TORMENTED SOULS

★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _GAMING.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
platforms _PS5, _STEAM.  release _OUT NOW.  reviewed on _PS5.

November 1, 2021
images © PQube / Dual Effect / Abstract Digital 2021.

Hang fire, Mariah. We’re not quite done with things that go bump in the night yet…

Whilst Dual Effect & Abstract Digital’s loving homage to the video game survival horrors of yesteryear – particularly those of the PSOne era – arrived on Steam and PS5 back in August (other platforms placated an indeterminate ‘early 2022’ date), it seemed a perfect title to hold back on experiencing until the Halloween period.

As a keen enthusiast of the Resident Evils and Silent Hills of the late Nineties/early Noughties, there is a lot that Tormented Souls does right in channeling the spirit of those celebrated, frequently frightening titles. Yes, they inject a limited dose of modernity into some elements of the control system and mechanics, but this is, for the most part, exactly the kind of callback to traditional third-person survival horror experiences that many fans of the genre have been clamouring for, for the better part three console generations.

With a suitably hokey story, following protagonist Caroline Walker travelling to a seemingly abandoned hospital solely off the back of a strange photograph she received in the mail, narratively Souls is as pulpy, simple and schlocky in execution as much of what came in early Resi titles in particular. This extends to delivery, too; with the voice acting of Caroline and the very limited number of characters she encounters on her journey performed in a juicily over-the-top, exclamatory fashion.

But as per its heritage, the slightly silly story of Souls is merely a framing device for its exploration into a creepy unknown, the solving of a myriad of some excellently-designed puzzles, bountiful amounts of back-tracking, and a liberal dose of combat taking out the twisted denizens of its sumptuously depicted locale.

The production design of the Wildberger Hospital, Souls principle setting, is gorgeously realised. And whilst many have jumped to point out aesthetic familiarities between it and the iconic Spencer Mansion of Resident Evil fame, outside of perhaps its main hall and adjoining corridors, much of what is found here seems far more reminiscent of, say, 2001’s Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, or the Silent Hill series, from the frequently limited lighting (Resi, conventionally, being much more generous in lighting your impending demise) with entire sections of the map bathed in lethal darkness, trips to a ‘dark’ alternative reality, right down to smattering of the industrial, occult and even tribal and indigenous.

But it is in its restrictive lighting mechanic that one of the game’s biggest bugbears rears its head. Players will frequently take Caroline into areas of almost pitch-black darkness, requiring her to forgo carrying any weapons in favour of a lighter, in order to avoid the almost-instant fatality of wandering around in the dark. This is not a commentary on its enemy design, either – if you spend more than a few seconds bathed in darkness, the game will quite literally kill you off in fairly unceremonious fashion.

Look familiar? Dutch and canted camera angles – like the one pictured above – are commonplace in Tormented Souls. They were particularly common in the original Silent Hill games, which presented fully 3D envrionments, as opposed to Resident Evil or Alone in the Dark‘s pre-rendered backgrounds.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the thinking behind the decision to rob players of their weapons in certain areas of the game, but in truth it is artificially attempting to up the scare factor when in actuality it becomes more frustrating than anything. Entering such an area is far more likely to elicit a groan than it is a gasp. Yes, at a handful of spots, it does factor in to map exploration and advancement strategically, but these are few and far between. For the most part, the dimly-lit sequences of Souls’ world are just unforgiving; not to mention meandering when combined with the unreliable control system, occasionally hyperactive camera jumps, and generally sub-par combat. It also robs the player of soaking in so much of the gorgeous world building and design work, with the game’s surroundings notably a step-up from its clunky, almost cartoony character models.

Thankfully, Dual Effect seem to have at least realised that their combat system – another area where it feels spiritually more akin to the laden, cumbersome shoot-or-smash mechanics of Silent Hill – is a bit of a lame duck at some point into development, as generally ammo is in bountiful supply, meaning a ‘kill it if it moves’ mentality quickly becomes a must, doubly so because of the sheer amount of back-tracking and revisiting of areas you will be doing over the course of the game. Just be ready to jostle with an at-times erratic auto-aim system, to0, that can easily see you waste ammo through no fault of your own.

Souls does encourage s0me trial-and-error, though, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the absolute smorgasbord of puzzles that have been worked into the game, many of which you can tackle in a fairly player-defined order. It is here where Dual really step up their game, with there being an element of early survival horror’s ‘fetch questing’, but invigorated with some more much interactive and inventive elements. Puzzles, and the items required to help solve them, frequently require direct physical manipulation, as well as a healthy dose of lateral thinking, to solve. There’s even some occasional use of time travel (we did say it was hokey) to create in the past the correct conditions needed to solve a puzzle – or access a specific area – in the future.

