingly faltering running action that'll see Ms Belli charging into furniture when she becomes completely freaked out - with a terrifying colour drain washing through the screen to reflect her state of bloodless terror. Get caught and the screams, thuds squelches and bloodlust laughs and moans that accompany the bloody Game Over message are almost too much to bear. Never before has a game delivered the sheer sense of utter horror of being chased like this, and if you have a genuine phobia of being pursued you'll probably not want to play Haunting Ground. It'll give you nightmares.
Hide and squeak
But never fear; help is around the corner thanks to Debilitas' limited IQ and inability to spot a decent hiding place when it smacks him in his hideously ugly mush, and later Daniella's apparent disgust and shame at her own reflection. As a consequence Fiona can slink her slender frame under beds, benches, and climb into wardrobes out of sight until the coast is clear. In addition, once you gain the trust of Hewie, the cute white Alsatian, you can command this canine assassin to defend your honour and fend off the attentions of your pursuers by issuing basic attack commands via the right stick.
Although the game never resorts to leaving oh-so-handy firearms lying around like every other survival-horror title ever, there are weapons of sorts (like explosive magnesium), which lobbed or placed in the path of assailants will send them scurrying off like wounded soldiers and buy you some time, but in the main you're left to use your wits, find specific 'Retaliation points' (one-off attacks like lobbing a bookcase on top of them) or simply hide as much as possible.
In terms of the puzzles, Haunting Ground is typical Capcom. Much like every title it has ever put out in this genre you'll be facing a whole lot of locked doors, objects with pieces missing, and environmental puzzles that require liberal use of Hewie to play fetch on your behalf. Most are pretty logical and satisfying, with most of the game's problems emanating from the random - and eventually irritating - reappearance of your pursuers. Haunting Ground also suffers from an often-sprawling layout, which is tough to memorise and requires an immense amount of backtracking as you struggle to recall just where that locked door was that you left behind.
The real frustration occurs when you make headway, only to find yourself locked in a lengthy chase that tends to send you massively off course. That wouldn't be so bad were it not for the game's tendency to repeat that tedious scenario when you return to the scene. While the chases are initially tense and hugely entertaining in measured doses, finding yourself stuck and prevented from even basic exploration by such randomly repetitive sequences can make even the happiest gamer a little testy. It's the respawning enemy syndrome applied in a different scenario, but with ultimately the same net result: frustration. As Fiona herself would probably utter at this stage to her shame-faced pooch: "Naughty, Capcom, bad," before administering a short sharp bop on the nose with a stern index finger. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does take the sheen off what does seem, at times, a wonderfully atmospheric slice of horror.
Plot your save-games correctly (via the game's many clocks, naturally), though, and you can begin to circumvent such design deficiencies and carve your way through the kind of fiercely thickening plot that Capcom specialises in. The key to enjoying the game is simply not to get too bogged down in your repeated failures. It's a game that demands a patient approach, and as such the enforced slower pace and trial and error can be a bit of a drag if you're used to making consistent progress in your games and being spoon fed clues about what to do and where to go. In Haunting Ground it's very much a case of wandering around the same twenty-odd rooms over and over until the penny drops and you realise you're meant to use a particular object in a specific room. Some hardened old-school gamers such as myself might actually prefer the game's refusal to spoon-feed you the answer. After all, half the fun of games such as these is the poking around in true old school adventure-stylee. Perhaps, though, it would have been more enjoyable if Capcom had have measured the chases a little more rather than seemingly making them random and obstructive. Going through these motions one too many times results in the fun factor falling down a notch in our eyes.
Another minor flaw is Hewie's perpetual waywardness and disobedience. Half the time the stupid hound is nowhere to be seen when you need him (yet pops up incredibly fast when he ought to have been left way behind after you've, for example, climbed a ladder), ignores most of your plaintive requests, and is nowhere near as useful as he should be in combat - even when he is allegedly using his jaws of death on your assailant. At its best, this co-operative element works like a joyous union of ICO mechanics in a survival-horror context, but at worst its adherence to the eerily spot-on selective hearing of the canine race is plain annoying. You're supposedly able to train Hewie to be more obedient by praising, treating and chastising in the right proportions, but we'll be damned if the game ever offers any clues as to how you're doing. It's one thing having no status bar, but another to leave the player utterly clueless as to whether they're on the money with their tactics or not. Sometimes actual feedback, you know, helps.
Having spent so long wittering on about the gameplay, we've almost entirely neglected to report on how the game actually performs as a spectacle. Firstly, a massive round of applause for Capcom's decision to give PAL gamers the option to display the game in Progressive Scan. It took so long for Capcom to even support 60Hz that we're wallowing in an embarrassment of PS2 riches at this stage. We only wish more PAL ports featured this under-used option. In terms of its visual merits, it's a typically lavish Capcom effort full of grandeur and splendour that's well above par next to its recent PS2 Resident Evil Outbreak efforts, an improvement on Onimusha 3 and at times it even matches the luscious detail and atmosphere present in the most recent Devil May Cry offering. In common with most recent Capcom horror efforts, the game dispenses with the static pre-rendered style favoured for so long and takes every opportunity to sweep an automatic camera across the stylish gothic scenes. Set in near darkness, the castle is suitably creepy at every turn, bedecked with the kind of intricate furnishings, ambient lighting and incidental detail that discerning gamers will love. Check out the scuttling spider that shifts in its web when you enter the cellar, for example.
On the other hand, the non-interactive nature of the scenery causes a degree of frustration. Items which look perfectly interesting produce nothing of real note, and much of what you initially admire ends up being of little consequence. And with precious few characters to interact with almost all the way through, the game's narrative ends up stunted; the fragments of your past are delivered all too rarely and the game settles into a comfortable pattern of object-hunting, puzzle-solving, chases and the odd all-or-nothing boss encounter that seems to rely on the player's patience and luck than the kind of skill traditionally associated with defeating Capcom bosses. What is there though in terms of cut-scenes is right up there with Capcom's best (courtesy of Robot once again), and the subtle, sparing use of creepy audio really cut a chill through us at the game's best moments.
But the bottom line is that for all the game's startlingly good points, it's not without its flaws. What starts out as a refreshingly original strand of horror adventure becomes stifled by its own eventual lack of ambition to break away from the norms instilled by two generations of Japanese horror adventures. It settles into the kind of well-worn comfortable object-collection/repair pattern seen in so many horror adventures when you wish it could just be a little more imaginative in this regards. It similarly fails raise its game in the combat department, believing that the fear of an all-powerful being equates to genuine terror - well, it might realise its goals if your assailants appearances were not such a hindrance in your quest to escape. In essence our chief gripe is that we simply wish we could have evened the odds more often; especially as the whole means of concocting 'weapons' via some bizarre chemistry set is just poorly explained and seemingly down to pot luck. Without a solid means to truly fight back it feels like the hide and seek equivalent of Resident Evil, but can definitely claim to be far scarier as a result.
For adventure fans it's definitely worth checking out, as its something a little different, has atmosphere in spades and in most senses is a high quality title. In fact we'd go so far to say that it's the best game to emerge in the genre since Project Zero II. Just bear in mind you'll almost certainly reflect on your time with the game with a few mixed feelings. It's so nearly brilliant it hurts.