Surreal Software’s third-person horror shooter The Suffering ramps up the violence and gore, but doesn’t forget about the psychological side.
The Suffering (PC)
(USA 2004, developer: Surreal Software (now defunct), publishers: Midway Games (now defunct)/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, platforms: PC, PS2, Xbox)
Death row convict Torque has to fight his way out of prison on Carnate Island, as it’s taken over by an evil force that attacks both inmates and wardens.
In and out of prison
The setting of a prison can be unique, although, as could be seen with the movie Prison, there has to be more suspense to make the story and characters work. While The Suffering certainly doesn’t win any prizes in originality or deep storytelling, it does a great job of setting the scene for some very disturbing moments in American history, be it the way how prisoners and wardens are portrayed as monsters or how discrimination, slavery and war crimes bring out the worst in people.
Torque is a tortured soul, as he’s constantly visited by memories of his family and plagued by guilt. However, despite all the psychological trauma he seems to go through, with constant flashbacks to the past of inmates and wardens, jumping between different timelines as well as apparitions of his wife and kids, the player remains strangely detached from the man. This is mainly because he doesn’t talk, which is especially weird since all the other characters he meets have too much to say, mostly accompanied by a barrage of swear words.
For adults only
The game is clearly aimed at a mature audience that can cope with dismemberment, decapitations, blood and guts splattered everywhere. At times it can be too much, which is no surprise, considering that the publisher was responsible for the Mortal Kombat games and the developer for the fantasy action-adventure Drakan: Order of the Flame that had quite a few displaced limbs and heads.
The constant swearing and depiction of mutilated bodies and hanged corpses is often too gratuitous, and with quite a few scenes of questionable child abuse or other human atrocities thrown in, so most of it seems to be present just for controversy’s sake.
When it comes to memorable characters, few of the guards or inmates stick in one’s mind, except for a certain Dr. Killjoy, part sadist and part mad scientist who sees prisoners as test subjects and part of a big show. He is presented as a stage director who conducted his experiments in an asylum close to the prison in the 1930ies, although he is usually seen as a projection and never as a real person. One develops a love/hate relationship with him, as he has patient/doctor sessions with Torque’s mind as if it was a game for his own amusement.
There are a few other, often mentally unstable, characters, e.g. a warden who questions the reality of it all or an inmate who wants to leave the island by building himself a raft. But one shouldn’t expect many memorable conversations. In addition to the mad doctor, there are more lunatics, e.g. a mysterious gas chamber man who follows Torque around in the form of the substance, making snappy remarks and often killing people in the process. He is certainly difficult to forget, but it takes too long before one finally confronts him.
Despite being focused on blood and gore and a lot of intense shooting action, the atmosphere is often creepy and disturbing. While there are more jump scares thanks to Torqure’s frequent hallucinations, there are more subtle horror sequences, usually associated with the CCTV camera system that doesn’t only presents scenes of carnage, but of unseen horror. For example, one witnesses how a creature closes in on Torque, but when one exits the monitor visions, there’s nothing behind him.
Most of what happens during the prison horror is presented with radio talks or phone calls, the latter of which becoming especially strange when Torque talks to his wife that isn’t there. Picking up letters or other forms of communication also helps to better understand how the prison and its surrounding area works, giving many unseen characters a bit more personality.
Historical tales of island terror
Carnate Island has a long history of violence, which is slowly unraveled by a warden’s wife who wrote it all down. Entering a new level usually provides a new page in a book that tells the background story, giving each location a distinct atmosphere, e.g. a cemetery, cave system, death house, etc..
Everytime one encounters a new enemy, another book entry written by an inmate is unlocked, revealing how these developed from being human to monsters. It’s certainly unsettling to read about drug addicts or men who were tied to a pole and shot by a fire squadron now using the same weapons to attack Torque and becoming a personified evil of their past.
The creature design in general is excellent and it’s no surprise, because Stan Winston’s special effects studio was involved, which was responsible for all sorts of monsters the Aliens or first two Predator movies. What makes them particularly scary is not only their nightmarish looks, but how they tie into the world of Carnate Island.
Shooting and solving puzzles
Gameplay is a rather simple affair of killing lots of monsters, sometimes wardens and inmates, although it depends on Torque’s decisions (more about this later). One solves a few puzzles, but these are rarely imaginative: pushing an object to reach an otherwise inaccessible area, e.g. a crate to climb on making a car roll down to either serve as an explosive device or bridge.
