I have to admit something right up front: I initially dismissed The Suffering as a half-baked gore-fest desperately seeking originality and lacking in genuine thrills. The game just rang a false note for me right from the start. Since I’m not a fan of gorific horror, and very little scares me, The Suffering seemed to be more interested in throwing as much digital blood at the player as possible, rather than tell a coherent story. Everywhere I turned, I encountered mangled bodies and blood, blood, and more blood. There are also dozens of monsters slaughtering corrections officers and inmates alike in extremely graphic ways. There was so much head trauma going on I kept wanting to get everyone some Advil, but even the strongest painkiller wouldn’t help the decapitations and such. Despite the extremely graphic violence and colorful language, I couldn’t say that what I was seeing was really worth the price of admission. But then I got to the lethal injection chamber, and my attitude began to change.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You play as Torque, the latest guest sentenced by the Maryland Correctional Department for a stay at Abbot State Penitentiary, and you’ve been assigned a cozy bunk in the prison on Carnate Island for the murder of your wife and children. The island is the Northeastern equivalent of Alcatraz, and its history is not one filled with fluffy bunnies and daisies. All kinds of bad happened in the past, and the old violence has never fully been put to rest. Torque hasn’t had time to pack before an earthquake hits Carnate Island, the power goes out, and the killing starts. Guards and convicts are all shredded by different kinds of monsters, and Torque finds himself trapped with nothing more than a shiv and a bad attitude.

Throughout the course of The Suffering, players will periodically be faced with choices of whether to save someone or let them die. When these chances occur, the voice of your dead wife will suggest you help the person, and a sinister voice will recommend a more painful course of action. After you make your choice, the respective voice will praise you for your decision. Naturally, were you to help someone you would get a lot more out of it be it extra ammunition, a better map of the area, or just someone else to help fight off the monsters. Some guys will help you, others will just stand around and you have to protect or kill them outright, but every time you make a choice you will immediately know if it was for better or for worse. I found this to be pretty cool overall, but nothing I haven’t seen done better elsewhere.

But then I got to the lethal injection chamber, and my attitude started to change.

If Clive Barker had been showrunner for HBO‘s prison drama Oz it would look a lot like The Suffering. The prison looks and functions like a real prison, right down to the grime on the shower walls, which isn’t surprising considering the amount of effort Midway Games went through to research this. The map of the prison spells it out for you right from the get-go that Abbot is one big place. Everything you see would be dank and eerie by itself, but then you factor in all the blood-stained walls and messages scrawled pleading for help, and the scariness gets knocked up a few notches. I loved how everything inside the prison and outside felt like I was on the stomping grounds of some maximum security prison. Torque’s journey takes him all over Carnate Island, and that includes stops in the run-down insane asylum, the island’s cliffs and beaches, a wrecked slave ship, caves, and docks. The designers did a heck of a good job making everything look like the island’s facilities have been worn down for many years, and this adds considerably to the immersion. What also helps is how the game resembles a ’70’s snuff film complete with grain on the film, and an overall sleazy look. If you’ve ever seen the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre then you will know the look this game was going for.

I’m not sure when Hollywood decided to make ghosts appear “outside of time,” but whoever thought of it deserves a candy bar. When I say “outside of time” what I mean is how ghosts in films like House on Haunted Hill and Gothika move with a super-fast stutter, as if we’re seeing them moving in a different reality. I cannot begin to say how much I enjoy this part of modern ghost stories, even though most of the flicks using this technique wallow outright in suckage. However, when I was playing The Suffering and got to a beach, one of the monsters stood there and his head twitched in the “outside of time” manner. I just smiled.

The monsters are all extremely interesting to look at, and they’re all based on a form of either capital punishment or something much worse. They were designed by Stan Winston Studios, and kudos to them for delving into some of the creepiest imaginations they could find. The monsters and ghosts all reflect a part of the tortured past of Carnate Island. When you’re chased by small creatures with dozens of lethal needles jabbed into their backs, you’ll know what freaky is.

Despite the monsters and the setting looking as perfect for the story as they do, I can’t take the score much higher as the graphics just aren’t that great overall. The imagery may fit perfectly for the story, but the character models, while fascinating, mostly look terrible. The limitations of the PS2 hardware sure don’t help matters, but this is not a visually attractive game in and of itself.

