Horror games are a difficult genre to find wide appeal in. Most people believe horror games should be focused on de-powering the player for the sake of constant agency through mechanics, making it so the monsters you supposed to fear really something to fear from the player’s perspective. This has worked for a good number of games, like Silent Hill and the first few Resident Evil games, but it tends to backfire a lot as well. Complete lack of combat frustrates some, while too much focus on combat robs a game of its atmosphere, such as in Silent Hill: Homecoming. This is a genre that hasn’t really made a significant innovation since the first Resident Evil, with one exception; Midway’s 2004 attempt at a horror/action game, The Suffering. The goal was to make a game that was fun to play, but so full of atmosphere and hellish imagery that it was impossible not to be sucked in to its twisted, nihilistic world.
The game casts you as “Torque,” a criminal on death row for the murder of his wife and two sons, though if he actually did it is up in the air. He’s just been transferred to the Maryland prison of Abbott, located on Carnate Island, and said island has an incredibly long history of bloodshed and hatred. Torque’s arrival has somehow triggered all of this hate coming to the surface, and I mean that quite literally; Humanoid monsters start to appear from the ground itself after an earthquake and start killing every single person they come across, leaving Torque with a chance to escape from the island …assuming he can survive the creatures. The bigger problems may come from three mysterious ghosts that have taken an interest in him, however. There’s Horace Gage, a man who was executed in the electric chair who wants to save Torque from the island’s influence, Dr. Killjoy (who looks and sounds remarkably like Vincent Price), a mad doctor who wants to cure Torque of his blackout spells and anger issues, and Hermes T. Haight (pronounced “Hate), a former executioner who killed himself in the gas chamber to see what it was like, and he wants to watch Torque “work,” so to say. The path Torque follows, along with the truth of what happened to his family, is ultimately decided by your choices.
The morality system in place is a simple one, but the effort is appreciated because of how well it ties into the plot and the game’s major theme of hatred. How you choose to interact with other characters changes Torque’s alignment and appearance, leading him to be a good man who found himself in a bad situation, a man consumed by hatred, or an outright vile human being. What status you end the game on decides your ending of good, neutral or evil, but this also affects how the game proceeds as well. Visions change to match your morality, and how a few characters react to you changes as well. It’s not enough too create new routes or such, sadly, but the revelations of Torque’s past make it rewarding enough to re-experience the game. The neutral route in particular sticks out as one of the most interesting.
The various characters around the island are all really interesting as well. Torque meets several COs and inmates he can team up with, all of them pretty resilient, preventing a lot of the usual frustration that comes from escort missions. They also get their own weapons as well, so they can be a great assist during combat. There’s a lot of nifty details you can pick up on, like Torque’s old friend Dallas being gay and well read, or another inmate who thinks he’s in a psychological drama and not a supernatural horror yarn. It’s a series of little touches that adds some character to the otherwise basic third-person action game, putting other characters in a similar awful situation to yourself and managing not to distract from the dreary atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, The Suffering uses darkness and lighting so perfectly that it always manages to unnerve in some way, despite the action based gameplay. The game occasionally interrupts your game with a strange break in reality that reveal past horrors that occurred on the island, or have Torque’s wife or children appearing to either support or mock him. It’s also not uncommon to see a sudden circle of monsters, hinting that the island is most interested in Torque himself. There’s a lot of brilliant little moments like this, and they add a lot of life to each level. Especially disturbing are the back-stories of the monsters and areas on the island, which you can few as you find them. Some messed up shit has been happening Carnate since the days of witch trials, turning the horrors of the island into characters in their own right. It also fits the game’s style perfectly; everything is about violence and hatred, matching well with the piles of blood and bodies that stack up over the course of the game. I’m really impressed by how the mechanics rarely ever clash with the art design, a rare thing to get right in a horror game based around player empowerment. There’s some real talent here as well; Stan Winston of Terminator and Jurassic Park fame handled the monster designs, making each reflect a different method of execution or particular horrific events in the island’s history. The starting enemies, the Slayers, are instantly iconic as they slowly walk towards you on their blade legs, scraping their main weapon on the floor in pitch black darkness, igniting sparks. It’s a damn impressive introduction, and every monster gets a awesome introduction moment like this. The world that The Suffering makes is oppressive and savage, and well damn researched; extensive notes were taken on real prisons to get the look and subject matter of the game just right, and to find the real essence of horror from that setting. They got it spot on.
The gameplay is where the game makes or breaks. Unlike most horror titles, The Suffering aims to empower the player and designs the game as an action game first. You can collect a bunch of different firearms (and the dreaded fire ax, destroyer of weaker monsters), hold up to nine pill bottles to heal with, and you’re both solidly speedy and gifted with a strong jump and the ability to climb ledges with ease. That sounds like it would break the atmosphere of the game, where you can just shoot down whatever is bugging you and surviving most every threat with ease, but that’s not the case. I actually think all the ultra-violence enhances what the game is going for. This is a story about violence and madness, people lost by their lesser desires to do horrific acts. Monsters are based on people buried in sacks and burn victims, not to mention the living nightmares that are based on drowned slaves. The point is that this is a place of kill or be killed, and how Torque chooses to handle that necessity changes his morality and the ending. It makes sense there’s so much action, morality only comes into play when humans become involved in the chaos. There’s also some truly horrific shit shown, especially at the asylum. It’s …nasty. Violence is the law of the land, and everyone else is almost as capable as you are.
There’s still horror conventions present. The game is covered in shadows and darkness whenever you’re inside a building, and you have to rely on a flashlight to see. If the thing runs out of batteries, be prepare to squint and learn to use your melee weapon. Managing resources remains important for long stretches with low supplies and high enemy counts, because you don’t want to be left with a shiv against a storm of burrowers and marksmen. Those little touches add just enough mechanical elements to keep the atmosphere in tact at nearly all times. There’s even one section in a dark building with a minigun that is nerve racking when you’re out of flashlight batteries. Honestly, keeping the flashlight off at times can just make the experience all the more engrossing. I also love that there’s a good few control options to pick from. My favorite is the default + flashlight one, making it easy to have your light on in combat.
Overall, I really loved my time with this game. There’s a few low moments, and I feel what was good could have been fleshed out more, but the sheer attention to detail in the setting and the brilliant premise really give the game a flavor all its own, and it comes together near perfectly where it needs to. The Suffering is a lost gem that needs to be played for any fan of horror.
Final Score: 9/10