Review by Nightfall

Reviewed: 09/23/05

Fiona Is The Hottest Video Game Babe Ever

Ah, the survival/horror genre. One cookie-cutter game after another. People slam all the Tomb Raider games for being the same game over and over again, but for some reason they have no problem with playing survival/horror games, all of which are basically the same game, over and over. The survival/horror genre has become so entrenched in its unique way of doing things that it has never stopped to take a good look at itself and ask, "Why do we do things this way? Does this make sense? Why are doors ALWAYS locked from the other side? Why in the world do we pick up and carry ridiculous items that couldn't possibly have any real use for us? Do we really have to check every single drawer, table, piece of paper, and corner as if someone deliberately left stuff lying around for us to find? Do we really need to know that the books on this shelf are old and dusty and apparently nobody's read them in a while?" Maybe Haunting Ground does ask a couple of these questions, but when it comes down to it, it can't deny its survival/horror roots. And in the end that's what you have here: another entry in a long, long line of cookie cutter survival/horror games. Expect to find all the meaningless item collecting, fixed camera angles, locked doors, herbal remedies, silly puzzles, and document reading that you would find in a classic Resident Evil game.

With that said, Haunting Ground does do some new, unique things that set it apart from the pack, and for which it deserves props. For starters, our protagonist, Fiona, is an eighteen year old bona fide babe with enormous knockers. Seriously, she is one of the most beautiful video game women I've ever seen. Far from being a bombshell, she is an intelligent, resourceful, perceptive woman who is good at using her wits to make sense of the world around her. Her face is wonderfully expressive, to the point of being eerily realistic, and her voice acting is top notch, eliciting both desire and sympathy from the player. It's very easy to come to care about her almost as you would a real person. She is rendered very well, with a nice amount of detail, good animations, and wonderful breast physics. So right off the bat we learn we are playing as a real person, rather than a robot that needs a "turn around" command to run from enemies. Her control scheme sets her apart from most other survival/horror characters in that it's very intuitive. Move the left stick in a direction and that's the direction Fiona moves, regardless of the camera angle. Transitions between camera angles are handled very well and almost never cause a disruption in controlling Fiona. Even if they do, it's only momentary and is easily corrected. Her interaction with her environment is effortless when running, checking, kicking, picking things up, opening doors, and climbing ladders. So a big plus for this game is its interface is pretty much problem free, which is not a common characteristic of survival/horror games. Maybe one question Haunting Ground asked was, "Why do characters in survival/horror games have to be so damn hard to control?"

Another thing which sets Haunting Ground apart from the survival/horror pack is there are no load times in the game. Yes, that's right: you can run from room to room all throughout this big scary castle--even into the outdoor areas--and not see a single load screen. Apparently Capcom forgot to check the survival/horror manual, which clearly states that survival/horror games are required to have a long load screen every time you go through a door. The only load times you'll see in the game are on bootup and right before a cut scene, but the load times before cut scenes are very brief and don't even make you look at a "loading" graphic. These two features alone--a problem-free interface and no load screens--put Haunting Ground way, way ahead of the rest of the survival/horror pack. Apparently another question Haunting Ground asked was "Are load screens really necessary?"

Haunting Ground also has an interesting feature called Panic Mode. If Fiona is chased too long by a particular monster, or starts taking a beating at its hands, she will go into an extreme panic. The colors will fade out of the screen and things begin to blur, so it becomes difficult to tell where you're even going. A pounding heartbeat and seriously frantic music drown out all other sounds. If Fiona is extremely panicked, she will trip and fall, run into walls, and become much more challenging to control. Basically what Panic Mode mimics is how other survival/horror games play when you're running from a scary guy: running into doors, walls, and just generally not being able to control your character because the control sucks so bad. Panic Mode is a very cool visual effect, but the thing I like about it is the way the game meshes Fiona's out-of-control behavior with the control inputs the player is using. Although the player loses a large degree of control when Fiona is panicked, if you have a general idea of where you want to go Fiona will eventually make it there, all the while running frantically, falling, and slamming into walls. I very rarely got the feeling that I had completely lost control of her. It's a fluid experience that doesn't feel contrived or forced: it's like watching a horror flick with a real actress playing out the chase scene. Very well done.

But the true hallmark of Haunting Ground is something you wouldn't expect. Indeed, that's the whole point. What mainly characterizes this game is all the hidden stuff that the game manual doesn't tell you about. It is replete with all kinds of hidden objects, event triggers, easter eggs, and even character commands that you can only find by doing a LOT of experimenting, or looking them up on the internet. Ever play a game that for some reason just wasn't opening up for you? So you look up a faq on the internet, start reading, and then it's like, "Ohh, okay, I get it." That's what Haunting Ground is like. If you have only the game disc and manual, you've got only part of the package. This game needs to be researched a bit before you start getting the full experience. It behooves the player to try anything and everything, and to take their imagination to the limit. This goes hand in hand with the fact that Haunting Ground is not an action game. Far, far from it. It is a slow, plodding, often tedious exploration/puzzle solving/survival/horror game, and if that's what you're looking for, then you'll be happy with what Haunting Ground offers. It's about using your mind and your imagination, not a pair of uzis.

