Survival of the fleetest.
Video game people, unlike real people, don't have a lot of hang-ups, personal traumas, or plain old common sense to get in the way of massacring villages of zombie folk or throwing down against giant monsters. That's part of the fantasy, after all. We dream that in a survival-horror pinch, we would calmly execute a headshot instead of the more probable and sensible "soil your pants, then hide" maneuver.
After years of S.T.A.R.S. bravado, I remember thinking how cool it would be to play a survival-horror game in which the lead character actually behaved like a normal, non-suicidal person. Would they constantly freak out, act jumpy, and crawl into dark corners to avoid confrontation instead of actively seek it out?
That's essentially the premise of Capcom's Haunting Ground, a survival-horror game that owes more to the unsung Clock Tower series than Resident Evil. But after playing for a while as an easily frightened, totally defenseless girl, I began to reconsider whether the run-like-hell paradigm was one with which I truly wanted to spend my time.
Despite the realistic tactics, the story and setting are completely unreal. Trapped in a run-of-the-mill evil castle, your character, Fiona, must work through the typical elaborate locks and puzzles (set by whom? why?) to escape the evil intentions of the mansion's four other inhabitants. Along the way, you'll discover a dark alchemical plot by an evil mastermind to sustain his life by ending yours.
While the story is okay, the setting is too formulaic. I've seen enough cathedral ceilings and spooky antechambers to know a cornice from a cupola, and I'm ready to move on. How about a haunted trailer park or something? Propane tanks might make for some pretty neat traps.
The big twist, if you want to call it that, is your canine companion, Hewey. You can command Hewey by using the right analog-stick, and his attack is your only real defense against bad guys. Hewey also sniffs up items and helps spring those pesky locks. However, Hewey also tends to wander off, disobey commands, and watch curiously while you get mauled. Stupid mutt. By praising and scolding Hewey at appropriate times, you are supposed to be able to "train" the dog. But while original in spirit, training Hewey gets old pretty quick: "Who's a good boy? Yes, you are a good boy. What a good doggie-woggie!" It's unclear whether any of it works. Plus, talking to fake dogs just doesn't do it for me. Maybe I'll think differently after Nintendogs.
I suppose that the dog is supposed to be the best bit in the game, but it turns out to be the most distracting. Hewey only helps with entirely scripted puzzles and his attacks can only slow down attackers, not kill them. For a dog raised in a mansion of horrors, he should have learned to go for the jugular.
Instead, what really deserves to be praised - "yes, you are a good game, [scratch behind ear]" - are the insanely cinematic graphics. While I object to the mansion on conceptual grounds, the grounds themselves look great. The character models, particularly the facial expressions, are spectacular. The minute tweaks needed to turn the sweet smile of a friend into the evil smirk of a robotic handmaid have never been so magisterially performed. Although Fiona's breasts seem to have gotten the virtual treatment so common these days, the over-sexualization of the character actually serves a purpose.
You see, each of the four bad guys you face (although one comes in several forms) has some nefarious designs on your, uh, reproductive organs. It is never specified quite exactly what they want, but such creepy pick-up lines as "Let me into your womb!" leave little room for misunderstanding. Instead of running and hiding from death, you seem to be running and hiding from sexual assault like a co-ed at a college football party.
But despite your lack of defenses, creepy surroundings, and violent effect on members of the opposite sex, the game doesn't get very scary. The bad guys, with one notable exception, all look pretty dopey and have a hard time hitting you as long as you're moving. You are supposed to hide; a few specified "hiding" places are provided for that purpose. However, if the bad guys see you hide - and they will - the game is up. This means you must gain at least a two-room lead on them before trying to hide, which means a lot of running. Often you will get yourself lost backtracking through the mansion, only to have to do it again when you finally get yourself righted.
When Fiona gets really scared, your control over her becomes erratic and the screen blurs. If she enters "Panic mode," she flips out, frequently falling down and into walls. It mimics what I imagine to be a more appropriate response to attempted homicide, but doesn't really affect the basic formula of run, run, run, hide.
Thankfully, there are no load times between rooms, so running through them doesn't take much time. Still, the running itself is a drag and the hiding is hardly ever effective. Sometimes animations are unforgivably slow, such as when Fiona opens and closes doors (does she really need to pause and line herself up perfectly with the door before touching the handle?). Even when you are caught, it is almost impossible to be killed. In a fit of frustration, I let Fiona get slashed repeatedly with a big shard of glass. A quick death? Hardly - it took nearly five agonizing minutes. Running backwards may be torture, but being tortured is, well, boring.
Encounters with bad guys are infrequent, so much of the game is spent wandering around the gorgeous areas solving inane puzzles. At best, the huge, vacant locales and speechless friendship makes the game reminiscent of ICO, working overtime to convey the sense of a small camaraderie within a large, unfriendly universe. But the puzzles and the baddies, basically the gameplay, ruin the sometimes perfect mood.
Haunting Ground sounds all right, even if there is almost too much attention paid to the atmospheric music. When the bad guys approach, the music stops; this means that your ear is always attuned to the slightest variation in sound. Unfortunately, remarks like "Good boy!" and "Go Hewey!" are repetitive, obtuse and never ending.
Well, that isn't entirely true, as the game itself ends after about 8 hours. There are multiple endings, multiple costumes and the requisite mini-game, but the mechanics of the running, hiding, and dodging never quite feel right, removing the more threatening aspects of being on your own as a babe in a prison full of sex offenders. Haunting Ground isn't much fun the first time through, isn't worth playing a second time, and doesn't need to be any longer despite its brevity.
While visually pleasing and moving in its best moments, the game is too slow for action gamers and too irritating for casual adventure fans. The plot is weird enough that some collectors and video game novelty-seekers might find it worth their money, but ultimately, nothing can save Haunting Ground from its own tedious gameplay. Run and hide, indeed.