I’ve been wanting to write about Haunting Ground for quite some time and, although this may sound a bit odd at first, this month of dog-based content has provided me with a pretty good excuse. Haunting Ground (or ‘Demento’, as it is brilliantly known as in Japan) is a survival horror game released by Capcom after they purchased the rights to the ‘Clock Tower’ series, following the closure of Human Entertainment. The Clock Tower games were a different take on survival horror. Instead of taking the Resident Evil approach of limited resources against a mansion full of enemies, there’s ONE enemy and NO resources. You’re usually in control of someone who has no training or skills to survive an encounter with a crazed killer, so you have to sneak and hide and avoid confrontation at all costs. It’s a kind of horror that has had a resurgence in popularity recently, with stuff like Amnesia and of course Alien: Isolation returning to this kind of gameplay. Clearly, Clock Tower was ahead of its time.
Haunting Ground shares a load of similarities with the Clock Tower games. In fact, legend has it that it even started life as Clock Tower 4, before a name change late into development. You play as a young girl called Fiona, who wakes up imprisoned in a strange castle after a car accident and gets chased by a variety of things including a mentally-handicapped giant called - I shit you not - ‘Debilitas’ and - I also shit you not - the burning skeletal corpse of Fiona’s cloned grandad who is trying to impregnate her with his own resurrection. Yes.
Anyway - DOGS.
At the beginning of the game, Fiona meets a proud white alsatian called Hewie, who proceeds to follow her and become her main survival tool. By pushing directions on the right analog stick, Fiona can command Hewie to attack, come to her side and even search out items hidden within the game world.
Sometimes. Hewie is, after all, a dog.
See, the brilliant part about Hewie is that he is an actual dog, walking about and thinking for himself. He’s not like, say, Shadow in Dead To Rights, a game where you basically have a ‘use dog as a smart bomb’ button. Shadow, bless him, is as much of a dog as the police car in Streets of Rage is. Hewie, though… ask him to come to Fiona’s side and he may just cock his head to one side and scamper off to do his own thing. Hardly ideal during a life and death struggle with a pursuing maniac.
So, you can scold him. Every time Hewie does something that you don’t want him to, you can give him a telling off. You can also praise him if he behaves. In fact, you can tell him off or praise him for whatever you want and over time, this shapes his behaviour. Too much praise renders him unpredictable, but constantly chastising him will cause Hewie to become apathetic to whether or not Fiona stays alive (which affects the ending) or has him turn on her completely.
During the game, you’re either being chased by a bastard or you’re solving some pretty standard survival horror puzzles - finding keys and that. The chase sequences are pretty intense so when you do get a chance to search a few rooms for keys it is a good chance to take a breather and, more importantly, start bonding with Hewie. As well as using him to solve some of the game's puzzles, things like calling him to your side and doing tricks like getting him to give you his paws, achieved by clicking in the stick when he is stood next to you. These all go towards building a relationship with him, meaning he’s more likely to help out quicker when the shit hits the fan. It is strange, taking a few minutes out from the horrors you confront throughout Haunting Ground to spend some time playing with a doggy, but the feeling that you’re training and befriending a real, thinking thing makes it feel worthwhile.
The big payoff is, of course, having that moment where Fiona is in dire need of help, you jab the right stick upwards and out of nowhere Hewie leaps in, right on command, to bite at the back of the neck of her pursuer, buying her some precious seconds in which she can escape. Knowing that his reaction to the situation and his lifesaving dive was due to this budding relationship between him and Fiona, via your specific training, is awesome.
A lot of dogs appear in games as a cheap tool and little else. They’re there to create a basic emotional connection with the in-game character and, subsequently, the player, so when they’re ceremoniously offed in the penultimate chapter it is a big sad moment to drive home how nasty the final boss is, or some rubbish like that. Haunting Ground DOES tread those boards towards the end, but is let off the hook by all of the interaction you’ve got with Hewie leading up to that point. He’s not just some polygon quadruped that follows you around - he’s REAL. You’ve put some time into learning and shaping his behaviour and have seen the changes in him, yet he still has his quirks and unpredictable actions. He’s also your only lifeline in that castle full of nasty stuff.
Haunting Ground represents the last of the Clock Tower games to date. There’s the forthcoming ‘Project Scissors’, by the lead on the original game and some classic era of survival horror names, but the actual Clock Tower license seems to be sadly forgotten by Capcom. Hewie, however, hasn’t gone away completely. Depending on who you believe, the dog you rescue from the bear trap at the beginning of Resident Evil 4 - a white alsatian, no less - is Hewie.
That’s a story for another #DOGCEMBER article, though.