Suffering, The Download (2004 Arcade action Game)

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In the tradition of Resident Evil and Devil May Cry comes The Suffering, a survival horror game set in a haunted penitentiary. Players must not only confront the spirits of executed inmates while advancing through the game's nine levels, but also fellow criminals on death row, prison guards, and other characters. The 12 supernatural creatures in the game were designed by the legendary Stan Winston, best known for his Academy Award-winning work in Aliens, Jurassic Park, and A.I. Players are cast in the role of a troubled inmate named Torque, who has been condemned to death for a crime he may or may not have committed.

When the spirits of the prison inadvertently free him from captivity, Torque begins a grueling quest for survival as he uncovers the clues to make sense of his bewildering past. To battle his grotesque foes, Torque can find and use ten different weapons, ranging from revolvers to Tommy guns. The protagonist also hides a dark secret that allows him to transform into a superhuman creature when pushed too far, at which point he can unleash his pent-up rage for a limited time. Levels are set within prison walls as well as outdoor surroundings, as enemies attack from jail cells, torture chambers, underneath the ground, from behind trees, and more. During the game, players can make certain decisions that will eventually lead to one of three possible endings.

The Suffering is a wonderful, immersive "haunted prison island" thriller driven by an involving story with open paths, good and evil choices, and three different endings. Sure, there are plenty of monsters to dispatch (this is a "shooter" by category, after all), but the entire project is so richly embellished by the overarching storyline that the monster bashing seems quite secondary to the chilling exploration and desire to see the next cutscene.

How about a little flight or boat ride to Carnate Island? Hey, you could then be "in Carnate" - little religious play on words there; sorry. Only 10 miles off the coast of Maryland, this fictional vacation haven has a rich history, worthy of your consideration. Puritans, among my favorite folks, first settled there in the 17th century, had a few fun witch burnings, but then encountered an unexplained problem several decades later leading to the disbanding of the group. Not to be discouraged, a wealthy family purchased this garden spot in the late 19th century, enjoying the occasional trauma and strange incident until moving away 20 years later. Within the next few years, the good Dr. Killjoy founded the Carnate Institution for the Alienated (C.I.A.), using the mansion and its grounds. This was abandoned in the late 1920s, with unpleasant rumors remaining about Killjoy's methodology. But I'm sure they're exaggerated - barbarism and depravity, indeed. How could that be? He was a doctor, took the Hippocratic Oath, and must have been a caring man.

In the 1930s, the Feds stepped in, likely appreciating the scenic value of Carnate during Maryland springtime. They didn't get out much, though, using the grounds as a secure POW site, with rumors of numerous executions abounding. Finally, the State of Maryland couldn't resist the opportunity to use Carnate for its own purposes. Employing the real estate maxim of "location, location, location," they not only created a maximum security prison for the very worst offenders of society, but also used several methods of execution - ranging from the formalities of electric chair and lethal injection to informal allowing of prisoners to have at each other. As we said, wouldn't you like to make a little visit, do some exploring? Talk to the "natives?" Lots of history. You can take notes, perhaps write a nice article. C'mon along.

We join and play as Torque, a newly arrived prisoner, who has been convicted of the grisly murder of his wife and children. Our "hero" has no sooner settled in than an earthquake hits, shaking loose not only mortar and electrical workings, but also some most unpleasant denizens not officially enrolled in our holiday retreat. In a fashion reminiscent of the Half-Life story, but much, much, more grisly, unnatural spider-like creatures with deadly spikes drop from the ceilings and spring out from darkened alcoves. Playing Torque from a third-person perspective (first-person also an option), you attempt to work your way through and out of Abbott Prison. Not only is there the challenge of the monsters, guards and other prisoners, but also there's an underlying mystery to be resolved, not only about Abbott and Carnate, but also about yourself. You receive messages from your dead wife and have occasions to make "good" or "evil" choices, thereby affecting your character and the game outcome. This has been done before, but not as smoothly and effectively as with The Suffering.

Even though The Suffering is technically a "port" from the console version, it plays as if it was designed for the PC from the beginning. WASD or arrow keys control Torque, with complete mouse-look and mouse button control. Key controls are minimal (map, inventory, open), with the screen very uncluttered (health, flashlight and insanity meters). You begin the game, after the earthquake shakes open your cell door, by exploring your cell wing and finding a knife and other soon-to-be-needed items - batteries, map, ammunition, Xombium, shotgun, etc.

The Suffering has some very foul language and is rated "M." Right out of the gate, you'll hear the "f word" and the kind of rough sexual and other comments you might expect in this kind of "vacation" facility. So be warned.

Relatedly, the voice acting is outstanding and professional, aided by a terrific script. When you hear the kind of audio work done in The Suffering, you have more of an appreciation for the importance of this facet of a game, something we sometimes do not experience with other titles, especially within the adventure genre.

Accompanying this voice work are superb sound effects. Although the graphics are only moderately good (a likely carryover from console roots), the full 3D sounds are compelling. While exploring, turning on switches, gathering items, you'll suddenly hear the nearby scream of a man who has died horribly. Scraping noises (spider blades on the floor) approach menacingly from your right speaker, moving closer and closer, more toward the center - and you! A ringing phone, overheard exclamations ("Everything's under control - aargh ..."), doors closing, wiring shorting out, your own hallucinations (or are they?) - all of these build tension between your confrontations with the specters of Abbott Prison.

Depending on choices made throughout the game, Torque has the option of building up his Insanity Meter. This allows a frightening transformation to the "bad" Torque, producing a Hulk-like personage capable of wreaking damage and havoc that's effective but almost out of control. Sometimes the Hulk, or Mr. Hyde, just needs to come to the fore. Contributing to the overall delusional setting are three spirits following our hero, sort of like the Ghosts of Christmas Past from Dickens, but very twisted and nightmarish.

There are a number of "key-door" puzzles throughout the game, but the most interesting and thought-provoking dilemmas come when you need to make the kind of good versus evil choice indicated above - a choice of your behavior, realizing this may have permanent effects on your personality and the outcome of your attempted escape. Interestingly, these different paths also lead to replayability. I'm currently in my second run-through of the game, on a different difficulty setting (four are offered), making "nice guy" choices, taking alternate routes, and finding a contrasting experience.

In terms of choices, and to be a bit more prosaic, I should comment that The Suffering installs and runs beautifully on my very moderate system. There are sufficient options on the menu available to allow it to be playable on an even lesser system. Further, although there are console-like checkpoints for auto saving, you also have the option of saving anywhere, an important feature for many of us with short attention spans.

The Suffering comes together as a remarkable survival-horror game. I used to write reviews with a breakdown of components in the game (graphics, audio, interface, etc.). But The Suffering integrates all elements so well into the final product that I hardly thought about that sort of analysis. With satisfactory graphics, outstanding audio and acting, involving mystery-like story, smooth gameplay mechanics, The Suffering moves to the top ranks, joining such titles as Clive Barker's Undying and Eternal Darkness. If you can deal with (or maybe enjoy?) the grisly setting, monster bashing and rough language, the game comes as highly recommended.


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