Surreal Software’s third-person horror shooter The Suffering: Ties That Bind continues the psychological horror tradition of its predecessor with even more action, gore, and hallucinations.
The Suffering: Ties That Bind (PC)
(USA 2005, developer: Surreal Software (now defunct), publishers: Midway Games (now defunct)/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, platforms: PC, PS2, Xbox)
After escaping Carnate Island, Torque arrives in his home town of Baltimore to fight monsters and his inner demons, which are somehow connected to his connection to criminal kingpin Blackmore.
Discovering the past
The storyline is engaging and interesting (even if there isn’t much of a suspenseful plot development) because of its many flashbacks that flesh out Torque’s character (who also speaks for the first time in some scenes), his family and the place he grew up in.
It makes for a broader and even touching background story, but it’s often difficult to keep up with all the sudden jumps in time. Additional information about Torque’s past is provided by his wife with diary entries, while more notebook and bestiary entries give a detailed look at the city’s dark secrets and monsters.
Most of the characters one meets are forgettable, but fortunately Dr. Killjoy makes a return and analyzes the protagonist’s actions in unexpected places, e.g. showing his face in various TVs and even on the big screen in a cinema. The latter is particularly surreal, as one sees a movie poster with Torque as the star.
In and out of mind
The first game‘s confined and secluded spaces with the prison and island setting have transitioned to urban horror, but there are still plenty of scary moments. Except for a few parts during a former prison outbreak that perfectly captures the dog-eat-dog atmosphere, the city of Baltimore is where most of the action and mayhem takes place. Again the dark side of the American Dream is shown with racism and urban legends waiting around every corner.
Not suitable for everyone
Controversy is still very much at the center of the game, and while it deals with child trauma and tragic loss of loved ones, its misogynist overtones can’t be overlooked, especially with a character like the women-killing Creeper who regularly uses all sorts of swear words and graphic descriptions of slicing and dicing them. There are more uncomfortable scenes to watch or rather hear, too, e.g. a building with junkies and a baby crying.
Style with substance
Using the first-person perspective in some scripted events when one witnesses parts of Torque’s past is highly effective, while different camera angles and zooms make the game even more cinematic. At times, it feels as if the whole presentation could have made for a very bombastic movie experience, as there are enough action set-pieces. The introduction of new enemies which are just or even more disturbing than in the original is also much more stylish this time.
The gameplay remains largely unchanged from the predecessor so that one shoots a lot of suddenly spawning and respawning enemies, which can become rather repetitive and frustrating. Some require a bit more strategy, though. For example, the Suppressor, a creature representing police brutality that has no legs but a floodlight as eyes and machine guns sticking out of its chest is better avoided or attacked from behind.
One doesn’t only go against nightmarish monsters, but special military forces, too. While these aren’t particularly intelligent, the sheer number and usually confined spaces one fights in makes many sections unnecessarily difficult.
Fear the villains
Boss fights are even more frustrating, as they’re only challenging due to other enemies getting in the way and that one often has to use the special creature form to beat them. So it becomes a tedious exercise in hide and seek as well as hit and run to defeat the hordes of enemies rushing from all sides. This is a shame, because the main villains are quite memorable, even if for questionable reasons.
Transforming into a monster works as in the previous game, as one builds up a rage meter by killing standard enemies. This time one even acquires and upgrades special attacks, depending on one’s moral choices, but these don’t make combat any more strategic. One still has to use the form to beat certain enemies, not only bosses, as normal weapons are ineffective against them. In some cases, one even has to break through walls to progress, which is only possible in the monster form.
No time for puzzles
Puzzles are mostly absent, except for the few breaking-through-walls sections, which makes the action more streamlined. In order to spice things up a bit, some on-rails-shooting sections at the back of a car add tension but also frustration to proceedings. Being simply a case of remembering where enemies turn up and no way to replenish health, these are a matter of endurance. Despite the high difficulty, these parts make it clear that this is a much more bombastic action experience, even if the engine can’t always keep up with what’s going on.
Stop and go A.I.
Unfortunately, there are a few bugs, mostly because of companions getting stuck between doors, on stairs or fences. These aren’t game-breaking, as one can usually return to the NPCs and they somehow start following Torque soon after, but they’re still annoying.
Decision-making makes the shooting and survival horror segments a bit more meaningful, especially since moral choices result in different endings. One can even carry over a savegame of the first completed game. Once again one can choose to be good, bad, or neutral by helping or killing people. The former is obviously more difficult, as the companions’ AI isn’t the best most of the time.
However, these can pave the way to alternative gameplay sections, e.g. after helping a prison warden, he later speaks highly of Torque to his fellow colleagues who will let him pass unharmed and fight alongside them. Decisions are also discussed by Dr. Killjoy in some segments, making them feel more relevant.
Bloody looks and sounds
The graphics might not have stood the test of time, but character animations are much improved, while the disturbing creature designs are still impressive, both in drawn notebook form and when one sees them in action. Gory effects of exploding heads or severed limbs abound, and once again Torque is soon covered in blood.
Voice acting can feel a bit campy at times, and notwithstanding the various swearing and misogyny, it is improved, which might have something to do with the involvement of actors like Michael Clarke Duncan (known for his Oscar nomination performance in the Stephen King adaptation The Green Mile, which also took place in a prison).
If only there weren’t too many overlapping or abruptly ending dialogues at times when one enters a new area, the atmosphere would be even stronger, as can be heard with the moody soundtrack and scary sound effects.
Familiarity hits back
The Suffering: Ties That Bind delivers more of the same, but with a much stronger storyline, at least when it comes to flashbacks. If one looks past the problematic misogynist anatagonists and some over-the-top disturbing imagery, one will find some relevant topics of dark American history that are still relevant today. Gameplay-wise, it’s as bloody, violent, and often uncompromisingly difficult as its predecessor, but then again one won’t forget this dark journey into the human abyss any time soon.
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