It’s been said that war is hell, but whoever made that observation probably hadn’t ever been imprisoned. I’m talking about having someone thrown in a maximum security prison with a number of murderers, rapists and other fiends of society for a long time while trying to live a somewhat “normal” life. For most of us, we’ll thankfully never experience this nightmare…that is, unless we decide to incarcerate ourselves with Midway’s latest contribution to survival horror, The Suffering. I hope you’ve boned up on your Oz episodes, because we’re going inside the walls of one of the worst prisons to have ever crossed a monitor.
Players step into the prison jumpsuit of Torque, an enigmatic convict who’s been sent to the big house for murdering his wife and kids, although he claimed he didn’t remember doing the crime. One of the strong and silent types, Torque already has a reputation for taking care of himself, having eliminated half of a supremacist group in another prison. Of course, this has merely accelerated his trip to Abbott State Penitentary’s Death Row, where the game starts. After a short intro that quickly introduces Torque’s fellow cellblock mates, Torque is lead into his cell and locked up. But before he can assert himself or even respond to the comments and jeers thrown at him, some monster slaughters both prisoners and guards alike, incidentally setting Torque free. Not wanting to be the next victim, Torque sets out trying to escape the insanity that the jail has plunged into.
Getting his hands on the first weapon he finds, Torque pulls a shiv, or a “homemade” knife out of an inmate. As he travels farther along, he’ll also manage to acquire pistols, tommy guns, grenades and other weapons. But Torque needs much more than firearms to survive the horrors of Abbott. He’ll often need to pick up flares or flashlights, as well as spare batteries, to navigate the darkened hallways and rooms of the penitentiary. Torque also needs to keep an eye out for Xombium pill bottles that can heal any injuries he may incur as he fights off the demonic creatures now infesting the corridors.
Speaking of creatures, Torque will face off against some of the most twisted creatures ever seen in a game. Thanks to Stan Winston and his devious crew of magicians, gamers will be introduced to beasts derived from gruesome forms of execution throughout the years. Death sentences from hanging to firing squads and decapitations have been reanimated with a malicious will of their own, seeking to inflict their torture upon the still living residents of Abbott. Fortunately for Torque, he has an insanity meter that fills up as he kills beasts, allowing him to transform into a destructive monster as well. While incredibly powerful, Torque can’t remain in this form forever, or he’ll start causing damage to himself.
The initial thing that you’ll notice with The Suffering is that it manages to evoke a great sense of atmosphere with its use of light and shadows. Not only does Abbott seem to be a gloomy place under normal circumstances, but it also seems positively hellish when monsters start showing up seemingly out of nowhere. This is especially true when you discover that you’re running out of flares or flashlight batteries and have to cross areas in total darkness. This helps evoke a sense of dread in the player as they trudge through the prison, but it also serves a dual purpose, that of covering over some lackluster texturing, primarily found in outdoor areas. Now that it’s made the leap over to computer monitors, The Suffering does look somewhat sharper than its console counterpart thanks to higher quality video cards. More of the textures that were murky before have definitely been cleaned up. However, it does also tend to show the difference between highly detailed areas and minimally textured ones more easily.
This sometimes extends to some of the character models of prisoners and guards, although Torque’s model has the added benefit of getting caked by blood and gore, getting progressively grimier as he goes along. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t extend to the monsters that look extremely nightmarish and sinister. In fact, you might be hard pressed to not be shocked, scared or sickened each time a new creature leaps at you. Another nice touch is the interactive environments, which includes items like breakable chairs or even swinging light bulbs hanging from cords in a ceiling. While cutscenes presented in the game are scattered through the game for specific purposes, there are a couple of moments, particularly when Torque views some supernatural vision that are eerily (and nicely) done. Action, for the most part, runs smoothly during gameplay, but sometimes has a little slowdown, particularly when a lot of monsters come swarming onscreen.
The sound manages to make up some of the ground that’s lost by the graphics, helping provide a number of the game’s jump moments. There’s nothing scarier than good ambient noise within a horror game, and The Suffering literally cranks up the fear factor with its environmental sounds. Screams of inmates and guards alike, coupled with the sounds of monsters and gunfire all combine to literally raise the hair on the back of your neck. While Torque doesn’t actually say a word throughout the game, there’s a solid vocal performance turned in by the voice actors that impressively conveys the panic, anger or other emotional states of the characters in the game. There is a bit of warning that gamers should know, however, because the language found within The Suffering is extremely mature, so anyone with kids in the immediate vicinity should be warned about subjecting innocent ears to very foul dialogue.
There’s one other tweak to gameplay that makes The Suffering stand out from other survival horror games as well. As Torque goes along, he’ll come across guards or inmates that are fighting to survive as well. Players will have a choice to either save or kill these NPCs, which determines which ending players will receive at the end of the game. That, along with a number of difficulty levels, provides a solid amount of replayability. However, even with the creative spin on horror games and replayable options, there are still a few problems with the game. First of all, while the monsters are creative, there’s a significant lack of variety between creatures, meaning that you’ll get the hang of what most beasts are and what they can do. Once you’ve figured out their attack patterns, you really don’t need to change your methods to effectively dispose of monsters. Secondly, while the camera work in The Suffering is some of the best found within a horror game, the game offers an option to switch between first and third person viewpoints. Initially you would think that this would be advantageous to view your surroundings and target monsters better; however, these creatures will more often than not attack you from all sides, making it particularly difficult to successfully defend yourself against these monsters. Finally, while the game does feature a number of puzzles, none of them are particularly difficult or time consuming, making them seem more like an after thought than an actual gameplay feature.
Problems aside, however, The Suffering is one of those games that’s a surprising twist to the horror genre. With extremely creative monsters, an unique setting and quite a bit of replayability, The Suffering provides a sense of where the survival horror game could be going within future titles. If only some of the graphics and gameplay facets were a little more solid, this game would be almost perfect. But that aside, this is a great game to enjoy in a dark room with the volume cranked up.