Sunday, March 8, 2015

VGR The Suffering

Escaping from prison doesn't exactly sound like fun in normal conditions, but imagine once all sorts of creatures and monsters are after you... not counting on your own past coming back to haunt you...

VGR: The Suffering  
From Surreal Software/Midway Home Entertainment/Next Level Games (Additional help)/Midway Games/Zoo Digital Publishing
Played on PC
Also available on PS2 and Xbox

Type Survival horror/Action game
Year 2004

This game is what happens when a western developer has a try at the very Japanese genre of Survival Horror games (not counting Alone in the Dark trilogy obviously, since it was the original inspiration behind the genre). A sort of American answer to these Japanese horror games.

Most studios had a try at the genre at one time or another. I already reviewed attempts at survival horror games made by Sega or Ubisoft in the past. This time it's Midway's turn!

The Suffering was co-developed by Surreal Software and Midway, and published in 2004.

The game is, of course, very brutal. Rated Mature, as expected coming from the minds at Miday, responsible for the Mortal Kombat series!

They wanted to make a survival horror game with a much bigger emphasis on combat. To match the action of games like the Devil May Cry series, but keep the horror close to Resident Evil and an immersive world relying on scripted sequence similar to the Half-Life series. But despite all of this the game really takes much of it content from the Silent Hill series, at the end of the day it is still very much also a psychological thriller, despite its more action-oriented nature.

The design of the monsters were created by noneother than Stan Winston himself and his studio!

Since it takes place in a prison, the game doesn't shy away from the unsettling tone of real life situations, taking into account subjects from prison life culture, to racism, the issue of death penalty or even slavery, and making use of all this imagery in some of the most disturbing and memorable segments of the game.

The story follows a guy named Torque. Sentenced to Abbott State Penitentiary on Carnate Island, in Maryland.

You see, Torque was accused to have murdered his ex-wife and two children. Despite a shaky relationship with his family, they were trying to make things work these last few years. But one day the police arrived on the premise only to find Torque covered in blood in the hallway, and his close ones brutally killed all over the house. And it doesn't help Torque's been having these strange black outs during his entire life.

Now incarcerated, he was hoping to find peace in his coming death penalty... but one night all hell broke loose through the prison during an earthquake that shook the entire facility!

Soon these monsters are running wild around the premise, killing everyone in sight! The cells get ravaged, and Torque decides to make a run for it.

As time passes he meets several other prisoners and prison guards trying to survive. He discovers there might have been more to his incarceration than he's able to remember it.

Torque also meets some other former residents of Carnate Island, spirits from past lives gone by and even before this island was ever inhabited prison facilities. Such as this Hermes T. Haight, the soul of a former executioner now an undead man composed of green gas. Horace P Gauge, the spirit of a prisoner driven mad that killed his wife during a conjugal visit, condemned via electric chair and now stuck, forced to relieve his execution over and over. They want to either embrace the immoral nature of this place or escape this place for the next world and Torque will have to make some choices regarding who he trusts.

Soon, Torque discovers he might not be that different from these creatures, being able to transform into a monster of his own (or does he? Is it all inside his own head?)

There is also this Dr. Killjoy that used to operated an Asylum in the early 1900s, his spirit now roaming through the island through these old films projected around the places. The tone kind of reminded me of the likes of Bioshock, using these old audio tales as backstory exposition.

The story allows you to make some choices and either follow Killjoy's "neutral" cure or Horace or Hermes path towards good or evil. During the course of the game Torque also keeps having these visions of his family that will either forgive Torque or not (did Torque even murder them in the first place or not?).

The ending sees our hero fighting his inner demons... literally. As this giant impressive hideous mashup of all the creatures of the game poses a final threat before finding the rescue boat (or stealing it)...

The Suffering doesn't exactly controls like your traditional survival horror gamaes.

Thankfully it makes use of this more action-oriented nature by providing a big help to face these countless hordes of monsters.

Torque can use all kinds of melee and fire weapons, as well as all kinds of explosives as secondary weapons. Plus he even has the ability to jump (which is rare in these sort of horror titles), even though you won't be using it much outside a couple of minor platform segments.

You don't need to kill every single creature you find, in fact it's better to ignore and run past most creatures you find outside the prison their numbers are just too big. There's also a few annoying foes that will keep respawning indefinitely (sort of bizarre twisted demonic "It's Alives").

You also have the ability to play the game in first person as well. But I found it not that useful since the game was still built to be played from a third person perspective. It can be fun to switch to for a couple of times in more action-heavy situations whenever you need to shoot a ton of slow moving creatures, but it was a bit odd and not precise enough to control to be honest.

Since this story revolves around the prison theme, most of these weapons range from your usual shivs to revolvers (and a tommy gun!) or handmade molotov cocktails. Torque can even use the dual-revolver once you grab a second one (early on), which is great to use even in the much later parts of the game.

Finally Torque has this fantastic ability to turn into this huge monster which is great to rip apart waves of creatures. But you better be careful, since he's still prone to suffer damages to his health. Plus you can't heal yourself while in this form. And you also need to revert back before it's too late and the "insanity meter" runs out.