One feature of Haunting Ground that is not well done is the Alchemy Machine. This is a puzzle element in the game that is based on random button presses. Chapter 2, section 12 of the survival/horror manual states that " a survival/horror game is not a true representative of the genre unless it involves mixing things." Haunting Ground made sure to adhere to this law with its brilliant conception of the alchemy device. The environments are littered with all kinds of medallions (many of which have to be sniffed out by your dog, Hewie), and these medallions are used in a mysterious Alchemy Machine to make various items. The problem is that the game gives you no instruction at all in how to use the alchemic process to make specific items. Even operating the machine is a hit and miss affair which depends mostly on chance, so even if you did have an ingredients list, you probably wouldn't get the item you were trying to make. What's even more ridiculous, if you do succeed in making an item, the game doesn't tell you what its purpose is! The machine may spit out a small tin full of a substance called Tarva. Go into your items screen to see a description of it, and it says, "I wonder what this could be used for?" Brilliant! Make me use my hard-found medallions in a machine that's impossible to operate, and then don't tell me how to use what it DOES give me--excellent game design. I love it when games make you waste the items in your inventory--it really makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere. If you're going to make me mix things---okay fine I can deal with it--but at least give me an inkling of what the hell I am doing.

But what bothers me the most about Haunting Ground is its extremely vague puzzles. I spent literally hours just wandering around in this god-forsaken castle, getting repeatedly chased and mauled by Quasimodo, because I couldn't figure out what the hell I needed to do next. This is one of those games that is almost impossible to finish without a walkthrough. For one door, you have to hang something from a hook on the door so the hook will drop down and the door will open. Well, how about, oh I don't know . . . PULLING ON THE FREAKING HOOK WITH YOUR HAND!!! That would seem like the logical solution, but not in this game. The solutions to many of the puzzles are things most people just wouldn't think of, even in their most lucid moments. The environments are littered with a plethora of objects to examine accompanied by text messages, but rather than helping the player along and making things clearer, each one just confuses the player more, compounding the mystery until you don't have the faintest inkling of how to proceed. "Hmm," Fiona says, "this is a rather oddly positioned chair." "Oh," she says a bit later, "this chair looks just like the oddly positioned one." And further on, "This garden bench is facing the wall so no one can use it." WHO THE HELL CARES!!!! After logging over eight hours in the game, I had basically done squat besides befriend my dog, collect a bunch of meaningless crap, and get mauled by Quasimodo. I'm all for puzzle elements in a game, but when they're this unclear and ridiculous, it makes me just want to toss the game out the window.

When the game begins going into its home stretch toward the big finale, the pace picks up noticeably and it becomes a funner play. In fact, it begins to feel like a completely different game. It employs cool elements like environment morphing and reaction-based play instead of relying on complicated puzzles. I wish the whole game had been constructed in this way. However, the last phase of the final boss battle proved to be extremely annoying. It requires the player to guess what control command to use to carry out a certain action. This is complete crap. Once you've hit every button on the controller and moved every stick in all directions to no effect, you're just going to look the solution up on the internet. As I stated earlier, I hate games that make me use faqs and walkthroughs. This tomfoolery with the player's mind is not inconsistent with the game's overall approach, however. What the game tries to do more and more as it progresses is to trip the player up, take him out of the realm of the logical and the familiar and put him in a situation where he doesn't know what the hell is going on. In the first 3/4 of the game, this is accomplished with confusing puzzles and cut scene dialogue that makes no sense; in the last 1/4 of the game, this is accomplished with a breakdown of the normal rules of play, morphing environments, and some severe head trip techniques that I won't spoil for you. If you really want a trippy experience, play the last 1/4 of the game while you're drunk. That was a couple of hours I'll never forget.

About the story. I have become convinced that it is absolutely impossible for a Japanese developer to tell a coherent story in a video game. As the game progresses, it tries to reveal to the player what is going on, but it doesn't make one freaking bit of sense. Just like the puzzles, every revelation just confuses the player more. There are four major characters in the game (five if you count Fiona), and we never learn why any of them are in this big castle or what they are doing there. We have two completely different men claiming to be the same man, a woman who appears more robot than human (and we never find out why), and several unexplained references to birdcages, strange paintings, insect collections, mannequins, and something involving human remains, including babies. I've given up trying to understand Japanese story lines. I just play the games, solve puzzles and watch boobs jiggle.

