Review by lilithdarkstorm

Reviewed: 04/21/10

One of the most unique and scariest games in the Survival Horror genre

Believe it or not, there was a time where I knew little to nothing about survival horrors. About 4 years ago the term to me meant ‘House of the Dead’; a game that just consisted of shooting zombies in a haunted house with little to no thought or scares behind them. This was until I bought Haunting Ground. It was a random purchase; I can’t remember why it caught my eye in the first place. But thanks to this game I now know how broad the term ‘Survival Horror’ is. So what makes it so special?

The game begins with Fiona, a female teenage college student, waking up wearing nothing but a sheet inside an animal’s cage, in an underground basement that is covered in blood, dirt and shadows. As she escapes her cage, she learns of the death of her parents in a car accident and that she has inherited a gothic castle, all through the encounters of the residents inside it. However inside these dark walls lies a sinister secret and the residence don’t seem to want Fiona to leave…

The plot may not be the most unique in history but what keeps it apart from the others of its kind is the small use of supernatural, science and mystery added into the story. While exploring the mansion you will discover documents that add background story, but at the end you can progress without knowledge of it. The characters also make this experience unique as well. Fiona is chased by 4 individuals, all representing different areas of the castle. Though their goals to hunt and kill Fiona are the same, the way they chase, attack her and why are unique to each enemy. The first and most frequent chaser shown on promotional materials for the game, is Debilitas; a bulky man with massive strength but with a mentality of a child. He sees Fiona as a life sized doll and tries to pursue her. The next is Daniella, the castle’s beautiful maid and cook, she moves very machine like as she is a ‘man made’ human who lacks the ability to feel and cannot bear children. Out of jealously and her manic mood swings she chases Fiona. Then there’s Riccardo, the man in a monk's outfit with a gun, his obsession with her is due to him wanting to borrow Fiona's ‘womb’. And last but not least is Lorenzo, a mysterious old man who claims to want to help poor Fiona out of this nightmare, but does he have other ideas? Character development never goes beyond what we find out about them upon first encounter, and the true mystery of the dark castle is never fully revealed, however that adds to the scare factor as it gets to the point where you’re too afraid to ask what’s really going on and just want to escape with your life!

One of the reasons video games are popular is because players love a chance to be someone they’re not’ such as heroes with big, massive weapons that can wipe the floor with any monster or villain that comes their way. Some horror games (Resident Evil for example) also provide it. Haunting Ground instead puts you in control of a fragile, defenceless 18 year old girl with no weapons or items to fend off her killers...are you scared now?

Like an average human being Fiona has no knowledge of machinery or guns so they’re not provided her. Sure, Fiona can kick, but it does nothing, instead she has to use her wits to hide from her pursuers as she finds means to escape the castle. When a stalker is near Fiona, the background music will first mute, to warn of an enemy nearby, and when the chaser sees her the music will dramatically change to a fast paced track that is intended to increase the tension and fright the player is feeling. Fiona has little health and defence, which is not shown by any health bar. As Fiona continuously runs her stamina drops and getting hit also lowers her health, you must read her physical reaction (such as her clucking her stomach) to see how much more she can take. If left untreated she will eventually die, obviously leading to a Game Over. The game over screen will send a chill down any player's spine, especially if Fiona is killed by any of the stalkers, after the screen fades to red you can hear the killer doing ‘things’ to Fiona body...if that is not enough to frighten you, I don't know what is!

To escape death, Fiona has to hide from her enemy long enough until the close is clear. When hiding the game kindly provides you with on screen text to indicate when it’s safe to come out, or if you’ve been spotted so you have to hide again. Also when hiding you go into first person view; seeing all the actions that Fiona will see whilst hiding, which plays brilliantly into getting the players mindset into the game and the nightmare Fiona is living. Hiding spots include underneath beds, inside cupboards and in bushes. As the castle is quite huge you’ll go into multiple different rooms, explore gardens and more, so you rarely see the same hiding spot used twice, but the number available does decrease as you progress within the game. The system works so that if you use a hiding space too frequently the pursuer will catch onto your plans and find you; so you have to run away again. However there seems to be a small fault because it seems in some cases that this doesn’t always apply, in some situations the A.I of the chaser is randomised, giving you an unfair advantage. For example during the first chapter of my first play run I hid in the bath tub & behind the shower curtain 4 times in a row, yet Debilitas never found me once. Yet later on I hid in a completely new space and he found Fiona straight away. Most of the time though the game tries to play fair. You can also use evasion points that can distract or disable an enemy for a short period of time (such as throw acid onto one attacker, ouch!) these only work once, so they are not to be used lightly.

