Still working on stuff, so here’s one I’ve had in reserve for a week or two. I’m still doing my best to fix up the commenting system, and I will be doing a proper Soapbox tomorrow – I got a topic to rant about and everything! Just need to fix this… *sticks hand into code*…
Haunting Ground was daring for its time.
Other games were shocking in 2005, after all – you had The Suffering, which I still argue is a better game than Silent Hill: Downpour and yes, I do believe the two games are comparable. You also had Manhunt around, stressing out the Daily Mail-wearing, pipes-and-slippers moral-guardian brigade with its murderous overtones and dark themes. Except, in truth, neither of these games were really that shocking. Manhunt was a gaming nasty, but I think we knew at the time there was a good reason for this – that the game itself was… well… not very good, actually. And The Suffering, whilst a great game, was very much comic-book in its excess. Neither game was really worthy of moral outrage, yet both attracted it. Surprisingly, Haunting Ground was largely ignored by the Morally Outraged and the Gaming Public – which is a shame, because it is both one of the darkest, cruellest games ever made and also one of the finest examples of PS2-era Survival Horror you will come across.
And I don’t mean Resident Evil. Haunting Ground (or Demento for my American readers!) bears little resemblance to Resident Evil, in both design and theme. It’s a darkly animated sort of experience, with a maturity and a sensibility that was quite unlike any game of the era, and probably unlike any game since. Resident Evil was always more slapstick than Silent Hill, and in Haunting Ground it seems Capcom were attempting to play Konami at the own game – the slow, tense, psychological thriller horror. I hate to say it, but compare this to Silent Hill 2 and there is no contest for me. Haunting Ground wins just by virtue of being a better game at its heart, and a crueller mistress in its head.
The plot starts as it means to go on really – you play Fiona Belli, a young woman coming of age, who is on holiday with her kind and loving parents. Of course, a horrible car accident ruins their carefree experience and both her parents are killed in the crash. Dragged from the car by a mysterious, shadowed figure, she awakens to find herself wearing nothing but a dirty sheet, locked in a cage. Saved by a mysterious albino Alsatian, Fiona – wrapped at the start in nothing but this dirty sheet – begins to explore her surroundings. It’s from this point onwards that the game gets cryptic, and mild-meltingly so as well, as you and Fiona realise very quickly that the inhabitants of this castle in which you find yourself are a few sandwiches short of a tea party. When Fiona is given some new clothes by the creepy maid Daniella, someone is watching her. And the outfit is, shall we say, quite… umm… clingy, shall we say? Daniella is herself mind-meltingly creepy, she looks and sounds like some kind of robot and its her lack of human emotion and expression that makes her so devastatingly effective at getting the point across that this is not a place to relax. This is a terrible place, this is a place where emotion has run dry, cold and barren.
Soon Fiona has a friend too – Hewie, the aforementioned Albino Alsatian. Hewie is more than a mechanic – he is your weapon, he is your means to get some items, your warning for trouble ahead and a companion to rely on. Hewie is smarter than your average pup. He is an invaluable friend and ally in this dangerous place, and with the deft flick of your right stick you can praise him for good deeds, scold him when he is naughty (and he will be naughty – let him get away with blue murder and he really will pee on your leg!), order him to sit and stay or follow you and watch as your companion blossoms into an adorable furball of awesomeness. His barks and whines are a little on the mechanical side but this is such a minor niggle when the co-operation between Fiona and Hewie is so well designed, thought out and works. It’s most troubling that Capcom have since found it much harder to do AI companions, Hewie showing up a certain Resident Evil 5 companion by proving that Hewie is better as he is a weapon and has an IQ in double figures.
Haunting Ground may have a plot that is difficult to digest, and a mechanic that is somewhat disorientating, but it blossoms somewhat after a while and you realise in a very strange way it all makes perfect sense. And to compensate, the gameplay goes on the mantra of less being more – and it is surprisingly effective at that. You’re not going to kill your stalkers before the game lets you – it’s very set in its ways like that – but with the aid of Hewie, traps and that old chestnut of hiding away from your pursuers until they get distracted by a pretty butterfly you slowly make your way around the gorgeous castle – this game was probably one of the best-looking titles on the PS2 and that is no exaggeration. The attention to detail is incredible and the sheer depth of the winding story will leave you with an awful lot to think about on those long, cold nights that seem to last forever here in England.
