Survival horror is a huge genre these days, and 2005 heralds Capcom's latest voyage into fear. I'll be honest, Haunting Ground, which was originally released in Japan as Demento, is a rehash of Clocktower 3. Instead of Alyssa, an innocent and physically weak English schoolgirl who spends the game being chased by a variety of villains, we have Fiona Belli, an innocent and physically weak English teenager who spends the game being chased by a variety of villains.
But don't be disheartened; despite this, Haunting Ground is worth playing and has a couple of very novel tricks up its sleeve, which make it a unique experience.
First up is Fiona's canine companion, Hewie. Using the right analogue stick, you can make him sit or follow you. He can be scolded when he ignores your calls, and you can command him to attack people or retrieve items. In fact, without Hewie you simply could not progress, as he is often the key to solving puzzles. As well as sensing approaching enemies, Hewie is also extremely smart. If you are forced to leave him at the top of a ladder in one part of the castle, he will retrace his steps and eventually find you. Cool, huh?
Fiona, like Alyssa before her, has little to defend herself except for some strange alchemical compounds, and so, if separated from Hewie, she must use the handy hiding places, such as under beds and tables, and inside wardrobes dotted around the castle. Of course, if she uses them too much, she will eventually be found and that is not a pleasant experience.
There are also certain places in the game where you can use Hewie to scare the respective villain away. For example, he can hide in a bush in the graveyard until Fiona lures the gun-toting bad guy Ricardo into range, a cut-scene will then take place and you will be granted a five-minute reprieve. The other alternative is to simply run away and that's where Haunting Ground's other notable feature comes in.
The first thing you'll notice while playing the game is that there's no life bar. When it comes to Fiona's health, you're flying blind, but that doesn't last long. As you play, you'll notice that Fiona slows down after running for a while, and you might even notice her heart racing via the rhythmic vibrations of the joyride.
Then you meet Debilitas, aka the Hunchback of Castle Belli, and fear becomes a reality. The graphics change, becoming pixellated and blurred the more scared Fiona becomes. She falls over more, and eventually, her panic leads to the screen becoming black and white. As Fiona runs, the joypad becomes less responsive, and eventually, if her fear becomes too much, she will curl up, and if a villain is in the same room, you can only watch as Fiona meets her demise.
The worst part is not the fact that you've killed this poor, innocent young girl, but the creepy noises that filter in as the Game Over (or in this case Aota est Fabula, which is Latin for 'the drama has been acted out') screen comes up; I'm not sure what Debilitas is doing to the poor girl's corpse, but it doesn't bear thinking about. Even worse are the cackles of psychotic maid Daniella.
Overall, the graphics are excellent. Not only can you see Fiona's breasts bouncing and Debilitas scratching his crotch (*shudder*), but the castle is gigantic, with vast amounts of detail. I only have one complaint: like previous Capcom games -- including Onimusha and Clocktower 3 -- there is no camera control, and this means that it can sometimes be frustrating when trying to spot a passage way or an important item.
There is also a hidden room, where by using amulets scattered around the castle, you can create magical items that can protect Fiona, such as feather boots that hide the sound of her footsteps. To do this, you need to match rotating balls within a Cabalistic Tree of Life. Yeah, it sounds complicated, but you'll see what I mean when you have a go.
The plot itself is engaging, but still confusing. Fiona is involved in a car crash that leads to the death of her parents, Ugo and Ayla. She wakes up in a castle, which is later revealed to be her ancestral home. (Trust me, as a native, there are few castles in England that are that creepy, and it's even rarer to live in one, much less inherit it!)
Poor Fiona is chased around by five different characters who all want her 'azoth' -- her soul or life essence -- for various different reasons, except Debilitas, who just wants to have sex with her. Interweaved in all this is Fiona's family history, cloning, and alchemy, but unfortunately, many things are left unexplained.
Despite this, you'll be blown away by the opening sequence and the game itself. While it seems to be a rehash of older concepts, the game is actually novel and refreshing. Yes, the plot is a bit shaky, but with an average completion time of around ten hours, this will keep you entertained for quite a while. Added to that is the replay value, with a movie gallery and alternative outfits for both Fiona and Hewie (just wait until you see him in the stuffed dog outfit).
Haunting Ground may not be a great survival horror, and it ranks well below classics such as Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, but the ingenious use of graphics and the canine side-kick will keep hardened fans amused late into the night.