Fiona isn’t alone against the darkness though, a feature to aid the player is a white German Sheppard called Hewie; rescued by Fiona near the beginning of the game he helps Fiona through puzzles and minimal combat. Using the appropriate controls you can give commands to the dog as well as praise him (if he behaves well) or scold him (if he disobeys). Although Hewie will play a large part in helping Fiona escape long enough to hide, he can never kill any of the chasers. Hewie is extremely realistic in his movements and how he re-acts to his surroundings; he wags his tail, growls at enemies and traps, plays dead, the whole lot! He’s a warm welcomed factor to this game that I have not seen anywhere else (or used as effectively), and not only is he Fiona’s only chance for survival but he also provides the heart of the game. I hate dogs yet even I couldn’t resist Hewie’s charm!

A unique feature used to project fear into the player is the Panic Mode; as Fiona wonders the castle various objects may scare her, and the chaser will also cause her heart race as well. As her fear increases, the screen becomes fuzzy, graining and greyscale, making it harder to see. The controller will rumble to represent her heart beat, Fiona will also begin to stumble and her voice increases in pitch when calling out to Hewie. As she becomes completely overcome with fear, the screen almost becomes impossible to make out your surroundings and Fiona runs frantically with little control given to the player. In this state is where Fiona is the most fragile; she can die in just one hit in this condition, she can also trip and become too paralyzed with fear to move making her even more vulnerable and having to rely on Hewie to distract her pursuer. Though items can help and she gradually calms herself down over a period of time, the whole process itself makes gameplay rather interesting and unique. It also implants fear in the players hearts as they try to gain control over the poor woman. Though it can also be the cause of some frustration if killed several times in her panic state, overall it’s very lifelike and well thought-out.

Puzzles are the key to moving forward in each section of the castle, ranging from deactivating traps to opening secret passage ways. Some of the most thought-provoking puzzles look hard at first glance but become simple after the solution is uncovered, making multiple plays less daunting but also less challenging. However, as you’re mostly likely to take your time with the particular puzzle on the first go, you’re left wide open to being attacked by the stalker. Since there are limited hiding places in the game it falls into a deadly pattern of; being stalked, running all the way to a hiding place, losing your chaser, walking back to the puzzle and before you can attempt it your manic friend is back for more! The whole process can last from a few minutes or in some cases in hard mode, 25! Over time stalker patterns will be become noticeable and when that happens the whole process stops being scary and becomes a chore.

To pad out the game; the castle also provides small rooms for Fiona to take a breather and create ‘alchemy compounds’ with a special synthesizer machine. It’s effectively a mini game that requires the player to match up coloured orbs and create sequences to make a variety of items including health and sanity recoveries, offensive items and equipment for Fiona. The mini game itself is not explained very well within the game and is actually very hard to do correctly. You can find some items hidden within the game by using Hewie (or secret passwords) but there are plenty of create-only items to discover if you put aside the time to grind through it.

Graphics are one of the highest points in the game, detail to the characters and their surroundings are remarkable, some of the best on the system. Also in gameplay, when exploring the castle, there are no load times in between rooms, it’s all joined as one. Not only does it feel realistic but those who get frustrated with loading times will happily embrace this game!

The music is composed Seiko Kobuchi, who does a brilliant job of keeping the horror atmosphere together while also adding various elements from multiple genres. Whilst exploring the castle you get simple, yet effective, minimal background noises that prevent the game from sounding silent and keep the player alert at all times; such as breath sounds, crows gawking and dark drones. Each stalker also has their own theme that reflects their role in the game well, for example Daniella’s theme is techno inspired, which goes well with her robotic nature. The surprising factor also is that all the characters have a British accent! And are very well performed too! All the voice actors are extremely talented and are very convincing at either being the terrified Fiona or the psycho killers.

The reply value is fantastic as after the first completion you gain loads of extras to play around with. The game has 4 endings to uncover (that have different requirements for each), various ranks to accomplish and a hard mode. You also get a secret room unlocked after your first play which accesses you to the cut scene theatre, music library, concept art, character model demonstration, a mini game and alternative costumes (for both Fiona and Hewie) to use within the game. Various extras are only unlocked after achieving certain requirements, and thankfully as the game isn’t too long, it makes unlocking everything that much more fun.

Even after playing the critically acclaimed Silent Hill games and cult classic Project Zero series; Haunting Ground still stands as my favourite survival horror and one of my favourite games of all time. Despite the flaws I really enjoyed this game; it made my heart race and determined to unlock everything! Whether you’re a long term fan of survival horror or a complete newbie I recommend this, I found it hard at first since all the games I tend to play are the kind where the main character can defend him/herself, but this was a welcomed challenge and offered many fun elements as well as suspense. It’s unique and can be found cheaply second hand, buy it!

The Good:
+ Good story, characters are unique and well presented
+ Brilliant music, graphics and voice acting
+ Game mechanics are exceptional; well thought out, fun and varied
+ Horror atmosphere is incredibly strong and thorough
+ Plenty of unlockable content with 4 endings
+ No loading times!

The Bad:
- Can get a little repetitive
- Stalkers patterns are easily spotted and lose scare factor after time

In a sentence: One of the most unique and scariest games in the Survival Horror genre

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Haunting Ground (EU, 04/29/05)

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