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Spooktober 2018 — The Suffering Throwback Retrospective — Suffer No More

For the past throwback reviews this Spooktober, we discussed titles that dabbled in horror as a mere component of their multifaceted tones. Shadows of the Damned was laced with gonzo humor and sophomoric erotica to offset the Resident Evil 4 informed action-horror at the center of it. Alice Madness Returns was a kaleidoscopic platformer dreamscape that just happened to also spin a tale of psychological mystery and horror. The Suffering is an outlier in this regard. This is a game that has no interest in operating outside the confines of horror, so much as experimenting within them. The Suffering holds on to its influences tightly, be it The Shining or Splatterhouse.

 

The disparate qualities of the two aforementioned titles communicate that The Suffering positions itself at the cross section of many styles and characteristics. The Suffering at once aims for insular psychological horror and boisterous action horror. It can be played in first-person or third-person (players can switch at any moment). Your protagonist Torque begins the title in the realm of moral ambiguity, either on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, or for a series of murders he merely can’t remember. It is all in all a game that is tethered to the limitations of its own modest development, but also exhibits ambitions beyond many of its peers.

 

It would be a stretch to call The Suffering a great game, but it is a great archetype piece, one of the few successful examples of prison horror period, let alone in video games. The Suffering often operates on a sprawled-out form of level design, where you are constantly progressing towards new territory but can just as well return to prior locations, but for its entirety you remain on the grounds of Abbot State Penitentiary. The prospect of being on death row for a crime you don’t remember committing is scary enough, but things turn from mere penitentiary to outright possessed almost immediately.

 

Your surroundings are haunted in multiple respects. An earthquake (you’re given no other information) has brought to the surface a series of underworld monstrosities, their designs generally resemblant to different methods of execution. The Slayer is an amalgamation of severed body parts and steel blade, representative of decapitation, and just as willing to administer the punishment to you. This translates to additional enemies that represent lethal injection, incineration, hanging, and more, justifying a gauntlet of ridiculous death animations for Torque as well as keeping enemy variety above par.

Courtesy of SufferingWiki

Torque is also forced to tackle his own fleetingly intrusive memories; his dead wife and children call him on prison phones, appearing right in front of his sight pleading for the chance to live again. It’s fairly overwrought, and so stone-faced it can feel a little too close to a Scared Straight special, but it picks up the slack in pacing during more exploratory moments. The intrusion of these memories allows The Suffering’s psychological and action horror pretenses to meet each other halfway keeping the swift pace implied by the latter a constant.

 

It’s hard to overstate how action-oriented The Suffering is. Early on, this often manifests itself through melee combat, and not a feeble sort that is to be treated as a last resort. It recalls a less demanding rendition of Devil May Cry’s core mechanics. Torque is more likely to roll out of the way of enemies to chop them apart from behind than he is to run away in panic. For this reason, The Suffering seems a lot more comfortable in third-person perspective than it does in first. However, there is something to be said for how the atmosphere pronounces itself in first-person and the fact that player perspective can be switched at any moment with the press of a button is largely commendable.

 

The environments go a long way towards conveying the present terror. With the exception of lighting that can be bizarrely bright in a detracting manner, the blood-caked torture chambers and discouraging prison yards make sure a sense of dread follows you regardless of how many demons you have turned to mush. There’s an obvious commitment towards making your surroundings as decrepit as possible throughout. It consistently keeps the environment unnerving, as even at the least involved moments of gameplay, the title effectively functions as a haunted penitentiary tour.

The Suffering has a fondness for pushing its M-rating to the limits

This is what makes the inadequacy of the first-person mode in the game so unfortunate. Little is wrong with how the perspective is presented in of itself, shooting and even melee works fine in terms of targeting and input, but the game’s combat is merely too fast and enemies too engulfing for the perspective to work. With the pace of your movement kept resoundingly moderate, taking away the ability to roll in first-person makes combat incomplete. Given the genre, enemy encounters are often random, making it a challenge to settle into first-person to absorb the environments more personally, even with perspective switch being mapped to a single button.