The progression comes in two forms. One are traditional genre-laden puzzles, but are done so with a zeal and relish that is refreshing and somewhat disturbing in equal measure. Whether it be finding a key in an oddly well-kept underground church, a strange new species of flesh-eating moth or pulling a Mandragora out of the ground and having to listen to it scream in agony as you haul it to a strange ugly creature to nosh on (does that make it a vegetarian or carnivorous? One of the MANY questions that you will be left to ponder!) the game pulls no punches in making you fully aware that it IS messing with your head. It fully expects you to be freaked out or find some of the content potentially disturbing, and it is in this no-holds-barred setting that the tree bears fruit; you laugh, you cry, you cream your two-seconds-ago-pristine white underpants. It even goes as far to mislead you with items that have no use – a wicked, mean-spirited gesture to be sure – and perplex you as you slowly use logic to decipher the mysteries of this strange place.
Most games wouldn’t get away with this, but Haunting Ground is already messing with your head so much that you quickly gloss over this niggle and think more about the task at hand. Whether by choice or by some miraculous stroke of luck, they do manage to get away with it.
The other progression trick is disabling traps to move onward. Traps are an insta-death mechanic but are never really unjustly unfair in their usage. You do kind of get the clue before you reach them, and it’s usually not that hard or complicated to get around them when you think about it. With the aid of Hewie, you fast realise that this game intends you to use your head – something it does extremely well, and by using it you fast discover how wonderfully crafted the experience is.
However, for all of this Haunting Ground is quick to punish the inept, the stupid, the idle and the slow. There are many other instances of insta-death, traps aside, and for a while they do grate – this is a punishing, cruel game at times. It is understandable to be rather offended by a game that is so eager to point out your limitations and stupidity, but it is the sign of a solid game when you curse yourself – not the game – for your ineptitude. If only I did this and maybe I should try that are lines you will be reeling off as you doggedly (Oh god the puns make them stop!) push deeper into the creepy world in which you find yourself in, trying to make sense of it all and hoping you’ll soon find your way out.
Of course, there are boss battles against your various stalkers and these, again, are about using your head and your surroundings to the fullest effect possible. The ends of many of them are incredibly dramatic, played out in the gorgeous in-game engine, moving and tinted with irony and pity. You learn the inhabitants are as much a victim in part as yourself and with the issues they have, it is no small wonder why they have ended up being driven insane. It’s the sign of an excellent script that Daniella, the maid, becomes one of your enemies and her final ending is so potent and moving that you actually feel for her – you want to undo what you just did, because it is just not fair. You understand along the way what has happened to her, the horrible things she has endured, the suffering she has been at the mercy of, and suddenly her ending is as poetic as it is gut-wrenching. It is in this that you realise that what you have in your hands is a game that goes against the grain and taps into that part of your mind that makes you doubt, feel and want to cry. It hits home that this is what horror should be – not just making you scared, but making you feel guilty for your own actions, however justifiable they may be in the circumstances.
Of course, Haunting Ground is hardly a title for everyone because it really is somewhat a purists title – somewhat predictably it even managed to flop terrifically in a market at the time starved for good horror (Competing with Resident Evil 4 probably did it no favours). But if you give it a bit of time, it wins you over, slowly but surely making you realise that to escape, you must stoop to the level your persuers are on. Constantly making you second-guess, making you think and feel. And with four different endings, one typically comedic one as standard, it is also a game that has a lot of depth and a lot of charm. Be it mandragoras, a haunted corpse, the maid or the Mammoth’s Head in the corner of the room, there is lots of eye candy and lots of puzzles and surreal bites of humour that lift the mood from time to time. It is one of the best deviations from the horror mould in the last decade or so, and if you haven’t tried it but love good, solid horror you owe it to yourself to get your hands on a copy and indulge in one of the most ludricrously guilty pleasures devised. With secret outfits that are simply obscene, a lovely soundtrack, lovely simple controls and a deep and rich castle so lovingly and cruelly laid out for you, Haunting Ground is perhaps one of the best things the horror genre has spat out in a long time and is the sort of bold, forward-looking game we should be encouraging games developers to take more of a chance on.
Haunting Ground, in summary, is a wonderfully different deviation from the norm and if you like your horror, like puzzles and feel up to the task of letting your feeble brain process the sheer magnitude of mind-meltingly strange moments, it’s a breath of fresh air in a market that is now starting to stagnate again. Where Resident Evil 6 seems to not know where it is going, Silent Hill has lost its way and Dead Space 3 looks to be no more than a Broforce third-person alien shooter, it is games like Haunting Ground that we should be asking to have back. I’d certainly buy an HD update, without a seconds thought to it. It may not have been a successful game then, but it was critically praised. It was loved. We did love it. It’s just that considering other horror games of the time, no-one really noticed the quiet one in the corner with the creepy grin on its face. We were distracted trying to hold down Manhunt, wooed by The Suffering. The creepy one? Yeah, most weren’t interested.
Now Manhunt and The Suffering are no more, and its rival series are bloated and unfit to carry on the horror mantle. It is time Capcom slotted Haunting Ground back into the market, to really demonstrate how truly special this game was.
I will buy it. I will buy it with MONEY Capcom!