Review by HighEntomologist
It's Scary Time, with Hewie the Dog and Fiona the Human.
Survival Horrors; a magnificent genre of the action-adventure games. Action games where the baddies pack a punch, ammo is scarce and there're quite a bunch of booby traps, all in all making for a spooky, eerie, jumpy and challenging experience, light-years away from the more arcade-y first or third person shooters most people know. And among these jewels of games (which were in decadence some years ago, but just now seem to have a comeback), an exotic subgenre of survival horror ups the ante: Stalker Horror games, where the baddies (normally just one single baddy) is nigh invincible and you have to hide from it. So let's see how good is this Stalker Survival Horror game (what a mouthful...)
Stalker games, just like Stalker movies (think Nightmare on Elm Street and all the rip-offs and parodies ever made - you're bond to have watched at least one) have the following premise: you're alone or with a few friends in a isolated place, like a mansion, a castle, or a forest, and there's a deranged dude who wants you dead. You and your friends lack any combat abilities whatsoever, and the enemy (who knows the place thoroughtly) is almost impervious to injury or pain, and no matter how much punishment you dish, he'll be back. Oh; and forget about calling the cops or getting away from the mansion; all phones are dead and exits are shut. Enjoy!
Now, for this game in particular, you're a pretty girl named Fiona, who finds herself caged in a grim basement where, just a second before, we saw a humongous Quasimodo-lookalike making stew with quite large slices of meat (and we cannot tell whether it's human flesh or not, but we prefer to think it's not). You're freed and you roam the estate (which is a castle), with no clothes whatsoever save for a silk sheet covering your body (and of course, not a single weapon). You'll figure out soon enough that sanity is a scarce commodity among the castle inhabitants, and you'll find yourself stalked by this Quasimodo man, and after him several others. Fortunately, you'll also find Hewie, your companion dog, and actually the only one character ingame who can pull it's own weight (and the girl's too).
The plot follows the classic Stalker formula, but it also has a healthy dose of lore and stuff related to Alchemy, the all classic pseudoscience of transmuting lead to gold, and while you'll never have to do that, there're plenty of puzzles and riddles related to Alchemy, and the baddies have quite alchemical designs in mind for you: apparently, you're to be used as fuel for some crazy madman who wishes immortality and/or to make you have his babies (even more creepy that it sounds, if that's ever possible). It's a nice touch, as it reduces the randomness of the ordeal (in most Stalker fiction, the victims hardly ever have a reason to be the marks).
Survival Horror games have their unwritten rules about how to play, and Stalker games have also their laws too. So, let's see how you do it:
- Player Character (I'm the Prom Queen!) Properly for a Stalker game, your player character Fiona can do little more than run, hide and do the puzzles. She can kick some butt (as in, actually kick someone on the butt), but she's utterly pathetic at combat, so you'll better get running. She also has two distinctive stats: Stamina (which is depleted by stuff like running, getting hit or doing some stuff) and Panic (which is depleted by enemy attacks or seeing some scary stuff; more on that later). There's no HUD to keep track on those, so you'll have to rely on body language and other such cues to keep track of your health.
- The Stalker (Here's Jack!) And of course, a Stalker game needs a Stalker (painfully obvious!). There're like five different Stalkers in this game, each one belonging to a different chapter of the game (and most of the time, each one taking place in a different location). Each one has different tracking patterns, different attacks and so forth, but all have in common these: they'll chase you all over the place, they cannot be killed save in a boss fight (each Stalker has one) and while they can be harmed, they can only be stunned (they do grant item drops this way, though). And of course, the proper way to deal with these is to run and hide, and hideouts are far from foolproof here: overuse a particular place (like a closet or under a bed or sofa) and the baddies won't buy it. You can also hide in the shadows or behind stuff (not all hideouts are actual hideout-hideouts). Probably, the very best Stalkers ever in any Stalker games.
- The Dog (Roll 'n Play Dead!) The indisputable star of this game, period. Soon enough, you'll run into a white German shepherd dog who goes by the name Hewie, and from that moment on this dude will follow you to Hell and beyond. You can order him do just anything! You can have it pick items, spot puzzles, attack the Stalker (actually, this is the only effective way to put the hurt on your enemies). But of course, there's a catch: this dog will only follow orders of a friend, and you'll have to earn his trust: you can praise or treat him whenever he does something right (thus boosting his friendship and having him follow that order better) and you can scold or punish him whenever he doesn't (thus reducing his friendship - slightly - but having him be more receptive to commands; don't kick him though - that will anger him, and he can even attack you if angered); just like a real dog! You can even do a shake with him!! This game is almost the perfect crossover between survival horror and virtual pets! Also, this buddy can spot booby traps and sniff the stalker (as a rule of thump: if he starts growling, danger ahead), and of course can get hurt by the Stalker (he won't panic, though; and that's a good thing). You'll love to have this canid by your side!
- Panic (I'm afraid of no ghost!) As discussed earlier, the player character has both Stamina and Panic stats. You lose Stamina by running or getting hurt, and if low on Stamina you'll start looking hurt and moving slower (there's no HUD, remember?), And about Panic, you'll lose it when seeing scary stuff or being attacked by the Stalker, and you'll recover it when out of harm's way. Lose enough Panic and you'll start to randomly stumble when running. Lose further Panic still, and you'll go into a Panic Attack: you'll scream, and can do nothing but run (at least you can steer her), and if you're ever attacked by the Stalker in this state, it's Game Over. The best part? There's a chance to drop paralyzed to the ground! Unable to move AT ALL!! The Panic Attack will wear off after a while, but keeping the player character out of danger for that long is a tall order (also, your dog is less likely to listen to you while panicking). Like with Stamina, there's no HUD to read the Panic, and here the visual cues are magnificent: whenever you lose Panic, the screen's contrast goes higher (as in, it becomes little more than black + white), it will vibrate with your heartbeats (and so does the controller, by the way), and when in a Panic Attack, it's damn hard to tell your player character apart from the scenery or the furniture (which doesn't make keeping a panicking chick alive any easier). One of the major selling points of this game!
