Review by ldelfino
The beautiful blonde may be the only reason to play this game
This will be a spoiler free review. I will be as honest as I reasonably can, but will go into detail on pretty much everything about the game sans the story itself. Long story short: you are a teenager who wakes up in a strange mansion, and your goal is to get the hell out of there, aided by a dog (as the cover of the game shows).
This review is rather long, so here's my TL;DR: play this only if you want to stare at one of the hottest female characters ever made, complete with a cute voice and boob physics. I will begin this review with the good things, of which there are just two. The first one is the aforementioned protagonist.
The game's player character, Fiona Belli, is a total cutie. She is arguably the most attractive main character I've ever laid eyes on. Her outfits are consistently sexy and show off her beautifully sculpted body, with a very short skirt that displays her pale white legs, her rather large breasts have actual jiggle physics (particularly noticeable when you run and come to a halt, watch them puppies bounce), and the way she behaves during cinematics, all while scared, is incredibly attractive. Haunting Ground is arguably the one game where who the main character is and what does she look like is very important. This is because Haunting Ground, the videogame, is actually pretty bad, but I will get to that in a moment.
Haunting Ground simply looks great. Feel free to look up pictures yourself, but the graphical fidelity of the game is very nice, especially noticeable in cinematics (where you can see Fiona's beauty in detail, down to the pores on her face and her gorgeous blue eyes), the animations are fantastic and convey a good deal of horror in how the antagonists behave. The one intro FMV is pure eyecandy and something to behold.
This is where I drop the charade and the rather disturbing fixation on Fiona's body (trust me when I say the game is even more fixated on her than I am). And this is because of a simple reason: of all the elements I can think of, Haunting Ground does them all poorly.
The game starts simple enough, like I mentioned earlier. As you progress through the story, new characters appear. But having finished the game just know, I can't say I actually understood what the main antagonist's motivations were. I know I should have, but I just didn't. The game has a "journal" of sorts adequately named "Comment". These are Fiona's actual thoughts: whenever something happens story-wise, you can go into the menu to see what Fiona has to think about said events. The issue is that Fiona's comments are just that, comments, not detailed descriptions of the events that have just transpired. In other words, Fiona isn't any helpful when it comes to understanding the story. If you didn't pay 100% attention or didn't get what was happening, Fiona isn't going to make things any clearer for you, since her comments are very casual "what is happening here? I don't understand any of it!" (not an actual transcription, but you get the idea).
Overall, it appears many players agree the story just goes crazier and crazier as it goes. Sadly (again: no spoilers in this review) the ending feels extremely rushed, there is but two cinematics and neither do a good job at making the game feel complete. In other words: this is one game not to play for the story, as you won't get the same sense of closure as you would get from something like Resident Evil (1996).
THE SETTING (THE MAP)
Resident Evil is one game I have played but a month ago, and there's something I really missed about it in Haunting Ground. Basically, whereas you can easily memorize Resident Evil's map layout, it is near impossible to do it in Haunting Ground. The map's individual cells are big. The camera is constantly shifting as you traverse said cells. The overall map is HUGE, and you will often run around from one place to another. The in-game map is not of any help: you will struggle to understand where everything is, so I recommend you make your own hand-drawn map, complete with basic descriptions on what each particular cell is. This will save you a lot of frustration and backtracking, which are amplified in this game for one particular mechanic I will talk about later.
Another thing this game suffers from is the sameyness of the different cells. Very few cells truly stand apart from each other. Contrast with Resident Evil's cells: most of them are distinctly different from each other (and thus help memorizing the layout of the game's map). No such thing in Haunting Ground. The maps usually consist of multiple floors, corridors of various shapes (straight, curved, in L, in a T, etc.) and you have a lot of room to explore, meaning it's easy to lose your bearings. Much like Resident Evil, you find maps that show you the layout of the different floors, but as I said earlier, just draw your own.
Unlike Resident Evil, Haunting Ground doesn't operate with fixed views, and therefore, pre-rendered backgrounds. The entire map is rendered in 3D. The cameras are dynamic, but fixed to certain positions. These will zoom in and one, move around as you traverse the cells, etc. Also unlike Resident Evil, the game doesn't use "tank controls". Tank controls mean that, to move forward, you must press the Up button. To move backward, you press the Down button. Using Left and Right rotates your character in those directions. Like many modern 3D games, Haunting Ground's controls move your character relative to the position of the screen you want them to move towards (if I want my character to move to the left of the screen, I push the Left button, etc.). I have to say the shifting camera views contribute to Fiona running in the wrong direction quite a few times. Given this is a Survival Horror, you may guess why this can be a problem. Though I personally prefer tank controls, I can see why some would not, but I felt like mentioning this.
