The survival horror genre seems to have subtly crept back into the mainstream. Recent releases like The Evil Within, Alien: Isolation and the frankly evil P.T. have proven to be top quality games that really deliver in the fear department. Two of the three make you defenceless and forever vulnerable to the dangers around you. Removing a safety net that gamers are used to is sure to provoke a reaction, usually one that involves the bowels and fresh trousers. We’re seeing less guns and more broom closets and this is a good thing. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that any game in which I find ammo round every corner isn’t very scary. I’m not going to fear a scary monster if I’m able to unload an entire clip of ammo into it’s face with little-to-no consequence, but I digress. With this new (if not already tried-and-tested) direction scaring the shit out of everybody, I thought now was the perfect time to look back at another game which embodied the same values but never really got the time of day.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with Haunting Ground. A game that simply slipped through the cracks. Coming out late in the Playstation 2’s life, it received above average reviews but underperformed in sales. It is also a spin-off to the cult survival horror series Clock Tower which never really caught on in this country, so that particular selling point was redundant to us Brits. Haunting Ground was seemingly doomed to fail as gamers were preparing for the next gen consoles and horror gaming was relatively flaccid at this point.
Enough background, let’s get down to business.
Haunting Ground is a game in which you play as Fiona Belli. A young girl who following a horrific car accident, wakes up to find herself imprisoned in the eerie Belli Castle. As she explores the castle she meets its handful of residents, most of whom are man-made Homunculi who are anything but friendly. Soon after Fiona learns of the “Azoth”, a supernatural power she supposedly possesses that has rebirthing qualities.
Sounds rather cliché doesn’t it?
On the surface it all sounds a bit half-arsed. Haunting Ground however takes many of the familiar troupes of survival-horror and subverts them into a surreal, psychosexual nightmare. Fiona herself is young, naïve and timid, forcing the player to sympathise and want to protect her from the outset. There’s no real weapons to defend yourself here, you must run and hide wherever possible until your pursuer loses the trail. As you explore the beautiful Belli Castle you meet its different inhabitants, or as the game refers to them “stalkers”. Each of them more twisted than the last and they all want to capture Fiona so they can do nefarious things with her body, particularly her uterus which houses the Azoth. Be it impregnate her, abuse her or simply kill her, all their motives derive from a fixation on perversity and vanity. The story here is baffling and takes a few morbid twists and turns; but always focuses on Fiona’s vulnerability and the several ways these people want to exploit her.
To put it bluntly, Haunting Ground is disturbing.
Though disturbing in a way that other games aren’t. The horror here forgoes heavy gore and jump scares in favour of tension and revulsion. The game covers a lot of ground from insanity, mythology, alchemy, Freudian ideology and even rape. Whilst the game is never explicit with the latter, and rightfully so, there’s still a lot to make your skin crawl and stomach turn. Despite its somewhat sexual leanings, the game never comes across as seedy or in bad-taste. The style isn’t gritty; everything on display is very surreal and fantastical, softening the more controversial elements of the game. There’s an air of class to Haunting Ground, its jaw-dropping art-design really raises it above some of its contemporaries and keeps it devoid of gratuitous smut. A few subtle details are present however, like the way Fiona’s breasts jiggle slightly as she moves or the many deaths via penetration you can be subjected to. It’s designed to disturb more than it is to titillate and it definitely succeeds in that area. On the not so subtle side of the things are the game over screens, I don’t want to give them away, but once you’re subjected to them, you won’t be a in hurry to see them again. They still make me feel nauseous to this day.
The enemies in this game are genuinely intimidating and scary in their own ways. The first stalker you encounter is Debilitas, the mentally disabled handyman of Belli Castle. His appearance is akin to Sloth from The Goonies, which only makes him more unsettling as he gleefully hunts you down and squeezes the life out of you. Debilitas is easily outwitted but his hulking physique and child-like fascination with Fiona make him incredibly dangerous. The second stalker comes in the form of Daniella, an insane maid created by her master to be perfect. Daniella however is far from perfect; she cannot breathe, taste or feel pleasure. She is embittered towards Fiona for being a real woman, wanting to rip out her uterus and claim it as her own so she can finally be “perfect”. These two are definitely the most memorable of the stalkers. The creativity seems to be lost in the later portions of the game, boiling down to men in robes pursuing you.
The most novel part of Haunting Ground (and believe me, there’s a lot of novel parts to this game) is the inclusion of a canine sidekick named Hewie. Whilst a strange addition to a psychosexual, giallo influenced horror game he adds a fun twist and helps to alleviate the grim atmosphere and feelings of oppression. It’s comforting knowing that you aren’t alone in this. Hewie is used to find items, solve puzzles, attack stalkers and be generally adorable.
Well, adorable when he wants to be.
Hewie can be unresponsive one minute and Crufts standard the next. Too many times I have found myself repeatedly calling for him whilst being savagely beaten to death, only for Hewie to be in a completely different area of the castle. This does encourage you to really pay attention and treat him like, well, a real dog I guess. There’s also a system of praising and scolding Hewie which can effect his behaviour. You can sort-of “train” him, but my advice is to keep his health topped up, give him regular praise and make sure he follows you into each room to ensure your safety. He may not always listen to you, but you’ll be over the moon when he saves you from the brink of death.
Speaking of mortality, there are no health bars in Haunting Ground, only a fear meter. That’s right; you have to manage Fiona’s mentality to survive the attacks of your stalkers. Fiona being the timid sort gets frightened quite easily. You can be severely punished for curiously inspecting a cracked wall, only for lots of insects to come flying out. This in turn causing Fiona to go into a panic, start screaming and attract your current stalker. There are also smaller enemies that can alert stalkers to your presence, ineffectual hiding places that never work and traps that cause instant death.