The sound of The Suffering is where the game really shines. All of the voices come through with the right amount of desperation and anger. Some people may object to the extremely harsh language, but it works in the context of the game. It makes you feel that you’re as immersed as possible in the game, and you can’t ask for more than that. In horror of any kind, the key is to make the audience believe in what they are experiencing, and in order to make them believe, the characters in the story have to believe it. All of the corrections officers and inmates, and even the ghosts, have their own personalities. All of that personality comes shining through. The voice work is terrific, and the sounds each of the monsters make will creep you out to no end. The Slayers, for example, are based off of decapitation and have blades for their arms and legs, while their head is slightly raised above their shoulders. The Slayers walk on those blades, which sounds creepy enough, but then they can drop to all fours and scurry about like spiders. When you hear that sound again and again, you will know fear. You’ll also wonder how they could be based of decapitation, but all of the monsters take a measure of creativity with their design.

The ambient sounds are equally as good. The sounds of the prison gates creaking and groaning, the creaks of the worn down asylum, and the ocean crashing on the beach are all done exceptionally well. When you consider just how dark all the areas in the game are, the sound becomes both your best friend and worst enemy. It’s nice to be able to hear a group of monsters coming your way, but when the noises they make send shivers down your back, it’s not a good thing to hear so many at a time.

The controls for The Suffering aren’t bad, but aren’t the most intuitive either. If you want to fire your weapon, hit the R1 button. If you want to jump, hit the R2 button. The inventory is controlled with the directional pad. To select an item or interact with the game world, hit the X button. Throwable items like grenades and flares are tossed using the L1 button, and you reload your primary weapons with the L2 button.

You can switch to first-person mode with the Square button, and the good thing is you can stay in this mode as long as you want. There’s not any of the typical going into first-person mode and just being able to look around (you hear me Ninja Gaiden?), so you can play the entire game in first-person if you want. The Circle button restores your health, and the Triangle button activates the Insanity mode, where you turn into a big monster for a brief period of time. Overall, the controls aren’t bad, but the reload and the throwable items buttons kept confusing me for some reason.

There is a good amount of game for your buck in The Suffering. It’s not exactly the longest game you’ll be playing, but it’s longer than Max Payne 2. You can play Torque however you like, be it merciful, ruthless, or Hulking out into the monster form whenever you can. This is the kind of survival horror game most people talk about wanting, but wind up settling for the slow-as-molasses Resident Evil games. The Suffering may take a while to get going, but if you’re like me, you’ll start to be pulled in once you get to the lethal injection sequence. I’m not sure if it was the reveal of one of the boss monsters, or what I saw on a nearby security monitor, but the black creativity in this sequence really drew me in. From that point on I was hooked, and I’ve played The Suffering pretty much nonstop since I’ve had it. I haven’t decided yet whether I’m ready to go back through it to see the other endings (there are three total), but this is one I have really enjoyed puzzling out.

The Suffering has more than enough action to keep the most bloodthirsty gamers satisfied, but it also takes time to just crank up the creep factor to an 11 and leave it there. Once you get to the asylum sequence, the battles are extremely few and far between, but the atmosphere, and sense of complete isolation and despair, so completely engulfs you that I wound up mesmerized and just had to get through it. This is one of those few games that despite a few issues here and there, kept me playing late into the night.

All of the puzzles are easy to figure out, and even the more difficult ones can be solved quickly. I can say I was only stumped a few times, but then I just started blasting things until I figured it out then reloaded and tried a different tactic. I fully expect this game to be used as evidence in a forthcoming trial to force all game designers to build “save anywhere” features into their games, as it greatly helps the casual gamer (I’m still looking your way Ninja Gaiden). It’s really nice being able to save right before a boss battle, then go in and try and fail, then reload and try again.

I’ve been playing The Suffering non-stop since I got it. As I said, it takes a little while to get going, but once it cranks up it doesn’t let go. If you’re pressed for time during the week, then this is a perfect weekend rental as you can most likely beat it within 10 to 12 hours. There are two other endings waiting for you though, so if you want the complete experience it might be worth adding to your collection. There are also plenty of sights to see inside the prison and outside of it on the island. As you run around you’ll collect Archive notes that go into one of two books you carry. The first book is Clem’s Notebook, and it’s a collection of the adversaries you encounter, and Clem’s description of each. The second book is a journal kept by the wife of a prison guard, and it fills in the elaborate history of Carnate Island. Midway really went out of its way to flesh out this part of the world, and they did an admirable job.

There’s also a fascinating documentary on the disc about a real-life haunted prison in Pennsylvania called Eastern State Penitentiary. I had heard of the prison before, but I was unaware of its rather storied history. Elements of Eastern State Penitentiary’s history actually resemble parts of The Suffering, and I can view that as both good and bad. It’s good that something in the game can be really freaky, but it’s bad when those same elements are pulled from real-life experiences.