THE SURVIVAL HORROR MECHANICS
This is arguably the biggest issue with the game. By "Survival Horror mechanics" I mean the stuff you usually find in Survival Horror games. Namely:
- Inventory management.
- Mechanics with the purpose of scaring the player.
Inventory management is non-existent in Haunting Ground. Or, if there is, I haven't noticed, because you can pick up everything you please in the game. The game adds an unique mechanic regarding its inventory that I will explain in the next section, however (spoiler: it isn't good).
Haunting Ground manages two different mechanics when it comes to scaring the player. These are Panic and Pursuit. This latter mechanic also has its own Hiding mechanic associated with it.
The Panic mechanic works as follows: interacting with different elements in the game may scare Fiona; when that happens, your controller will rumble at the pace of her heartbeat. Enemies may also scare her through different ways, particularly if they pull some stunt (like yelling, waving their arms, etc.) or grabbing her as well as attacking her. If Fiona gets too scared, she enters into a total panic: Fiona will start running, your menu will be locked out, and the only thing you will be able to do is maneouvering Fiona towards your desired direction. Panic will also make Fiona stumble and fall, losing precious distance between her and (potential) attackers. High Panic levels will be showcased by special effects on the screen: increase brightness with increase contrasts making for rather dramatic shadows. You can control Panic by eating numerous substances in the game (more on this later). Prolongued running will decrease Fiona's Stamina, another vital statistic when escaping your aggressors.
Pursuit is one mechanic that, while cool in principle, is one of the biggest problems I had with Haunting Ground. At any given time, except for specific places in the game, an enemy will start chasing you. Unlike Resident Evil's zombies, they will change you around the entire map until you lose them. These enemies cannot be killed outright, only through story-specific events. Moreover, these chases are not story-related: you may be revisiting an older cell trying to figure out a puzzle, only for the music to vanish as you suddenly hear the steps of the incoming foe. Remember what I said about the map being a bitch to memorize? Imagine having to run around the maze of a map escaping your enemies, completely forgetting how to reach your previous cell, and then repeat that at least 50 times (which was about the amount of times I was chased in Haunting Ground, losing valuable progress). Eventually you may leave an enemy far behind and you can resume playing (ha) as normal. Because you can't kill these enemies you only delay the inevitable game over cutscene (Acta est fabula, i.e. "The End"), so their appearance is truly terrifying. However, as you get closer and closer to the end of the game, you may find "horror" replaced by "annoyance", "irritation", or downright hatred.
Haunting Ground provides an alternate means to dealing with your pursuers. This is the Hiding mechanic. There are designated locations in the game you can hide in. These come in the form of closets, curtains, closed rooms, under beds, under tables, and probably more. When you are being pursued, Fiona can hide in these places and the camera fixates on her pursuers instead. You can see them walking around, trying to find out where Fiona is. Eventually, "Coast clear" will display on the screen, meaning you are safe and can go out of hiding. Naturally there's a counter-mechanic in place: hide too often in the same spots, and your attackers will wise up and find you. You can also crouch in the shadows to avoid being detected by enemies, though this is a much riskier course of action (unlike something like Thief, there's no indicator as to whether a place is "dark enough" for you to safely hide in). Because of how often you will be chased in Haunting Ground, you will quickly find you can no longer hide and it's simply best to run the hell away. Bottom line: the Panic and Pursuit mechanics end up being far more an annoyance than a good thing.
The Puzzles of Haunting Ground are just bad. Ideally, your puzzles are intuitive and make sense, while not being extremely obvious. Some games deal with this by giving you the key to a puzzle before you encounter said puzzle; if the puzzle is intuitive, you instantly know how to solve it (and render the puzzle pointless), while if the puzzle is not intuitive, the player won't realize what to do (and thus the puzzle is bad). Talking game design out of my ass, ideally you handle the tools to solve a puzzle after the player knows there's a puzzle to be solved. The issue with Haunting Ground's puzzles is that many of them are not intuitive. I had to walkthrough my way through many of the game's puzzles starting with the second half. It doesn't help that Fiona sometimes behaves like an omniscient character: go into her Comments and you will realize she KNOWS a certain item is involved in some puzzle, which immersion breaking aside (why would she behave as if she was a character in a videogame, where random items serve some supernatural purpose?) can also confuse the player as she comments (verbally, in-game) on some objects as if they had a deeper purpose. Moreover, the solutions to many of these puzzles are easily missed: if you aren't paying 110% attention, you will run past the solution because 1) You didn't pay attention to THAT corner of the map; 2) You didn't realize your dog was doing THAT thing; 3) You didn't think of combining this object you have no reason to combine with THAT other object. The good thing is that the boss battles of this game are fairly simple with the exception of the very last one, which in my opinion is poor game design: the game expects the player to solve it in a way they had no reason to believe it would work. Bottom line: unintuitive puzzles, solutions pulled out of the developer's ass, and at least one infuriating boss fight. Add the constant backtracking of Survival Horrors coupled with the Pursuit mechanic that makes you travel all over the map and then run back to your original spot, and you can see why the puzzles in this game may be more annoying that they needed be.