So tread carefully.
The fear meter is dictated by the screen, or what you can’t see of it. Being panicked can cause Fiona to fall over as she’s running or freeze up at a moment’s notice, it also will begin to distort the screen. If a stalker manages to inflict significant damage this triggers a moment of pure terror causing the screen to turn to static and Fiona will begin sprinting. The only control you have over Fiona during these segments is the direction that she turns, which creates some incredibly intense chases. Fiona will however eventually calm down but there are items you can use to reduce her panic just long enough to find a nice wardrobe to hole up in. There’s also a stamina system, which you determine from how quickly Fiona is moving. After long stretches of running she will become tired and slow down, but again there are items for this.
I also feel the need to mention the doors in this game. Which may sound slightly odd, but they can actually be quite useful in more ways than the obvious. The game never really explains this to you though; it’s more something you learn through experimentation. Whilst being chased you can shut doors to slow stalkers down or hide behind doors that are ajar for a quick fix. You can also kick an open door shut as a stalker is entering, dealing some damage and giving you time to flee. It’s the small details that always impress me.
Haunting Ground also has an early version of a crafting system, which seems to have become the bread and butter of horror games these days. You don’t make weapons as such, just items that can temporarily stun or deal a small amount of damage to your stalker. These items are quite difficult to use and will take some mastery before you can be effective with them. Combining a stunning item with a few bites from Hewie can ensure good damage and enough time for you get two rooms away from your stalker. The crafting system however is one of my least favourite aspects of the game. You have to enter alchemy labs and play an infuriating mini-game in which you must stop rotating colours and match them together to make different items. This requires a lot of precise timing and the game doesn’t initially tell you what combinations make which items. Even when you do make items, you won’t know what they actually do until you use them; some can even be poisonous to both Fiona and Hewie. Arguably this does reinforce the idea of Fiona being unskilled and keeps with the recurring theme of alchemy, but ultimately it’s quite frustrating. You can also make items to reduce panic and increase stamina, but good luck with that.
Graphically the game is stunning for a Playstation 2 title. Capcom really outdid themselves this time, I can’t think of many other titles for the system that look this good. The castle itself is a gorgeous Italian-Gothic labyrinth that frantically alternates between dazzling and terrifying. It’s very charming and atmospheric, often distracting you from the horrors that are following you around every corridor. Everything is dripping with atmosphere, complimented by the game’s score. Electronic droning and distortion is used to great effect here. Capcom’s signature fixed (but also scrolling) camera angles from the Resident Evil series are also present. These voyeuristic viewpoints help to show off the beauty and menace of Belli Castle and often don’t inform you of upcoming dangers. You’ll have to rely on Hewie to do that for you. The camera also flows seamlessly from room to room with no load times, so chase segments are never interrupted. A HD re-master was planned, but never came to fruition. I think we should all take a minute of silence to imagine what could have been.
The controls here are solid and easy to get to the grips with. Fiona is fluid and responsive, so evading your stalkers does come down to skill rather than luck. The four commands you give Hewie are mapped to the right analogue stick and easy to remember. The rest of the buttons are your standard interact, crouch, attack and run. No complaints on this front, everything is simple and works beautifully. If you get caught it’s your fault, there’s no blaming the game here.
On the downside of things is the plot. It’s not bad, but on a first play-through can be very confusing and incomprehensible at times. Once you do get your head around it, you’ll find it to be a rather unique and twisted tale. Unlike Capcom’s other games like Resident Evil, there’s not a whole lot of exposition. A lot of conclusions must be drawn from finding memos and various notes scattered throughout the castle. A small understanding of myths and folklore is also recommended, particularly when you have golems, homunculi and alchemy as key focuses of the plot. The same can be said for the game’s puzzles. The survival horror genre usually works in two ways, either “Find door, find key, use key, open door”, or “Find door, find seven unrelated items, tape them together, go to statue, offer object, get key, open door”. Guess which category Haunting Ground falls into?
The puzzles here vary between cryptic and nonsensical half the time. Such as a door that can only be opened with a broken marionette or plucking the right Mandrake from a flower bed. Failure to acquire said Mandrake can result in death or attracting the current stalker. The enigmatic puzzles and run-and-hide gameplay can prove very challenging for those unfamiliar with this sub-genre. As you’re making progress with a puzzle your stalker can appear, throwing you temporarily off track and make getting back to where you were a problem. You’ll need patience and a knack for lateral thinking to make any progress, so it’s definitely to not everyone’s taste. All that coupled with the game’s overt weirdness and sexual undertones will turn a lot of people off before they’ve made it past the first stalker.
With the current climate of survival horror gravitating more toward the slow-burning, stalker and prey type games, Haunting Ground still feels fresh. Its bonkers story, gorgeous (if not unsettling) visuals, memorable characters and Gothic horror leanings should appease most fans of the genre. You won’t find jump scares here, just pure tension and a whole load of ickiness that will repulse even the most hardened of horror fans. It has its weaknesses, particularly the crafting system, but the atmosphere and art design more than make up for any shortcomings. There are multiple endings that encourage replays and extra modes of difficulty for those who love a challenge. It can be fairly pricey these days due to the poor sales business, but I highly recommend this game to anyone who can stomach it. What you’ll encounter is a truly unique experience that will remain beneath your skin long after you’ve finished.