The big gimmick of this game is in the "morality" issues. At several times through the game you are able to either help, kill or go for a neutral decision whenever confronted with other people trying to also survive this island. Be it guards or prisoners. And it all comes into play in the ending you will achieve at the end of the game. That's where these hallucinations of Torque's wife come into play. And it's all never entirely black or white, but you can easily understand from the situation. For example at one point you will encounter a dying man, you can either help relieve him from his misery and finish him (good) or ignore him (neutral). This status is only indicated through a picture of Torque's family in the inventory, it gets cleaner or dirtier as you play through the game.

This is clearly a mature title! The island itself is pretty intriguing (even though it's kinda overkill to think it's an old haunted place where slave ships crashed in, an insane asylum was founded on there and now a prison was built there). Where pure evil manifests itself. The game avoids your regular zombies, instead going for more original monsters closely tied into the story and the prison's history. I really liked how most had their heads detached re-attached with these weird armatures all over their bodies.

The game has pretty good character and creature designs. A lot of effort and thought was put into creating these characters and their appearance, from Torque to the monsters.

Some parts seem to stretch for far too long and overcome their stay, but there's always something interesting right past the corner. Past the mid-point there's a really good memorable segment where Torque leaves the Prison and the island behind for the exploration of some old asylum. Where the game seems to slow down for a while, leaving the action behind for a much better claustrophobic tone. This old mansion level was actually almost reminiscent of the original Alone in the Dark or the first Resident Evil.

More often than once the game will throw at you way too many creatures at you that you won't be able to make it through. Where the only real option left will be to run instead of trying to fight countless waves of respawning monsters.

The game starts a bit slow. Just creepy enough to build the tension, but then soon Torque will acquire an entire arsenal to give the game a much more needed action turn. The Suffering uses kind of a similar basis and gameplay used in most games at the time since the likes of Max Payne. Turning most encounters into heavy gunfights or forcing you to run for it when you get attacked by larger packs of creatures. As much ammo and health you can find around, there's just not enough if you want to stop for every monster you find.

The monsters are introduced progressively one by one so you can learn to face new more powerful monsters. To build your familiarity through the experience over the game. There's not that many type of monsters, and you often end up facing the same few types. But they made sure each monster is unique enough, requiring his own technique to dispatch them.

The levels are continuous, the same general linear nature found in Half-Life with some emphasis on exploration. These levels are huge open areas that will have you do some backtracking as well, you can even find some alternate routes around to explore and get some well-deserved additional ammo.

You find no complicated puzzles like in the Silent Hill or Resident Evil series, but the game still make you do some thinking to progress from time to time. There are some environmental puzzles that require playing with the scenery to progress, naturally solutions to problems only using your common sense (flooding a room to extinguish a fire in the next corridor..). 

The Suffering looks pretty good. The graphics are decent enough (although the models are a bit on the simple side). And really good sound department from the creepy sounds you hear all around you to the pretty decent voice acting.

The game is not without a couple of flaws, there are some occasional bugs here and there. It's easy to lose your partner, out of nowhere (or he might get stuck somewhere out of your field of vision). But these are always easy fixes, by just loading back quickly.

Finally, the game's pretty long, all things considered. Specially for the genre. The setting it offers is really huge, starting in this big prison you get to explore (even the maps seem based on real life architecture), and then once outside you get the entire island to run through before reaching the docks, which is fairly huge on itself (not counting the trip back and through the prison later on).

Once completed, the game offers a bonus prequel episode "Waiting to Die". It was actually a cut prelude that the team felt didn't work as well as the actual introduction in the final product. It's a nice bonus feature to be able to see how the game was originally meant to start, it even allows you to activate a commentary feature.

The music was composed by Erik Aho. He made a pretty good work, most of the original score was composed by using objects and elements inspired by the settings in the game. Such as the sound of rocks, metal bars or even electricity depending on the situation Torque is in.

Overall, The Suffering is a really nice alternative to modern survival horror games taking a note from action games. A better compromise for the genre, allowing much more focus on action while not forgetting its horror roots.

In the end, Midway was able to produce a fairly decent action/survival horror game, all things considered.

The game has a really interesting immersive story, something Midway's even trying to inject into their own fighting games to these days. Plus it's pretty gory. It has a really good atmosphere, I just love how everything unfolds in front of you in real time in the game. Plus the different endings add some nice replay value to the title.

Fun fact, the game was officially distributed as a freeware online for limited period (but it's over now.. although I'm sure you can still find some of the places where you can download it for free legally).

Despite the game's modest popularity, it sold well enough to warrant a sequel! It would receive a follow up only a year later, on September 2005. The story takes place immediately after the events of the escape from the prison. In fact, you can even import a save file from the first game (on all systems PC, PS2 and Xbox) with your previous choices into the sequel!

More surprisingly, there has been some talks about a movie adaptation for quite some time, following the release of the second game. It was originally scheduled for a 2012 release date, with possibly Kyle Haarklau writing and directing it at first. Stan Winston was supposedly expected to sign on the film to work on the monsters, prior to this death in 2008 sadly. I have no idea if this will still happen now, but the material is rich enough to make a pretty decent feature film in my eyes...

I give it:
2.5 / 3 Quacks!

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