Review by Celtic Forest

Reviewed: 08/18/05

"Oh! I so want to play a scary game!" Well, don't play this one. Let me tell you why...

Do you remember an old game called Clock Tower on the SNES? It was one of those horror games that didn't really escape the clutches of the overprotective gaming companies, that were too afraid that children would get damaged by some chilling ghost stories. Thus, they decided not to release the game outside Japan, much to all gamers disappointment. Fortunately, thanks to hard-working spare time translators and the emulating system, we all got to play that game here in Europe and over in the USA.

The basics of Clock Tower were simple but great. The main concept was to have a very fragile and terrified main character, without any other abilities but to run and use certain objects placed out on the levels, getting chased by a crazy murderer, armed with a pair of giant scissors. That game managed to scare our brains out, because you never knew when the killer would appear. And when he did, he did it on such unobvious places that you always freaked out. And when you had met him, you had no chance but to run and hide. This gave the game a whole new meaning of "survival horror", since you had no shotgun to spray your foes with.

Back to nowadays. Today, horror games are a common and healthy game genre that gets shipped all over the world, selling in millions. We have Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and other famous series. But all of them have one thing in common: The main character can actively attack its enemies. I had always dreamt of a new Clock Tower, with the latest graphics & gameplay, and free of all that over-protectiveness and censorship-paranoia that haunted the old days of video games. There were sequels to the first Clock Tower already, but none of them were good. So when Capcom announced their new title, Haunting Ground, a game that had the same gameplay and ingredients the old Clock Tower had, I was so happy. And the game seemed to be excellent too. I couldn't wait until I got to play it.

And the more I played it, the more the game let me down. What had been one of the most awaited games in modern time turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments ever. Okay, sit back and relax. I will tell you all low-downs of this game, and the few good parts...

The game's main plot is the following: Fiona, a young girl, wakes up in the basement of a big castle. She doesn't know how she got there. The last thing she remembers is that she sat in her family's car, with her mum and dad, when suddenly, the car crashes. Apparently, Fiona has been saved by someone unknown, and her mum and dad have perished. Fiona starts to explore the huge castle she is trapped in, and at first, it feels quite okay. But soon, she starts to meet the personnel of the castle, and they are all twisted and evil. It doesn't take long until Fiona has to run for her life in order to escape from the wicked personnel.

During her escape from the fortress, Fiona makes a friend: A dog named Hewie. He is a very nice and beautiful dog that always follows you. You can command him to do various tasks for you, such as collecting items that are out of reach for a human, leading you through dangerous paths filled with obstacles, and last but not least, make him attack the villains that chase you.

Hewie is in fact one of the few good parts in this game. He is cute and funny, and his acting is extremely realistic. In fact, he is the most "living" video game dog I have ever seen. The sound of his paws hitting the stone floor is awesome. His animations are also excellent, and you recognize all those little things real dogs do, like wagging their tails, shaking their heads and putting their ears backwards when they are angry or afraid. You actually become very protective with Hewie. I remember when I accidentally kicked him, and I was so terrified ("Nooo! I didn't mean to do it! You know I love you, my little boy! You know it, don't you?"). Can you imagine that? I actually felt very caring for a bunch of polygons in a videogame. You can both praise and scold Hewie, depending on how he responds to your commands, but more on that later.

The plot might not be so creative, but who cares? It's the typical Scary Movie plot anyway. What matters more is how thrilling the killers and the chase are. And it is here that Haunting Ground begins its long fall...

During the game, Fiona gets chased by a number of persons, all with their unique weapons and tactics. However, what feeling do we want when we get chased? Yes, that's right! We want PANIC and STRESSFUL CHASES. And what do we get? The opposite! The villains are not only too slow...they are also dumb! You can outrun or outsmart them without any trouble at all. In games like these, we want the villains to be FAST and FURIOUS, don't we? We want to feel their breath in our necks as we flee through the rooms. All you need to do is to just sneak past the killers, run away a couple of rooms, and they will go away for a while.

Another important thing in games like these are surprise attacks. You mustn't get a warning when the murderer arrives. He is supposed to just burst out of a window, a door or whatever you'd like, when you least expect it. And how do they do it in Haunting Ground? Well, the music stops about two minutes before the person arrive, and then Hewie starts to growl loudly, giving you a clear idea of when they will attack you. And besides, 99% of the time, they will enter the area through the normal doors, which makes the surprise effect become even weaker.

