The Suffering Review

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Publisher: Encore Software
Developer: Surreal Software

Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 1 GHz, 128 MB RAM, 4x CD ROM, 32 MB DirectX 8.0-compliant video card, Windows 98 or more recent

Carnate Island is a grim and desolate place. Located ten miles off Maryland's Atlantic coast, Carnate is currently home to Maryland's highest security prison, and is also where death-row inmates are sent to suffer their final punishment. But you can't say that inmate executions are the worst thing to happen on Carnate. A seventeenth century Puritan village once perpetrated a series of horrific witch burnings, before being disbanded. A slave ship once crashed on the shores of Carnate, and the crew left their captives to be consumed by rats, chained in the hold, rather than be outnumbered by escaped slaves. In 1877, a wealthy family built an isolated estate on the island, which was converted in 1899 into the Carnate Institution for the Alienated. Until it closed, the asylum was presided over by a doctor whose techniques were both radical and cruel.

In the mid-twentieth century, Carnate became a base for the US Army and a prisoner-of-war camp, where a commander is rumored to have ordered firing-squad executions. The Maryland Department of Corrections took over the island and built a prison on and around the remnants of the army base, pressing inmates into labor in nearby stone quarries for brutal, twelve hour shifts. Since becoming a penitentiary, Carnate has played host to executions by electrocution, gas and lethal injection, alongside more casual inmate and guard homicide. For four centuries, people have met gruesome ends on Carnate Island – usually at the hands of others.

Kyle Ackerman

The Suffering is the ultimate ghost story. Abbott State Penitentiary, on Carnate Island, has a foul history, and every corner of the poorly maintained prison is haunted with voices from the past. The guards and their families want to be on Carnate no more than the inmates, comforting themselves with drugs, alcohol or inmate abuse. Now the supernatural has unleashed itself upon the island, turning every one of the island's horrific executions and murders into a fearsome creature.

The conceptual designs of the horrors that haunt the halls and hills of Carnate are easily the highlight of The Suffering. Each foul and violent beast is the quintessence of a form of execution. The marksman is a grim, blindfolded creature designed to personify the horrors of the firing squad. Its back blisters in a bagpipe of flesh, terminating in a set of rifles with which it can blast its victims. Manifestations of slavers that once consigned their human crew to death by rat now stagger the earth, swinging their chains, bloated by the sea, host to a horde of rats that gnaw at them from the inside.

Make Your Own Shadows

The Suffering is designed to make you jump, so cooperate by playing in the dark, late at night, with a decent sound setup. That way, you'll hear the spider-like skittering of blade points on concrete, only to turn and see a creature drop from the ceiling and thrust it's shiv-like forelimbs at you. Or jump when you see a withered corpse, with glowing hypodermics stuck in its back and through its eye-sockets, emerge from a stagnant pool of water. Furthermore, most of The Suffering takes place in the dark, and uses a flashlight to great effect – it hangs from your shirt, so it doesn't occupy a hand that is better off holding a weapon. But in many areas, you'll only see what you consciously decide to illuminate, creating plenty of shadows from which things can jump. Also, the need to constantly collect batteries for the flashlight creates the threat of being trapped in the darkness. But there are so many batteries scattered around Carnate that you'll feel the threat, but rarely actually be trapped in frustrating darkness. Give them a shadow with which to fright you, and creatures will happily drag a knife slowly along a wall or floor, with steadily-approaching, eerie, scraping noises.

Torque, your in-game persona, is hardly a sympathetic character, but he's the only man who could possibly escape Carnate when the island unleashes its horrors. Torque is a disturbed man, prone to blackouts. He's been sentenced to execution, as he was found near his dead wife and two slain children. He killed every inmate on the boat that brought him to Abbott State Penitentiary in a blind rage that he cannot remember. That Torque is disturbed only serves to accent the horrors. Constant hallucinations are interspersed with the action, and warring voices in Torque's head give him contradictory commands. Should he help or destroy? Brilliantly, this introduces doubt throughout the game – some of the supernatural events are being experienced by other inmates and guards, but which events are entirely in Torque's head?

No Shortage of Blood

Nothing in such games can go unmeasured, so Torque has an "insanity meter." When that meter fills, Torque can transform into a grotesque but powerful engine of destruction. As the long-dead Dr. Killjoy, who once ran the Carnate Institution for the Alienated, observes, "Torque ... seems to be under the delusion that (at times of high stress and/or when threatened) he actually transforms into a hideous creature. In truth, of course, this only happens in his own mind; he never leaves human form. It is only sheer adrenaline that makes him astonishingly strong during this period, allowing him to wreak extreme havoc indeed..." Living human beings may not notice his transformation, but they see the destruction Torque causes. Torque's insanity remains nicely undefined until the player shapes it. Whether Torque is truly a murderous beast or an angry man in an unfortunate situation is decided by the player's actions.

Torque kills so many horrific beasts, with weapons ranging from shotguns to axes, that he spends the entire game covered in a thick sheen of blood. In fact, he's so covered in a glistening and sticky morass of blood that you might expect it all to clot, immobilizing him entirely. Pretty much anything Torque fights ends up spattering him in blood, and there is a lot for him to battle. Most of the enemies can be defeated by simply dodging swiftly to the side and shooting, but it's the way that nasties constantly leap out of nowhere that works the horror magic. The Suffering isn't about sophisticated combat routines – it's about things that go bump in the night. That jump out of dark corners.

Only The Dead Have Civilized Tongues

The more cogent creatures that Torque encounters on Carnate Island keep the plot and action moving. There's plenty of foul language on the part of the remaining living inmates, but the most interesting (and most polite) characters are those who have been dead for decades, like Dr. Killjoy, who is seemingly animated by antique film projectors, or Hermes Haight, who was Abbott State Penitentiary's long-time executioner until he took his own life, just to "taste the gas." The other inhabitants of Carnate, living and dead, become key toward the end of the game as you revisit previous locations, and can use help navigating the prison.

The Suffering was released on consoles earlier this year, and has only recently made its way to the PC. The port to the PC has, for the most part, been skillfully done, although there are some graphical glitches that occur at ultra-high resolutions. The visuals aren't so much improved over the original console version that you need particularly high resolutions, so this isn't a big deal. At the same time, it's nice to be able to shoot the fast-moving horrors of Carnate Island using a mouse and keyboard rather than gamepad setup. You can also save your progress anywhere. On top of all that, you get a disc that contains a "making of" video and a brief feature on the Eastern State Penitentiary a prison near Philadelphia believed by some to be haunted.

The Suffering is a great, fast-paced, jump-out-of-your-chair action game. With brilliantly conceived creatures executing every last living thing on Carnate, interrupted only by brief spells of suspenseful silence and a smattering of hallucinations, The Suffering is an exercise in terror, meant to be played with quality surround sound, late at night, with the lights turned off. The game is fun, but will startle you enough that you'll be no more relaxed than the restless dead you encounter. But as Dr. Killjoy points out, "Who are we kidding? We're not really trying to be humane, anyway."

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 5, 2004 7:14 PM.

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