Review by midwinter

Reviewed: 04/26/05 | Updated: 05/01/05

Tu Fui, Ego Eris

Gothic Psycho Horror is what Capcom call Haunting Ground, Clock Tower 4 however would be far more apt. Take for instance the way players are introduced to the soon to be tormented heroine Fiona, a weak and fragile woman if ever there was one. Waking in a small locked cage, Fiona's last memories are of being involved in a horrific motor vehicle accident, the windscreen she vividly recalls shattering upon impact as her parents died swift yet bloody deaths. That though was a life time ago and now she sits like a bird in a cage, looking on as a freakishly demented, child-like giant chops violently at a bloody slab of raw red meat. Yes she's helpless, she needs to escape. And you're the only one who can help her now...

Well, that may not be technically correct. True, like most young women, Fiona will have problems defending herself. She can run and hide with the greatest of ease, standing up to Debilitas, the aforementioned 7 foot giant however simply isn't going to happen. It's with such a vulnerable heroine in tow that Haunting Ground feels a lot like Clock Tower 3, that it was also developed by the same team at Capcom should come as little to no surprise. But unlike their previous genre effort, Haunting Ground at least attempts to move beyond a gimmick-like love of gore, opting to weave its atmosphere through a blend of fear, panic, and a surprisingly enjoyable twist instead. For while you may be helping Fiona avoid any number of grisly fates, it's her new best friend Hewie that'll be doing all the hard work. And by new best friend I am of course referring to the four legged variety that goes woof, woof, woof whenever you call their name.

You see, it's having escaped from her cage that Fiona has found herself trapped yet again, unable to leave the foreboding grounds of Belli castle. Huge chandeliers hang from the ceilings while four poster beds and some intricate stone work serve to establish a distinct, central European style feel: the occasional bloody mess splattered against a wall of course not withstanding. And while there's certainly an uneasy sense of horror in the air, a small element of warmth can be found in Hewie's comforting presence. Before you get too friendly however you must first establish trust, and trust comes through not only treating him right, but in offering some gentle praise once he has successfully retrieved an erstwhile, unreachable item or helped out in solving a puzzle or three. The occasional hiccup in Hewie's AI sadly irritates, that is until you remember what it's like when dealing with dogs and suddenly it won't seem so bad. Watch it though, should you raise a hand to him he may not want to protect you when the terror comes knocking...

Speaking of which... something wicked this way comes.

Players in-tune with their surroundings will learn to not only rely on the sound-scape as means of recognizing the approach of Debilitas & Co, but on their partner's keen sense of danger as well. A guttural growl is his means of alerting you to imminent peril, be it a booby trapped floor or something, natch someone, far more sinister. Stop, listen, and watch for Hewie's reactions: his tail held tense, his small body poised ready to pounce. A laugh can then be heard as the door swings open, a sure sign if ever there was one that you're no longer alone. Look out now! Here comes your attacker and from the way he's rubbing his crotch, no good will come of hanging around. So run now while you can, the joypad reverberating in your hands as if to mimic the frenzied beating of Fiona's own heart. The closer danger gets, the more she will panic, the brighter the screen becomes, the more intense everything feels. It's enough to send you fleeing for your life, up and down flights of stairs, through corridors and deeper into closets.

And it's here that some of the biggest improvements have been made with the computer controlled enemy AI seemingly more intelligent than ever before. Hiding under the same sofa time and time again is a system of diminishing returns, and it won't be long until you're sent scurrying for a different hidey hole, in a different room, on a different side of the castle. Cat and mouse is what you're playing, so let us up the ante for a moment with the use of our dog. A quick tap of the right analogue stick will tell Hewie what to do, a shouted plea from his master being all it takes for him to jump into action. Simple, elegant, and flawless is how I would describe the way players manipulate their partner, sadly lacking in atmosphere is how the game actually feels. There's no doubt in my mind that when Fiona is starting to panic, players can sympathize with her plight, but for the most part an all important sense of fear is no where to be found. And what's up with that?

Still, is this a good thing? An argument can be made that Capcom were trying for something out of the norm, attempting once more to build a genre on the back of what it means to be the mouse. And though they may have succeeded like never before, there's still a sense of lacking excitement that pervades the player's overall experience. Quite how this has come to be is anyone's guess as all the pieces are in place for one hell of a ride. Graphically flawless, it's hard not to be impressed with the spacious environments and their rich use of texture. A series of CGI sequences then serve to spruce things up, propelling the story along at regular intervals while looking every-bit a PS2 masterpiece. To be sure, the CGI specialists at Robot have done it again! Likewise sound has also been used to good effect with the castle's varied inhabitants boasting their own unique theme, each feeling a little more disturbed and unhinged than the last. But still the atmosphere is mysteriously lacking...

Perhaps then as I've always suspected, the problem can be found in the formula itself. As a way of instilling panic in players, the chase is an effective means to an end. Like any good horror however, over exposure will breed familiarity, and in familiarity we find ourselves numb to the fear. Not to the sudden spine tingling shocks that come at players in moments of quiet pause, but to the fear of being caught and whatever that ultimately means to Fiona and her dog. Running you see is something that should come naturally to players, and knowing where to go when danger looms proves to be a sedative that hurts this game no end. Oh, you'll enjoy going through the paces, exploring the story and Belli castle, but in the end that's all you'll ever have. Clock Tower 3 had scenes of graphic violence so raw they continue to haunt the medium to this day, Haunting Ground has Hewie... and the occasional seat of your pants fright.

But that may not be such a bad thing, it's only just as I said, outside of the norm. The relationship players build with their dog is a strong one, almost to the point where the pain he experiences is felt in your very own gut. A whimpered yelp will pull at your heart strings while running away and leaving Hewie to fend for himself contains an almost nauseating tang of pure guilt. It's an emotional core outside of the usual... how invigorating the realization is then that Haunting Ground perhaps isn't all that bad. It's just something that wasn't ever going to work, not until that is Capcom have examined exactly where the genre needs to go and why. The controls are of course perfect, marrying the use of a Resident Evil style camera with a true sense of 3D movement. And though the puzzles early on are limited to a series of key hunting objectives, a crescendo is eventually formed that makes the time spent here well worthwhile. Good but not great, Haunting Ground is technically impressive albeit fundamentally flawed. Dog lovers may want to prepare themselves for the horrors ahead...

Pros
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* There's a solid story to be had here
* A huge castle panders to the player's thirst for exploration
* Hewie proves to be an essential step in ensuring the game's unique identity
* The enemy AI has seen an upgrade from the likes of Clock Tower 3
* Panic has been effectively portrayed through the use of in-graphics and actual physical sensations
* Haunting Ground looks absolutely stunning
* The music is as manic as the action

Cons
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* Back tracking can be troublesome from time to time
* Atmosphere suffers at the hands of familiarity
* It takes a few hours for the game to really "pick-up"
* Is this formula really all that it can be? Something is lacking

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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