Look familiar? Dutch and canted camera angles – like the one pictured above – are commonplace in Tormented Souls. They were particularly common in the original Silent Hill games, which presented fully 3D envrionments, as opposed to Resident Evil or Alone in the Dark‘s pre-rendered backgrounds.

It’s a mechanic that creates a laughably bonkers disconnect between gameplay and storytelling, though, with our central protagonist zipping through time and materialising these time-centric changes and causality when under our control, yet in cut-scenes that follow, she acts not only utterly oblivious to it all, but so too is she seemingly actively confused by some of the changes her era-jumping results in.

For the most part, though, Souls is an engaging time, its focus on exploration and puzzle-solving particularly welcome when both elements are so well realised and executed. It can be a little unforgiving in its opening hour or so, but so too were its predecessors, and again, in bringing in a limited resource for saving (as close to ink ribbons as you can perhaps legally get), Souls demands players to plan routes, objectives and the gap they are going to leave between saving.

It’s at times like this that the game is at its strongest; exploring its beautifully macabre world, tensely venturing into the unknown and stumbling upon a particular item or file that suddenly makes that one nebulous puzzle click into place. Considering your path and options as you go between safe and familiar areas, managing your resources and planning ahead.

You know, classic survival horror.

Just don’t expect to rely too much on the game’s fairly useless map – which, even after you find the respective page for the area you’re in, is vague, confusingly coloured and gives little in the way of crucial information (bar the strange decision to very, very occasionally include an icon depicting a puzzle element).

Much like many of the titles that inspired it, Souls does has an issue with pacing, too. The game does eventually run out of steam, and much of this lies at the relative absence of bigger set pieces. There’s hardly anything in the way of boss fights, and whilst this isn’t in and of itself a dealbreaker, games like the original Resident Evil keenly understood how punchier moments like an attic encounter with a giant snake (after some suitably ominous build-up), or suddenly being sprung into a flooded basement full of Great White Sharks, gave shape and momentum to the overall experience. Souls, contrarily, seems mostly happy to recycle the same limited pool of regular enemies, which are themselves not terribly original, and almost all seemingly pulled straight from the nightmare-demons-by-way-of-hospital-equipment-gone-wrong monster mashing of the OG Silent Hill.

Ardent enthusiasts who have been hankering for a real callback to the origins of the genre will find plenty to enjoy about Tormented Souls. Though even they will likely find themselves at time struggling with the clunky controls, clunkier-still combat, and an adventure which, whilst suitably camp, does come to lull by its later stages. Conceptually, its use of puzzles and exploration go beyond even those that inspired it, and if the element you most miss from earlier horror games were its conundrums and use of puzzles as a means of progression, you’ll find plenty to love in Souls’ many brainteasers.

Far more difficult, then, is to recommend it to those unfamiliar, or perhaps not nostalgic for, the Alone in the Darks and Silent Hills of the PSone epoch. They are, after all, over two decades old, and in gaming terms that is a lifetime, and by forcing some of even the most unnecessary staples of the era (you can’t quick switch between weapons and your lighter, for instance, nor can you reload your weapon before it is empty), it perhaps isn’t fair to say it is a style or structure that has aged particularly gracefully. There is a soupçon of Shinji Mikami’s more modern The Evil Within to be felt here and there, but this is mostly aesthetic and thematic.

That being said, there are absoutely places where the old, much-maligned ‘tank style’ method of moving your character (pressing ‘up’ on the D-pad moves your character directly forward, irrespective of camera angle, etc.) actually becomes preferable to the analogue alternative (Souls offering both), particularly in smaller rooms where the camera switches about so madly and frequently that you can find yourself going round in circles or becoming completely disorientated if relying on the analogue sticks.

Ultimately, your mileage with Tormented Souls will depend on your familiarity with – and patience for – traditional survival horror. It’s a creepy, enticing experience that is at once both mechanically clunky yet aesthetically gorgeous in execution. It’s all terribly derivative, of course, but that’s kind of the point, and, given its release at a discounted price, there are far worse recommendations out there for the horror gaming connoisseur who has spent much of the last decade or two yearning for an old-school fix.

Channelling so much of vintage survival horror offers both Souls’ greatest strengths and weaknesses. A creepy, clunky but ultimately enjoyable blast to the past, one whose events you will hopefully remember for longer than its own protagonist does…

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