The Suffering came out of nowhere last year and quite honestly stunned me with its quality. At its heart, the game was truly nothing more than a B-grade horror flick in pixilated form, but the propulsive narrative, inventive Stan Winston-designed monsters, wonderfully scary environments, and over-the-top gore made for a much better game than what people expected.
The Suffering starred an amnesiac convict named Torque who found himself imprisoned on Carnate Island for the murder of his family, a crime he naturally didn’t remember committing. The history of Carnate Island, however, was written in so much blood it came complete with footnotes and a bibliography. The second Torque’s jail cell slammed shut, the evil of the island awoke and plunged Torque into a frenzied race to escape from things worse than a shiv in the back. Throughout his adventure, Torque would have flashbacks that fleshed out his history and were either good or evil based on the gamer’s play style. The finale saw Torque escape the island after hopping on a speedboat and heading towards near-by Baltimore.
The new sequel, The Suffering: Ties That Bind, picks up in a very ill-advised way. It starts in a flashback showing Torque imprisoned in Baltimore and introduces some recurring characters, including his personal nemesis Blackmore. I say ill-advised because the flashback has the simultaneous affect of rendering moot any mystery from the first game as to whether Torque knew what was happening on Carnate Island, and being extremely redundant considering all the information we see in the opening is just repeated later. The best mystery of the original game was whether or not everything might actually be happening in Torque’s mind, up to and including his transformation into a monster. Once it was shown that Torque truly wasn’t imaging things, then it became a matter of figuring out what the monsters were and where they came from. The opening quickly dispels all of this.
Once the flashback is over, the game picks up immediately after the first game with Torque on a speedboat heading into Baltimore. Had the game started here, it might have been better overall. As it stands, The Suffering: Ties That Bind comes across as a run-of-the-mill cash-in sequel to a hit title that was more inventive than it probably should have been. I liked a lot of what the first game accomplished, but the second game just feels like more of the same without any attempt to elevate things to the next level. There is nothing subtle about the headaches Torque feels right before he has a flashback to some awful event, but there might have been some had these not been every five minutes in the beginning. The game actually feels, oddly, like Moulin Rouge at the start because there is a terrific sensory assault on the player for the first few levels before things smooth out and allow for coherent story telling.
There is just no easy way to hide the fact that The Suffering: Ties That Bind is ugly through and through. In addition to the gore, relentless misery and sorrow and pain of the story, the visuals are the exact same as the first game and they have not aged well. Maybe it’s because God of War came out of nowhere to show that the PS2 could still hack it as a graphical powerhouse, but Surreal Software should have at least polished some of it. As it stands now, the graphics are average at best because while they do the job, they look awful.
Since the engine is the same as the first game, nothing has changed regarding the creatures or the character details. The more injuries Torque sustains or inflicts, the bloodier his clothing becomes. Blood flies everywhere during combat and one thing the game gets right is how enemies react to being shot or stabbed. For example, the new monster, the Gorger, is particularly fun to shoot with a heavy weapon because the top half of its body explodes leaving a spine dangling out of the remaining lower half. My jaw hit the floor the first time I saw this, but sadly this attention to detail is lacking in just about everything else. Humans spin around or fall down when shot, and other monsters just explode in a spray of red or crumple to the ground when Torque takes them down.
The environments may look varied on paper, but in actuality they are cookie cutter copies of each other. The many apartment complexes all look the same, as does the rest of the urban environment. How I wish that Surreal crafted a game where it truly felt like a city was overrun by monster hordes instead of just the docks and some burrows. Even worse is how the city never truly feels integral to the game, unlike the prison on Carnate Island. The environment there reflected both how Torque and his mental state were fractured and imprisoned. Once the story moves to Baltimore, the metaphor is lost and the game looks and feels like just another shooter, albeit an extremely bloody one.
The true high point of The Suffering: Ties That Bind is the audio. The voice acting is superbly led by Michael Clarke Duncan as Blackmore and John Armstrong as Dr. Killjoy. These two villains are outstanding in their evil, but the fact that they approach from such different angles makes for a terrific contrast. Blackmore is all about using his evil powers as a fist against those that get in his way, whereas Killjoy is more clinical and psychological in his approach. Killjoy was the best part of the first game, and his attachment to both Torque and the surrounding world only added to his creepiness. Armstrong makes Killjoy someone who is resolutely evil yet thinks nothing of it because he views his methods as conducive to the greater good. Blackmore oozes silken malice, and I kept thinking of Duncan’s portrayal of Kingpin in Daredevil each time he taunted Torque. That’s actually a compliment, because while Daredevil was lame, Kingpin was most certainly not.