It’s much harder to find all the exits and objects to interact with than finding an obvious solution to a current problem. Turning valves to move walls or doors are exceptions to the real and feel out of place in an otherwise all-out-shooting and scary horror game.
Lost in levels and mind
The levels are usually straightforward, and if one feels disoriented, one can usually check a map. This doesn’t mean one won’t be stuck a few times, because one hasn’t triggered a particular event or overlooked a door, opening, lever or something else to progress. Unfortunately one visits a few locations again in the last levels instead of having new sites. In general, the levels are varied and despite only taking place on an island, one seldom notices that it’s a very linear game with preset paths to take.
Choose your weapon and death
With an impressive arsenal of weapons and enough ammunition and health pills lying around, fighting enemies still becomes repetitive and difficult in the later levels. Suddenly an almost endless stream of respawning enemies attack Torque, with the only strategy being to hold down the trigger finger, using a gun turret and mowing down as many enemies as possible, which turns survival horror into an arcade-like shooting gallery experience.
In general, the difficulty is quite high, not only because of the unfair placements of enemies and some camera problems, but because one is usually surrounded by baddies and driven into corners or immediately attacked after getting up again.
A few enemy types require more combat strategies, and it’s not just the brutal dismemberment physics engine that allows to shoot off arms, legs, and heads, with some monsters only being vulnerable to specific attacks. For example, the Fester, a large abomination with a chained ball and infested by rats, can only be brought down either by an axe or explosive devices, and after its stomach bursts open, one has to kill the vermin inside as well.
But that’s not all, as there are a couple of memorable if frustrating boss fights, too. They’re imaginative and almost feel like puzzles, but they rely too much on trial-and-error. For example, one has to jump over waves emanating from a man in an electric chair and evade cables while trying to destroy circuit boxes attached to the chair, which is only an exercise in patience and good luck. Other fights don’t fare much better, especially since they usually involve a lot of running around and not getting hit, while figuring out what to do.
Morality dictates storytelling and character progression
Torque has to make many moral decisions which affect the three different endings (good/neutral/bad). This usually involves either killing or helping a person. While it’s possible to complete the game by simply leaving everyone behind and killing just for the sake of it (although ending suffering people’s lives is seen as a questionable act of mercy), protecting them isn’t just a better moral choice, but also provides more background information about certain parts of the island and adds to variety.
These are typically escort missions and as is usually the case, the AI isn’t particularly good, so they often run into one’s line of fire. Still, it’s a great idea that ties into Torque’s inner dialogue with his wife who sees the good in him and an evil voice telling him to get rid of the problem/person.
The beast within
Speaking of the evil side, one soon learns to transform into a monster if one fills up an insanity meter after a specific number of kills. For a limited time, one can slice and dice through enemies, but if the meter runs out, one’s life force is drained, so one has to transform back as soon as possible. This isn’t really necessary to survive fights, especially since movement is slow and one can accidentally hit explosive canisters or hit companions, but it’s a fun distraction from all the shooting.
Dirty looks and sounds
Background textures or lighting and water effects aren’t particularly convincing, but the creature design and the main characters look good, as is also the case for the monster and island history pages. The rest of the cast is more cut-and-paste identical with few animations. Still, the way the monsters move and how Torque looks around or starts smoking a cigarette add more personality. The levels don’t boast anything spectacular, and explosions aren’t anything to write home about. But the gory splatter effects are satisfying and the general dirty look of the levels fit the dark subject matter perfectly.
The soundtrack is atmospheric enough to change between various ambient noises (often with voices whispering), and as some parts of the game are presented in silence, the creepy sound design of monsters moving about or weather effects like rain create a constant sense of dread.
Violence and psychological trauma in gaming form
The Suffering is a title that makes no excuses to be controversial. Despite its reliance on blood and gore as well as a lot of swearing, it succeeds in building a tense atmosphere with terrific creature design. Complemented by a moody soundtrack and dirty look, its mix of all-out action and survival horror doesn’t reinvent the genre and suffers from repetitive fights and superfluous puzzles. But it’s still a lot of guilty pleasure fun for roughly 6 hours of literal escapism.
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