Haunting Ground never transcends itself. There are some good elements at work here: the graphics are strong throughout, the story is initially interesting, and Fiona's inability to fight back makes the onset of an enemy extremely tense. But the story quickly fades, the controls are often spotty, and the game experience doesn't vary before it all becomes monotonous. There are the inklings of a solid game within Haunting Ground, but what's here is mostly mediocre.
The player takes on the role of Fiona, a very attractive (aren't they all?) European teenager whose life has taken a bizarre turn for the worse. She awakens caged in the basement of a gigantic castle, covered in nothing but a bed sheet. She eventually finds a companion in Hewie, a dog she saves from a cruel trap, and with him by her side Fiona must navigate the castle, solving puzzles and avoiding the crazed Debilitas in an effort to solve the mystery of it all.
This is holistically a good setup. Fiona is an empathetic character, and it's easy to care about what becomes of her. The mystery of the place is also initially strong, though this unfortunately doesn't last--the game is too slow-paced, and for a game supposedly focused on the story, there simply isn't enough of it at a frequent pace to keep the player interested.
The gameplay itself consists of moving Fiona about the castle--with Hewie in tow once Fiona saves him. Most of the gameplay is puzzle solving, either through finding keys to doors or discovering various clues. None of it is terribly original, especially for those who've played any game in the Resident Evil vein, but it's usually not overly frustrating.
The exciting bits come when Fiona is being chased. Fiona is not your average big-breasted survival horror heroine--she is a scared, hopeless girl, without a shotgun in sight. Her only weapon is Hewie, who can be ordered to chomp down on approaching enemies, hopefully slowing them down. Fiona's true method of escape is hiding--certain hotspots, like bed or a closet, can be accessed, and Fiona will hide for her life. The catch comes with the fact that enemies will eventually learn of Fiona's hiding places if she uses them too often--this adds a strong element of tension to hiding.
Said enemies usually come in two flavors: Debilitas--a Quasimodo-ish hulk whose lights are not all on upstairs; and floating blue orbs known as “luminescents”. The arrival of the former is somewhat rare, and rightfully so--Debilitas will kill Fiona the moment he grabs her. The latter are far more common, and will chase Fiona about. When they touch her, they emit a loud noise, which may very well lure Debilitas to the area. They are easily avoided, however--running into another room and shutting the door will make them dissipate. But the presence of the luminescents is unfortunately jarring--horror games are not exactly bastions of reason and believability, but blue floating shrieking orbs can really raise an eyebrow, even in such a context.
The controls are decent. Fiona moves fluidly, but getting her to engage in an action is painfully sluggish. To hide beneath a bed or close a door Fiona must be in an exact spot to do so, and even then the animation is slow. Hewie himself is controlled with the right analog stick, and while it usually works fine, Hewie can be annoyingly disobedient. This is apparently a selling point--Hewie must be trained, through praising and scolding, to obey commands when you order them. How much of Hewie's disobedience is due to actual design, rather than poor coding? Don't know. Is it annoying regardless of the answer? You bet it is.
An interesting spin on the controls is Fiona's susceptibility to panic. If Fiona takes too much damage, or comes into contact with one too many luminescents, she becomes panicked--the screen blurs a bit, and Fiona becomes a pain to control. This can be frustrating, as it always happens at the worst possible moments, but it does aid the overarching hopelessness of it all.
Haunting Ground looks great. The environments are smooth and crisp, and the character models--specifically Fiona--are excellent. There are a couple of pre-rendered cinemas throughout the game, and these are strong as well. A strange touch is the blue-gray filter that seems to surround everything seen in the game. It's an eerie, otherworldly, and effective addition.
The sound is also good. The game never feels empty due to lack of effects. The voice actors are fine, although there's not really a standout. The music is the strength of the game's audio--the threatening tone of the chasing tunes are intimidating, and a surprisingly (and appropriately) touching melody plays during scenes between Fiona and Hewie.
Haunting Ground is not overly difficult. Some of the puzzles can be frustrating, and running out of hiding places is an ever-present concern. Hewie himself can be a pain to control, as previously mentioned, and this adds a bit to the frustration level. But the game is not bad given the nature of most survival horror games.
Technically, Haunting Ground is great. The game can take an unfortunate amount of time to load up--but amazingly, almost no loading is present during the course of the game, making exploring a seamless process. Saving is speedy, and slowdown is nonexistent.
Haunting Ground could have--should have--been more than it is, but the game simply falls short. Fiona's true helplessness makes the game a true example of horror, rather than the action games masquerading as such, but something was needed to fill the gap that the action left behind--redundant puzzles simply cannot take its place. The story is interesting initially, and could have continued to be, but runs out of steam early. Haunting Ground, in the end, is a unique game that could have been so much more.
- Metallimoose, SwankWorld Media