The assisting cast returns from the first game, with Rachel Griffiths of Six Feet Under added as Torque’s new nemesis, Jordan. Griffiths is a talented actress, yet phones in her performance to the point where there is no illusion she’s reciting text in an audio booth. Contrasting her is Meg Savlov as the voice of Consuela, wife to a guard on Carnate Island and narrator of the local history. As Torque unlocks pages in Consuela’s journal, Savlov worriedly describes the historical horrors of that area and it’s just as detailed and fascinating as it was in The Suffering. Rafeedah Keys also returns as Torque’s fallen wife, Carmen, but she has a lot more to do here than just comfort or berate Torque based on his actions. She is vastly more integral to the plot this time out, and to say more would ruin a few surprises. The monster effects along with the weapons effects are terrific. Each beast has its own aural nature, and while a few were brought over from the first game, the new ones add themselves to the proceedings with style. The hounds and the Gorger were particularly gruesome.
The controls deserve a special notice for being completely counter-intuitive to the way almost every PlayStation game is. I complained about the control scheme in my review of The Suffering, but since I hold zero influence with Surreal the problems of the first game have carried over to the second. Who in their right mind thinks that hitting the R2 button to jump is better than hitting the X button? The good news is that you can remap the controls, but the bad news is the different schemes all have at least one annoying tick to them. You can reset the controls how you want them, only to find that one or two actions are mapped to completely random buttons. A satisfactory control scheme should not require thought, it should instead allow the player act on instinct. If only such a scheme were available here.
Players familiar with the PS2 controller will recognize that hitting the R1 button will fire weapons, but they also will have to contend with hitting the L1 button to throw things, using the L2 button to crouch, pressing the X button to use and the square button to switch weapons. What I found odd was that the manual claims the square button pulls out your maps and notes, which the select button actually does.
The player must hit the circle button for melee attacks, the triangle button to go into the Insanity Mode, i.e. the turn-Torque-into-a-monster-complete-with-his-own-control-scheme mode, use the up directional pad button to switch between first and third-person views, use the right button to toggle between throwable items, and hit the down button to reload weapons. If Surreal is taking advice for the third installment in this series, the please rework this scheme because it’s convoluted and just plain bad. It was in the first game, and you managed to make it worse for the second one.
The Suffering: Ties That Bind is very claustrophobic which struck this reviewer as an odd creative choice considering the majority of the game takes place in the wide open city of Baltimore. Every city has its fair share of smaller areas, but the game seems content to zero in on the most confined places imaginable on the streets of Baltimore, then cut them in half. This works in a prison environment, but not at all in a city. So if you have never played the original game, starting off on this one is fine because you will experience exactly the same thing.
Torque must reconcile what happened in his past while dodging all manner of monsters and his arch-nemesis Blackmore. The monsters are primarily hold-overs from the original game, but their descriptions have changed somewhat to show how they reflect the violent history of Baltimore. For example, the Mainliner, once a symbol of lethal injection, is now a symbol of the drug addiction on the street. The Gorger is based off an urban legend of a monster that eats anything in its path. One of the strengths of The Suffering was how well the monsters were symbolic of capital punishment, but showing off the exact same creature while saying that now they reflect street crime is stretching it, even for a game as fantastical as this. Blackmore took away everything Torque once loved, so it would stand to reason that the crux of the tale would be revenge. But the game wants to have it both ways by primarily focusing on Torque reclaiming his memories and only periodically seeing Blackmore.
It’s frustrating that the story takes this as the focus because Torque’s history really isn’t that interesting. He was down on his luck, made alliances with the wrong people, his wife and child were killed because of this and now monsters are after him. All of this we knew in the first game, so why not try furthering the story along instead of spending more than half of it reiterating the points made in the first game?
As it stands, Torque spends a lot of the game just running around blasting monsters while helping or hurting civilians, and frequently turning into a monster himself once his insanity meter fills up. This game forces you to use the monster form a lot more than before, and I found myself annoyed at that. For a game to tout freedom of choice as a virtue, yet force the player to frequently use one path, is misdirection at best. Make no mistake about whether the monster form is necessary, as certain things can only be accomplished while in monster form. It’s even fun to run around slaughtering monsters like this, but Torque will take significant damage if he doesn’t revert to human form before his insanity meter runs dry.
The Suffering: Ties That Bind is an alright action game with tons of gore masquerading as horror. The first game did this same thing better by a mile, and the story itself isn’t something I would dub fascinating. Completionists are advised to rent this game if they feel they must play it.
There is very little to recommend for a second or third run through on The Suffering: Ties That Bind, unless you absolutely must see Torque’s continuing adventures. The game itself is hardly memorable at all, and unlocking journal pages happens pretty much any time Torque encounters a different monster or situation. The upside is the superior vocal work by Duncan and others, and the sound effects of the monsters and environments. But long before the player has seen everything, they’ll quickly realize they already played this once and that nothing has changed since then.