I've been name dropping Resident Evil quite a few times here, so I'll elaborate on the puzzles using RE as an example: there were only two puzzles where I needed to use a walkthrough. The first was related to a mechanic the game didn't explain, related to a couple of medals. The second was because it was a zone infested with enemies, and having to run back and forth back and forth back and forth to try to solve a puzzle proved to be very time consuming. These issues were NOTHING like the issues I encountered in Haunting Ground, where all mechanics were explained to me, but the puzzles where just too obtuse for me to figure out.
GAME MECHANICS: THE DOG AND THE ALCHEMY
Your companion throughout the game will be a Dog. You can order said dog to:
- Search for items/Solve a puzzle/Attack (right stick Up).
- Follow you (right stick Down).
- Stay still (R3, push right stick).
You can also scold him for not obeying you (right stick Left) or congratulate him for obeying you (right stick Right). All commands in just one single stick, which is helpful. The Dog will be your primary means of self-defense: by telling him to Attack you can delay your pursuers as they struggle against it. Otherwise, you will have to rely on a weak kick or shove by using your Square button while standing still/walking or running. Bonus: you can KICK the dog! And believe me, there's a good chance you will want to do that.
There are a few problems with this mechanic. By now you should have figured out that the dog may disobey you, i.e. ignore your commands. You can build up trust with the dog. To do this, reward him when he obeys you, scold him when he doesn't. The first problem is directly related to combat: when you are being attacked, you will want the dog to help you out. But sometimes he won't. And you may die or enter Full panic as a result. The other problem is directly related to puzzles: when you order the dog, you will want the dog to enter "puzzle solving" mode. Because if he doesn't, you will simply not know whether the dog is not meant to solve a puzzle, or whether you just haven't found the proper means to solve the puzzle. A few such instances have made me consult a walkthrough, the latest of which was coupled with the "you weren't paying 110% attention!" issue. There is at least one puzzle where you can lose many minutes worth of your time if the dog won't obey you. I admit to having kicked the dog four or five times because of that.
The last mechanic is Alchemy. This mechanic is poorly explained in-game and I won't pretend to understand it. Just know that you will often be picking items you can use to heal Fiona's Stamina and reduce her Panic, as well as items to use in self-defense: items that create small explosions, that stun her pursuers momentarily, but not much more. There are "hidden" places in the game where you can craft alchemy items of your own with the items you have been picking up in the game (or found by the dog after you order him to explore). But the way to create these items relies on a very weird roulette that is fairly difficult to control (for balance purposes, I assume), so I found myself barely using it at all. I reckon that in Hard difficulty (unlocked once you beat the game), you will find yourself resorting to alchemy much more often. Especially because in Hard difficulty, the Dog can die.
Once you finish the game, you will unlock some goodies: the usual art gallery, music tracks and the ability to replay cutscenes. You will also be able to see 3D models of the game characters, complete with their animations (which you can cycle through). Watching Fiona's bouncing boobs and her unlockable revealing customes is particularly entertaining, and I consider this the canon ending of the game.
The reason I decided to play Haunting Ground was because I played Resident Evil and I really liked it, so I felt like playing more Survival Horror games. Aside from the all time classic franchises (Resident Evil and Silent Hill, as well as the very popular Fatal Frame), the other games I found consisted of the Siren series, Kuon, Rule of Rose, and Haunting Ground. I had heard many good things about Haunting Groud ("the true successor to the Clock Tower series! This is actually good, as opposed to Clock Tower 3"), and Fiona's jawdropping looks were a good enough incentive for me to play this title. But as I have written so far, the actual gameplay is full of issues. Most of its elements conspire against the enjoyment of the game. This is because the puzzles aren't good, the dog is an annoyance, the map is a nightmare, and on top of it all you are being chased away from one cell to the next. And the story is ridiculous, has a poor ending, and I didn't make any sense of it.
I really do not joke when I say Fiona may be the only reason to play this game. It's just that there's really nothing else to be attracted to. Not even the sound and music design (which I have omitted from this review, as they are barely there). It's a shame because Haunting Ground has a terrific intro that sets up what could have been a fantastic game: the first antagonist you meet is scary, the second antagonist you meet is pure nightmare fuel. After that it just goes downhill. This game is just shiny graphics and a bombshell to show them off. And you can see that on YouTube, no need to actually play Haunting Ground.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Product Release: Haunting Ground (US, 05/10/05)
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