Thursday, July 12, 2007

PlayStation 2 (PS2) - Haunting Ground - A Couple Hours In

In a dank, earthen-floored cellar a hulking brute of a man chops raw meat with a large cleaver. A low moan escapes from the nearby cage. He gazes longingly at the figure within, an unconscious young woman covered only by a satin sheet.

The mentally defective monster kneels by the cage's padlocked door and reaches through the bars. As his thick, sausage-like fingers approach her delicate ankle, his nearly toothless mouth opens in an O of excitement. Then suddenly he thinks better of it, withdraws, and exits the cellar.

Some time later, the young woman awakens and looks around in confusion. She finds the cage door's padlock left unfastened and hanging from the latch. She fumbles the lock off the door, opens it, and crawls out as quickly as she can manage. She is free!

For now...

So begins CAPCOM's excursion into Gothic survival horror. With the sensibilities of a Bronté novel and gameplay mechanics like those in their other horror games, CAPCOM has succeeded in doing what Resident Evil was never able to - creep out the player.

When I first sampled this PS2 title in 2005, I put it aside because a particularly annoying gameplay mechanic kept getting me killed. One has few options when confronted by Debilitas, the brute from the game's opening. None of them involve killing him. The best one can do is to run away... terribly fast. And hide. Unfortunately, any given hiding spot will only fool Debilitas once. So I died often.

In my more recent gameplay sessions I used a little more intelligence and had far better results. Instead of coming out of hiding as soon as the ''Coast Clear" message popped up on the screen, I waited a few extra seconds to make sure my enemy was out of earshot as well as out of view. I also made sure I left the room in the opposite direction from the enemy. This gave me a lot more time to explore and solve the puzzles before Debilitas found me again.

Having had more time to explore the game, I must say it's pretty enjoyable. I wouldn't rate it as scary as Silent Hill, but it does surpass Resident Evil in the thrills and chills department. There are things I like about it and things I don't, and I'll discuss those next.

On the plus side, the presentation is all top-notch. Despite having 3D backgrounds, all the textures in the game appear detailed rather than blurry. There is no HUD; information about your character is communicated through full-screen contrast effects and gameplay changes, increasing immersion. The sound, music and background noises are all suitably creepy and go a long way to enhance the atmosphere. The art design is suitably Gothic in tone. Load times between rooms are virtually unnoticeable, much as in Ico. Animations are smooth enough that what jerkiness there is doesn't enter into the player's consciousness.

Also on the positive side are some of the gameplay aspects. The run-and-hide feature, as well as the canine companion, open new storytelling possibilities for the developer. Instead of having to make the protagonist some kind of heavily armed super-soldier to give her a chance of survival, he can make her an ordinary person who must repeatedly choose flight over fight in order to survive. The dog can help her solve puzzles and slow down attackers.

On the down side, these gameplay innovations are badly implemented, poorly balanced, and not well-integrated with the rest of the game. The dog's pathfinding is broken; it has trouble making its way to the player when called, sometimes even when it's in the same room. The hiding feature is poorly balanced. There aren't very many places to hide, and the inability to use the same hiding place more than once means that the player is very likely to run out of them long before he runs out of enemy encounters. It's also badly integrated. Several other methods of evading and slowing down enemies are provided, making the run-and-hide feature less vital than it could have been.

To sum up, Haunting Ground is an enjoyable but flawed Gothic horror experience, better than it might have been but not as good as it could have been.

Grade: B

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