Is the game scary? If you're a girl, probably yes. If you're a guy, probably not. The only true scares I had in the entire game were when very loud noises were used. In other words, reflex scares. I was never too frightened to go anywhere in the castle, and running from the bad guys never freaked me out (too much), although I confess to being occasionally hesitant to actually pick up the game and play it, because I knew that those creepy evil people were in my PS 2, just waiting for me to come on in. I can easily see a girl totally losing her head while playing this game, but guys will be too preoccupied with Fiona's bouncing boobs to be scared much.

The game does look pretty good for not having any load screens. It's set in a big scary castle, so the emphasis is on atmosphere rather than detail. Not that the level of detail is bad, but don't expect the game to look anywhere near as sharp as Death by Degrees, another survival/horror inspired game. Color is downplayed and more attention is paid to moody lighting and the structure of the environment. Many of the areas in the game are dark, but not so dark that it's annoying, which is nice. Speaking of environments, the game gets an A is this department. It manages to create a series of very interesting, nicely rendered locations without using a heck of a lot of detail. Cool and creepy would be the operative adjectives here. You want to run everywhere and look at everything, which is what you're supposed to do. The problem is you also have creepy-ass monsters on your tail.

Hewie, Fiona's canine companion, is animated very well and acts just like you expect a dog would, occasionally deciding to do his own thing and ignore Fiona's commands. Some think this is a flaw in Hewie's AI, but several hours with the game make it clear that Hewie is just being a dog. You've got to treat him right and give him the proper feedback at the proper times if you want him to function effectively as your ally. He serves a very vital function, acting as a metal detector, a danger barometer (his most important role, in my opinion), and a protector in times of attack. I like that Capcom didn't make Hewie just a gimmick. He's an extremely important element in the game, and the player that uses him wisely and watches him closely will do better in the game than the player who doesn't (indeed, the latter type of player may not survive to finish the game).

Although Fiona is bereft of weapons, she is not completely impotent when it comes to combat. She can kick enemies, and when using the kick in conjunction with Hewie's teeth, can do some significant damage to an enemy. She also finds items in the environment that she can use against baddies; some are very effective, like the Antimony Tube, while others are useless, like the Weeping Stone and basic Antimony Powder. She is supposed to have a lunging attack in which she shoves baddies and knocks them off balance, but most of the time it doesn't work. This is probably the only complaint I have about the control. How many times have I told developers: if a move doesn't work consistently in a game, take it out. Apparently most developers haven't read my Gamefaqs reviews. The sheer audacity.

Overall, I'd have to say Haunting Ground is a pretty good game. It looks good, the control is problem-free for the most part, Fiona is hella-hot with incredible breasts, some of the environments are darn cool, and some of the puzzles are actually fun to solve. The main problem with Haunting Ground is that a lot of its puzzles are so confusing that you'll waste a lot of time wandering around, and the longer you do that, the more you'll get attacked by whatever bad guy is hounding you. This will exhaust your resources and your patience. The quicker you figure out solutions to puzzles, the better are your chances of surviving. But if you're like me, you'll be scratching your head, a LOT, and running frantically from evil people. If you don't mind the fact that it's a bit slow-paced, and you have no problem with looking up a solution on the internet once in a while, then you should have a good time.

Here's the final stats, folks:

Graphics: 9 It's a very pretty game, and Fiona's bouncy boobs look great. Panic Mode looks funky.

Audio: 9 Sound is used to great effect in the game. The music is interspersed with all kinds of weird sounds that make you go, "What was that?!" The voice acting is top notch as well.

Gameplay: 6.5 Slow, tedious gameplay that has you running in circles and ultimately saying "screw it." It does get better toward the end of the game, however, and survival/horror fans will love it regardless.

Control: 8 Control is hassle-free, but it's very annoying that Fiona stops running whenever you give Hewie a command. Also, stairways confuse Hewie and cause him to ignore whatever command you have given him. Fiona's lunging attack doesn't work most of the time.

Difficulty: Relatively low for the fight or flight parts, extremely high for the puzzle elements. This game is a brain twister.

Replayability: The game has a ton of goodies for the player after finishing the game once, and they're actually worth it.

The Good: Fiona's bouncy boobs, pretty graphics, good control, and awesome environments.

The Bad: Vague puzzles; Alchemy Machine is a joke; a faq is almost a requirement to get the full experience.

Fun Thing To Try With The Game: there's a ton of fun things you can try in this game, but you've got to try the Codebreaker code for Have Big Boobs. It looks amazing on one of Fiona's unlockable costumes. It's the best big boob code I've ever seen, and I've seen many.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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