Developer: Surreal Software
Release Date: TBD
I can sum up the overall feel of Encore’s newest survival-horror release for the PC in one concise sentence: The Suffering is Resident Evil meets Oz. Yes, this is an oversimplification, but you will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion as soon as you begin play.
You play The Suffering as Torque, a man convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of his wife and children. You arrive by boat to Carnate Island, a maximum security lockdown 10 miles off the coast of Maryland, protesting your innocence, claiming a total memory blackout. Arriving in the exercise yard, you are attacked by the other inmates who view Torque as the lowest form of scum in the prison echelon – a child-killer. Then, astonishingly, Torque transforms into a mutated beast and slaughters everyone in the yard. This beast resembles MTV’s cult hero The Maxx if he had been designed by H.R.Geiger. After ripping everyone to bloody shreds, you are subdued and taken to your cell where all hell – literally – breaks loose. An earthquake rocks the island. You find your cell door open, and freedom awaits. But first, you gotta get the hell outta there.
Your first encounters are with guards who are unsure of everything. Monsters are running rampant through the prison, and the inmates have taken control of the asylum. My first NPC encounter was almost dialogue-perfect from the Eddie Murphy film, 48Hrs, with the guard calling me “convict” and promising to kill me if I even twitch the wrong way. When I finally got my hands on a weapon and returned to this guard, the first in a series of clever design points made itself known. Two disembodied voices, one female, and one male, argued in my head as to the fate of this guard. The female voice told me to help him, because he would, in turn, help me. The male voice, much more threatening, advised me to kill this weakling. You are given these choices throughout The Suffering, and the decisions you make actually shape the ending to the story. Your moral choices determine whether, in the final reel, Torque is an innocent man, unjustly accused, or a psychotic child-killer or something… else. It’s all up to you.
Your travels in the prison are peppered with disturbing flashbacks. A particularly memorable one featured the murdered son’s voice, begging you not to hurt him, that he understood why what he did was wrong and promising to never do it again. This voice pleads with you while you are mowing down a squad of guards who are trying to kill you. Torque’s wife also shows up throughout, and the back-story of what happened before the game began starts to take shape. This is a richly written story, and even though the dialogue is a touch heavy-handed and profanity-laced, it entertains. But be warned; like a lot of titles these days The Suffering is without doubt an adult game, and deserves its M rating.
That’s the normal stuff. Now let’s talk about the weirdness. Oh yes, it starts getting strange very quickly. The monsters are among the more memorable in recent years. They have a very Clive Barker-esque tone to them, and here, another clever development point rears its head. All of the creatures in The Suffering are incarnations of the historical methods of state-sponsored executions. As Torque encounters these, pages are added to his journal that gives an overview of each. For example:
• The Slayer – A representation of beheadings, this creature’s head is not really attached to its body, more like held there in place by a devious system of bolts and screws. Its limbs have been replaced with long blades which make an eerie clattering sound when they move.
• The Marksman – A one-thing firing squad, the Marksman sprouts multiple rifles from its back and shoulders, and fires volleys of deadly rounds in a spray pattern.
• The Mainliner – When Capital Punishment was made more “humane” in the 70’s, lethal injections became the rage. The Mainliner is studded with glowing green needles in most every location on its sad, misshapen form. These syringes are plucked from his hide and hurled at you, or, if he is closer, the Mainliner will grab you and attempt to ram these into your eyes.
• The Nooseman – Obviously a reference to the good old days of hangings, the Nooseman has no lower body. It’s entrails dangle freely from its torso in much the same way that he hangs, Spider-Man like, from ceilings, dropping down to crush the windpipe of the unwary.
• The Burrower – When you first see a Burrower, you think you have mistakenly wandered into a warped Bugs Bunny cartoon. Your first glimpse is a burrowing trail, much like Bugs used before making that “left turn at Albuquerque”. Then he breaks ground. A personification of Premature Burial, he is wrapped in gunny sacks and tied with wicked chains which he uses to slice and dice.
There are many others, but half the fun is finding something new to kill, and The Suffering doesn’t disappoint here at all. The variety of enemies, and a very good AI set keep you on your toes. These enemies will come at you in large and small numbers, and their attack styles differ accordingly. They will try to outflank you and at times are so successful you find yourself pushing back an eye needle before you even knew a Mainliner was in the same room.
Now you may be asking yourself, how can I compete with all that coolness? Well, I am glad you asked. You get something neat-o to do too! Next to your health meter at the lower left of the screen, is a sanity meter. Those familiar with pen and paper RPG’s like “Call of Cthulhu” will know this concept. When you have seen such horror, the mind tries to fight what it sees. Insanity points are usually a bad thing. When you have reached the psychic snapping point, you may as well check right into Bellevue. But in The Suffering, when your sanity snaps, you can transform into the same beast you became in the opening scene and do it at your discretion. While in beast form, your sanity returns slowly to normal. But a word of advice; don’t let that meter get to zero. If you don’t cue the re-transformation yourself, Torque will take massive damage. Almost certain death every time.
As far as how the game looks, The Suffering gets an A for the Riot engine it uses. Gameplay is smooth and fast, even when dealing with multiple enemies. I was especially impressed by the flashlight effect, and the way this game renders fire and water. These are very nicely done lighting effects. The main character, Torque, is richly detailed, and as wave upon wave of scary monsters and super creeps come at him, he becomes more and more blood-drenched. My mind flashed to Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead movies, but there is no comic relief here. While gorgeous, The Suffering is unrelentingly bleak.
I also give an A to the level design. This is a well thought out and well designed island prison that has all the accoutrements you would expect. Showers, command posts, cellblocks, even the prerequisite prison cemetery are present, and linked logically. There are never the awkward moments that occur when you find yourself looking at a game screen and asking yourself “now who in the hell would put a bathroom here?” The tunnels under the island are explained well in the story, not just a neat place to stick some caves. I guess what I am trying to say here is, nothing feels phony, added-on, or gratuitous. Even the graffiti on the walls is accurate, if somewhat profane.
In the sound department, another A, but with a qualifier. The voice talent isn’t stellar, but it does have a certain non-actor quality to it. After all, not all maximum security inmates are as literate as the boys in HBO’s Emerald City. That being said, the rest of the sound is killer. The music during exploration phases is very subtle, worming its way into your head and almost lulling you into a state of complacency. Then a shrieking musical sound kicks you into combat. The music can also be used as a clue as to when you have cleared an area and actually can relax for about 4 seconds before hell breaks loose again.
The puzzles, while not particularly clever, break up the routine of blowing things up. If you have played any of the Resident Evil games, or basically any survival-horror game, most of these puzzles will be instantly recognizable. Move a box here so you can jump up, push a box there to blow up some gas tanks, drop a rock on a bad guy with a crane… You know the deal, right?
What that leaves is the intangible. The thing that makes you sit for hours with one game, while another nearly identical title sits on your shelf, only to be traded in when you need an extra ten bucks. I call it simply, the feel. The Suffering has an amazing feel to it. I openly admit that on more than one occasion I gasped and jumped in my seat. The flashbacks, and flash-forwards and flash-sideways keep you on edge constantly. You find yourself doubting your own sanity. As you play farther into the game, little pieces of your past come back to you, and the picture becomes both clearer and cloudier at the same time. To paraphrase Eric Cartman, “…this game has warped my tiny little mind.”
In the final analysis, The Suffering is an adult survival-horror title that takes its cues from both familiar and uncharted territory. A cooperative multiplayer mode would have been a welcome addition, and would have added to the game’s rather limited replayability, but it is a well planned and executed (no pun intended) game that should be a welcome addition to any hardcore gamers’ collection.
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