- Puzzles, Traps & Stuff (The Cube is 26 cubicles long) Of course, a Stalker game would be quite bland if there were nothing else but the Stalker and the Stalkee; it needs a sizable share of booby traps, riddles, obstacles and, of course, means to make your life easier (specially considering the sheer volume of stuff that just do the contrary), and this game sure delivers: a metric-ton of traps (almost invariably lethal - exert EXTREME CAUTION if your companion dog ever starts to growl when entering a room), magnificent puzzles (several are just fetch-quests; fetch-the-key quests actually, but many are quite thought-out). Also, the stalker tends to go on a rampage almost every time you have a major puzzle in hand, for extra challenge (even fetch-the-key quests get a welcome boost in difficulty when you have to spend almost half an hour outwitting the stalker before actually using the item).
Also, there's the mandatory assortment of usable items: restoratives for Stamina and Panic, for your dog's energy, some offensive weapons (land mines and stun grenades - sort of. Still, your dog is better) and even some equipment! Also, special mention, you have the chance to make your own stuff via Alchemy! Basically, you get to use some resources in a slot-machine (with slots shaped as a Sephiroth cross - it's true!), and you have to match colors; get enough same-colored slots connected, and you get stuff; the more slots, the more and better stuff. Caution though: anything you make with Alchemy has a weird alchemy-sounding name, and you cannot tell what does what thing 'til you use it - and some are harmful! You'll eventually figure out what does everything (also, there're some memos telling about some of these stuff), but this sure is a cheesy Russian Roulette thing. Fortunately, while bogus items are nasty, none will actually kill you.
Downright gorgeous; specially the characters, and specially-specially the dog - it's almost indistinguishable from the real thing, and it's delicately animated too! The scenery is nothing to sneeze at too, with a great collection of gothic rooms, laboratory stuff (there're gazillions of laboratories in this place, if a gothic castle is not creepy enough) and nicely done outdoor forest areas - pretty shame the whole game has little in the name of variance: despite being divided in roughly four areas, each area looks pretty much like the other ones; but with sceneries as cool as these, that's to be forgiven. Huge bonus for total lack of loading time! (that's right: other than loading a saved game or starting the game altogether, there's not a single "Loading" screen ingame - not even that door-opening sequence from Resident Evil or something like that; you go through a door, and just as fast you get to the next room!)
Not bad at all: sound effects are nice, voices are magnificent (the player chick sounds adequately helpless, the stalkers each one sounds adequately mad - each one with their own flavor of madness - and the dog has a magnificent repertorie of barks, yelps and growls, each one with it's distinctive meaning (better to figure out these quick if you wanna get far in this game; anyway, they're intuitive, unless you can't make heads or tails as to what does a dog say). Also, the background music: it's not particularly poignant nor remarkable; it doesn't sound unlike anything else you might've heard, but that changes when danger comes... First, silence comes; that's the first clue that the going gets tough... Then, when the stalker is nearby, their trademark creepy music (each stalker has it's own) starts playing, and if he/she ever spots you, the music gets a faster pace and higher tune - thus it's time to RUN! And if you ever panic, music gets crazy!! And if you get panic-frozen, music becomes a cacophony of eerie voiceovers, heavy breaths and sheer creepiness!!! Survival Horrors are known for relying on music and sound for atmosphere, and this game is top-notch at creeping out the players by means of music and lack thereof!
This game is far from over after you've finished it; it's a Capcom game we're talking about. Apart from unlockable difficulty levels (including a hard mode in which, apart from curatives being fewer and stalkers being harder to deal with, the dog can get KILLED), the ever-present unlockable costumes (I'm hard pressed to find a Capcom survival horror game without these - seriously!) and even a minigame, which in this case it's NOT a Mercenaries kill-all minigame, but rather a you're-the-dog-and-you-steer-the-chick minigame. If Capcom is ever known for something (apart from their absurdly-long numbered-sequel franchises and their boss-rush levels), it's for their survival horror's longevity: like the zombies (or in this case, stalkers) that inhabit them, they tend not to know when the game is over for good.
All in All (9/10)
Stalker games are an exotic commodity in the realm of videogames, where very ocasionally you face a zombie or a deranged madman without a healthy dose of artillery by your side; you'll hardly ever get the feel of helplessness that movies get nailed. There are not many of these games; other than the Clock Tower series (which hasn't aged too well, but it has quite an indie feel), there are quite a few, and they tend not to be quite blockbusters (many are on the indie-but-lame side of the force); thus if you ever bump on a Stalker game as good as this one, you know you're in for a big scare time! Also, you can't deny the charm of a survival horror game that doubles as some sort of virtual pet (sure; actual virtual pets have more complexity on the caretaking aspect, but you'll come to care of your dog like a damn Tamagotchi - if someone actually remembers those gizmoes). A masterpiece of horror.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Haunting Ground (EU, 04/29/05)
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