The release of Haunting Ground quickly approaches, and we recently got to spend some quality time in the creepy and dangerous world of this psychological thriller. Haunting Ground is the story of Fiona Belli, a waifish young woman who awakens in a cage in the blood-spattered basement of a sprawling old mansion, alone and with only a sheet to shield her. Crawling out of her cage begins a long, bizarre nightmare, where finding clothes and remembering what happened to her are secondary considerations to staying alive in the face of constant pursuit.
Her one companion and ally is Hewie, a white German shepherd dog whose devotion to his new mistress is second only to his useful aptitude for following commands and lending assistance with tooth and claw. The strength of this bond and how vital it is to progressing in Haunting Ground was made evident as we crept through the endless halls and balconies of the mansion, seeking answers, sanctuary, and an eventual escape. Fiona discovers Hewie early on in her explorations of the mansion, after she receives a skimpy outfit from the house's mysterious gothic maid, and after she's already been chased by Debilitas, a hulking, deformed man whose childlike brain seems to confuse Fiona with one of his treasured dolls. She frees the dog from being tied to a tree, but instead of racing off like she expects him to, Hewie instead shows an inclination to stick by her side. It's a good thing, too, because the mansion is a tricky place in which to become lost and it doesn't offer up its secrets easily. There's all sorts of plotting afoot, from the voice of a man swearing he'll claim Fiona, to the violent Debilitas' strange obsession with catching her (and then brutally manhandling her to death), to the cowled Riccardo, the house's enigmatic butler who is able to call off Debilitas with only a word.
Apparently, the old mansion is Fiona's inheritance, passed on to her when her parents died in a car crash just prior to her arrival. Her family's connection to the building is not immediately evident, but what is immediately evident is that the mansion has played home to both alchemical experimentation and madness. Alchemy labs dot the interior, along with references to attempts to create artificial life as well as libraries devoted to research. Displays featuring human body parts (which are strikingly realistic) are also scattered throughout, along with crumbling ledges and deadly traps. Staying alive to unravel the mystery becomes a difficult business.
Fiona herself is determined--if easily frightened--though on her own she hasn't many useful abilities. She can push small objects, throw items, kick weakly at things, and execute a running charge that's more of a shove. She needs to keep a handle on both her stamina and her rising sense of panic as she roams through the house (you're not given a meter, but it's pretty easy to see when she's ailing). When she runs out of stamina, she moves more slowly; when she's panicked, her surroundings become darker and grainier, she's harder to control, and she'll become prone to falling over helplessly. None of those conditions are ideal when Debilitas comes calling, but Fiona has another trick up her sleeve--and that's to hide.
There are a few locations in the castle that trigger a "What's this?" message as Fiona runs past them while being chased, and these locations are usually beds and closets and the like. So long as she's out of Debilitas' line of sight, she can duck under or into one of these hidey-holes, and the brute will usually pass her by. The catch is that repeated use will let even her simpleminded stalker learn her hiding places, so you'll have to mix things up to ensure success. There are other areas, which are shrouded in darkness, where you can hide to avoid being detected, like behind doors, curtains, or walls. If you crouch and are still, sometimes your pursuer will lumber right by. There are even certain areas where you can fight back. For example, we were able to nudge Debilitas off a second-story level with no railing, as well as shove a bookcase on top of him. Nothing seems to completely stop Debilitas, but at least you can earn a reprieve by keeping your distance.
Woman's Best Friend
But Fiona's last and best line of defense is Hewie. The dog's actions are governed by a series of simple commands. You can call the dog to your side, you can order him to investigate an area (the same command will have him attack an enemy if one is present), you can tell him to sit and stay put, and you can praise or scold him. It's not only a matter of directing your new canine companion to do your bidding, though; Fiona will have to build a relationship with Hewie, or he'll react slowly to commands, if not ignore them altogether. Fortunately, Hewie is easy to please, and repeatedly praising him for obeying promptly goes a long way. You'll also find dog treats you can give him as well as a ball you can throw for him to play with. The more you interact with Hewie, the more reliable he becomes, and this bond is vital to your progress.
That's because Hewie is more than just a companion in the mansion's dusty halls. Having him attack Debilitas with a bite to the leg is often the best way to allow you to get the distance from the simpleton that you need in order to hide. There were several instances where we needed Hewie to fetch a key item that Fiona had no hope of reaching, like through a narrow gate to collect a plant, or climbing a pile of rubble to fetch a doll. If you have the dog search an apparently empty area, sometimes he's able to locate helpful items that otherwise would not appear.
But some of his greatest abilities are passive, as well. For example, if Debilitas or another enemy is coming, Hewie will crouch lower to the ground, stop wagging his tail, and start to pant in distress, which can give you an early warning to find a hiding spot. Also, there are some lethal traps in the mansion that he will alert you to by barking madly. So when entering a new area, you'll learn to watch your dog carefully in case he'll expose dangers that you would otherwise miss. He's both a comforting presence and a useful companion, as well as an occasional annoyance when he's not following commands correctly… just like a real dog, actually!
This game carries on the tradition of horror games with detailed, dusty rooms and plenty of intricate items to examine and interact with, as well as outdoor areas dappled in shadow. The color palettes are generally muted, but there are also a number of areas with rich carpets and artwork hanging on the walls, which avoids making the game feel too gray. The characters come across well (though Fiona's movement in the chest area is a tad overstated), and Hewie in particular animates much like an actual dog would, following the girl's movements with his eyes and wagging his tail happily, and even his ear movements and posture are finely tuned. The sound in the game tends to be mostly low-key, ambient tunes, but this allows you to hear important things, like Hewie barking or whining softly to alert you to danger, the sound of Fiona updating her comments (which can clue you in on your next objective), or the faint strains of music that let you know Debilitas will soon be there. You'll learn to tune into the game's sounds to know when you're safe and when you're not, or if something needs to be investigated.
Haunting Ground seems to be shaping up to be a unique horror game that's low on zombie-splattering but high on tension. The interaction with Hewie appears to be well integrated into the game and really gives the whole experience its own unique feel. You horror aficionados (and dog lovers?) can expect to see Haunting Ground on shelves this May. Keep watching GameSpot for our full review.