We haven't heard much from Capcom about Haunting Ground, the upcoming psychological horror game for the PlayStation 2 that goes by the name Demento overseas. Aside from an unsettling trailer at last year's Tokyo Game Show, there hasn't been much information circulating on the creepy game except a few basic bits. You'll play as Fiona Belli, a young woman in jeopardy on a mysterious island fully stocked with danger. Unlike other games where your female lead is a tough-as-nails commando of some kind, Haunting Ground's Fiona is slight of frame and sadly low on the ass-kicking skills you would want to have in her situation. The 18-year-old girl is newly orphaned, having lost her parents in a car accident from which she was the only survivor. Following the accident, young Fiona wakes up, imprisoned in a mysterious old castle, which she discovers she is heir to in the wake of her parents' death. Upon escaping from her cell, she explores her surroundings and discovers the creepy Debilitas, a deformed man who enjoys chasing her. However, to balance the negative death karma around Fiona, you'll meet up with Hewie, a white German shepherd who's big on helping her once she frees him. Together the pair set out to escape the mysterious island before one of Debilitas' "love taps" sends them into oblivion. We tried out an early work-in-progress version of the game at Capcom's recent press event and saw how we fared with our new companion in the face of an industrial-strength dose of fatal creepiness.
The demo on hand at the Capcom event started us out at the beginning of the game and eased us into Fiona's troubled world. Although our previous looks at the game made us draw comparisons between Haunting Ground and Capcom's Clock Tower games, that similarity is only partially accurate now that we’ve played the game. Rather than offer an experience that's derivative of the Clock Tower games, Haunting Ground appears to be a blend of original gameplay mechanics and those seen in Clock Tower and Resident Evil.
The beginning of the game gives an effective introduction to Fiona's adventure. You start out nearly nude and totally defenseless in a cage. Once you are free from your prison, you'll be able to explore your surroundings but will have limited interaction with the things around you. Once you make your way to a forbidding castle, you'll trigger one of the many cinematics in the game, in this case a real-time clip that will introduce you to a mysterious purple-haired woman who's big on staring at and talking to unsettling portraits strewn about the house. Despite her quirks, the purple-haired woman gives up some clothing for you. Once you've changed, you'll be able to explore more of the area you're in and run smack-dab into your big, creepy buddy, Debilitas. Much like in the Clock Tower games, you'll cross paths with the big brute and find yourself dashing for safety before he smacks you silly.
This first encounter will let you get a feel for how to avoid your foe. Thankfully he comes from the big, dumb, and slow-moving school of hazards, so don't give up hope. Fleeing from your murderous chum shows off two elements that should be recognized. First is the game's plethora of places for you to hide when fleeing from him. More often than not, you can get far enough ahead to sustain a good lead and make yourself scarce. The catch is that if you use the same hidey-holes repeatedly over a set period of time, your foe will start to learn them and seek you out, which is a bad, bad thing. The second element is the panic mode Fiona can fall into. Much like the atypical blonde heroines in horror films who have the life span of a mayfly, Fiona is easily startled and prone to spazzing out in the face of danger. Should this happen, the game's control will be unresponsive, and the visuals will have a cool black filter over the screen that gets increasingly crazy as the effect wears on. Fiona limps on through the game, which can easily make her dinner for whatever else is out there. Once you've shaken off the ill effects, you'll get your bearings and will be able to resume your normal damsel-in-distress behavior as you explore the mysterious island.
As is the case with most games in the horror family, Haunting Ground will feature different types of puzzles for you to solve. One of the big surprises is that the puzzles all have ties to alchemy and bring to mind some of the head-scratchers in the Resident Evil games. In the case of Haunting Ground, you'll find yourself entering alchemic terms into typewriters. One of the first such puzzles we encountered had us entering the word "meth" on a typewriter, which yielded a bar we were able to insert into an inanimate golem, which came to life and moved away from the door it was blocking. In addition to solving the typewriter puzzles, you'll collect herbs such as lavender and chamomile, which will come in handy as you make your way through the island.
Besides the gameplay mechanics we've already mentioned, Haunting Ground features a unique twist to its horror premise: Hewie. You'll meet up with the white German shepherd partway through your adventure. Once the two of you connect, you'll have the start of a deep bond that you will need to nurture throughout the course of the adventure. Although you both have some common problems, you'll have to do some sucking up to Hewie in order to secure his often much-needed assistance in the game. The way the system works is that you'll be able to issue basic commands--such as attack, come, go, sit, and stay--as needed over the course of the game. Depending on the state of your bond with the pooch, he may or may not follow your orders. In some cases you'll need him to trigger a switch by pressing it or by standing on it or to attack Debilitas so you can haul tail. To build your bond with Hewie you'll have to praise him when he obeys your orders and pet him. Besides the active skills we've mentioned, Hewie also has some passive talents, such as the ability to hear noise and alert you to nearby trouble, which is key to survival. It seems that sound will play a pretty significant part in Haunting Ground's experience; the music will react to your enemies' proximity and the threat they pose to Fiona.
The visuals in the game are shaping up nicely and create an appropriately creepy atmosphere. The graphics engine pumps out detailed visuals that rely on a stark color palette that's heavy on grays to reinforce the claustrophobic feel in many of the game's environments. What we played so far featured a good mix of open outdoor areas and cramped indoor spaces, which were made even more so when Debilitas showed up. The game's gray look is accentuated by the reds of fireplaces and torches. In addition to the cool visual filters that are layered on as Fiona gets more freaked in the game, there are camera shifts that occur as you hide in spaces, such as underneath a bed, that let you keep an eye out for Debilitas and that are effective pulse quickeners. The bow on the visuals comes from the cinematics in the game, which are directed by Naoto Takenaka, a Japanese film director and actor, who has quite the eye for disturbing imagery. The only notable rough spot we noticed while playing the work-in-progress build was an occasionally problematic camera.
We have to say we're pretty intrigued with what we've played of Haunting Ground. The gameplay is solid and feels fresh, the story is involving, and the dog mechanic is pretty cool. There's a lot of potential in the pieces of the game we saw. Hopefully it will continue to head in the positive direction it seems to be going. Haunting Ground is currently slated to ship this May.