 

This can be cushioned however, by the fact that third-person combat is completely adequate. It is immediately adjacent to the likes of Max Payne, sans bullet-time and instead replaced with a marginally more established melee system. On the occasion that Torque’s “insanity meter” is full, he can transform into an oversized demons and tear through opponents in a manner prototypically similar to God of War. Clobbering enemy upon enemy is hardly an intricate process, but this is mostly made up for with the animation quality (given its time). Most every character in The Suffering (including yourself) can be mutilated in strikingly ridiculous manners and the amount of it that goes on at once can make things deceptively intense.

 

Fleeting moments of nuance are reserved for your interactions with inmates and prison officers trapped alongside you. The ability to work alongside them (or on occasion put them out of their misery) exists alongside the ability to turn on them at any moment, affecting how the game progresses and ultimately ends. Unless you’re actively aiming for a specific ending, you aren’t given much of a reason to turn to villainy. Officers often accompany you and help take-on enemies to a better degree than most modern NPCs and never turn on you. Nonetheless, the attempts at branching content are fairly forward-thinking, and introduce malleable character dynamics that help tie together a fleeting by design narrative.

You come to odd agreements in The Suffering very frequently

To aid understanding of Torque’s instability, The Suffering tosses forth exposition in bits-and-parts, you receive an extended version of the opening only after beating the game and much of Torque’s interactions with his own memories can just be mere delusion. The presence of NPCs from all walks of penitentiary life grounds the story and molds Torque into a more empathetic character if the player so chooses. On the contrary, Torque can also be played as a paranoid sadist who betrays every character around him for no reason besides his own psychosis. The decisions at play here are not especially nuanced, but are refreshingly unscripted. Most commendably, Torque’s behavior affects the narrative of The Suffering’s sequel.

 

In many respects, The Suffering: Ties That Bind is a borderline expansion pack for the original title, but it’s also where the series truly comes into its own. Despite being released a mere year after the original, Ties That Bind comes with a vastly superior graphical engine and depicts its distinctly seedy universe with glints of analytical sophistication the original only implied. With the exception of noticeable combat improvements, Ties That Bind plays almost exactly like its predecessor, but Torque is now unleashed on the streets of Baltimore to dig up his own past and track down Blackmore, the gang-leader perhaps responsible for his incarceration.

Ties That Bind is a flashier experience, rarely underwhelming graphically

Torque’s delusions along the way are more vividly sinister than before, rooted in the most contemptible aspects of American history. Visions of slave owners and pimps appear before Torque terrorizing him in a manner that reflects a shocking degree of maturity from the title. The constant theme of injustice running through both titles in the series is largely what elevates them above their status as B-list horror titles, and in Ties That Bind it lives up to the reputation. Ties That Bind can turn incredibly surreal in its presentation on a dime, enhanced by a larger variety in environments. This means abandoned movie theaters, forlorn drug dens, and interconnected alley-ways that make Ties That Bind feel less linear than it ultimately is.

 

Ties That Bind still tends to fall into a gameplay routine, but it leaves itself a lot more open to narrative tangents that provide unnerving subtext to Torque’s journey. The culmination to a specific character arc between Torque and a heroin addict Kyle is one of the most disturbing moments I have encountered in a video game period. The rest of the title does not quite live up to this climax in vile power, but the title as a whole exhibits a sort of narrative ambition that elevates it above its predecessor and the bulk of its contemporaries.

 

Ties That Bind is still not a perfect title, but it offers the sort of narrative and gameplay catharsis that makes the combined experience of both titles in the franchise worthwhile. The franchise came to a close after its second entry after an underwhelming sales performance, likely chalked up to an oversaturation of horror titles at the time and particularly its proximity to the preceding title in the franchise. By the time you return to another prison during the closing hours of the Ties That Bind, one can be prompted to pin the title as a mere redux of the original, but the narrative told this time around elevates the largely satisfying gameplay to a higher plateau.

One sequel later, Torque’s sanity remains in shambles

In many respects, the meta-narrative of The Suffering’s development is primarily a tale of beating the odds. Though the first title offers mildly-trashy horror in spades, the second illustrates a B-list horror franchise coming closer to its A-list aspirations than one could have reasonably expected. The collective ambition of both entries marks The Suffering as a valuable part of horror game history that applies commendable nuance to scenarios rarely addressed by its peers.

This review of The Suffering is based on the Xbox One version of the game.

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