In the game, so-called hiding spots are scattered around in the castle. The purpose is to use these to hide in if you can't outrun the killers. Unfortunately, the hiding spots are all very obvious, and the programming for the killers looking for you isn't top notch. You can almost feel the program code rolling the dice for deciding whether the killer will find you or not. Besides, the AI for the opponents is so stupid that you can do nothing but laugh about it. Imagine this: Fiona runs into a room without any doors but the exit. She cannot go back to the killer. The room is empty, except for one huge, very obvious wardrobe. What to do? Well, hide in the wardrobe! The killer comes in a second later, walking around. Where is she? Yeah, where can she be? Maybe in that very obvious wardrobe? Oh no no! That cannot be! I'll leave the room and search elsewhere! *Sigh*

So there you have it. A horror game without horror. Now what is that? It's simply not a horror game. So what do we have left? Can't we forget the horror part and pretend this is just simply an action game? Okay, we'll do that, and see where that leads us...

The more you play Haunting Ground, the more obvious all the flaws in the programming become. It is clear that Capcom had no budget and not enough time for this game. The game physics feels like they come from one of the first games for the first PlayStation. Everytime Fiona does something, like opening a door, petting Hewie or using a hiding spot, she must position herself perfectly in front of the actual object. And when she does this, she actually "slides" into the correct position. Once again, you can almost sense the program codes changing modes from "walking" to "performing action X".

Also, Hewie's programming isn't on its best. The command controls are good, and work nicely. The problem is the praise-and-scold system. The manual says that you should praise Hewie if he obeys you, and scold him when he refuses to follow your orders. This is supposed to "train" him in order to make him getting used to obeying you. Just like a dog in real life. However, the problem is, that your scolding and praising seem to have little effect in the game. After a while, I stopped using the commands, and Hewie kept on following and refusing my orders the way he wanted to. In fact, it seems like it is a total randomizer for his responses, and that the system was only thrown in for show.

The final low-down is the poor and plain design and planning of the graphics and the sounds. The game is stiff and gray. The graphics are average. Stone walls, carpets, some gardens and more stone walls. The music isn't especially memorable either, and definitely not scary at all, which takes away even more of the already lacking horror. The voices are okay, but feel rushed, and they keep on using this extreme British dialect all the time, which is not bad, but makes it even more unnatural. I'm not saying British dialect is unnatural, but the game makes the dialect become "forced". Finally, most of the characters in the game haven't got any charisma at all. One of the villains actually chase you with a gun. Now what is that? Do you want to see Jason Vorhees from Friday 13th chase the kids with a gun? No, I didn't think so.

There are, however, a few good exceptions to this. Two of the villains are in fact very impressive, with interesting personalities. These are the gardener Debilitas, and the maid Danielle. Debilitas is a huge and super-strong middle-aged man, with the intellect of a 5-year old. He likes to play with dolls, and hug them very hard. When he sees Fiona, he slowly realizes that she looks like a much bigger and softer doll, than the normal one he has. As the game proceeds, he goes from being a shy being, to someone desperately seeking a little bit of cuddling. It gets even more creepy when he starts to discover his own hidden sexual drive, and slowly starts to eager for more than just a few hugs (no, I'm not making this up). His whole process is very interesting to follow, and once again, a slight revolutionary movement in a drowning game.

Danielle is even more interesting. When you first meet her, she seems to be the perfect house maid. She is quiet, cold, and takes care of the castle with an extreme perfection. A little bit too perfect, in fact. She seems to be obsessed with this "perfection" and with being "complete". As Fiona enters the castle, and interacts with its beings and its environment, Danielle slowly starts to realize she is missing something that Fiona has. She also realizes that her master's attention is put exclusively on Fiona, and is drifting away from her. As the game proceeds, Danielle goes more and more psychotic, as she starts to see her own negative aspects, until she feels nothing but hate.

But all this cannot save this game. The dog Hewie, and the two characters Debilitas and Danielle are excellent, but everything else is just a shame. It's so obvious that Capcom neither had the time, the money nor the will to make a full-fledged effort. I cannot recommend this game, even if you love horror games and are desperately seeking a game with this concept. Try out the old, but still amazing, Clock Tower game for SNES instead. That one is a guarantee for scaring your brains out.

However, this game might be worth to try anyway. Why? Just because of Hewie, Debilitas and Danielle! Yes, I think every gamer should experience those three characters. I wouldn't ask you to spend a lot of money on a game only for these things, but if you have the chance to try it out at a friend's place or something similar, then go ahead. But turn off the game when you have passed Danielle. There is nothing more but pain and misery towards the end of the game. Are we clear? You still want to play? Okay, it's your choice, but you will be sorry...

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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