Survival horror is a genre that has been barely represented in the last few decades. Outside of the usual suspects like Resident Evil or the odd Amnesia and Outlast sequel, horror fans have been left with no where to look. While these efforts have been appreciated, nobody is making horror games the way gamers grew up with them in the 90s.
The last bastion for classic survival horror has been left up to indie developers to slake the thirst for good old fashioned fixed-camera angled cinematic terror. The tension of driving a vulnerable character from a distant, voyeuristic point of view with tank controls used to be the standard for the genre. Now almost all horror games have to be first-person walking sims, or third person action games.
Tormented Souls is a throwback to an age when horror games were more like cryptic point-and-click adventure games than shooters. Like many indies who are inspired by games from their youth, Dual Effect takes from the pages of Alone in the Dark and the original Resident Evil. Inspiration can only go so far and does this aspiring indie have what it takes to satisfy fans of classic survival horror?
Developer: Dual Effect / Abstract Digital
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S,
Release Date: August 27, 2021
Price: $39.99 USD
To be a fan of Alone in the Dark, old Resident Evil, and the Silent Hill trilogy is to suffer. All three franchises have either gone the way of the dodo, or have changed drastically from constant reinvention. Even the venerable Fatal Frame games have abandoned their traditional structure, and emulate the standardized third-person gameplay template.
Dual Effect understands the that the classic design format of survival horror was truly cinematic, and not in the pretentious Sony way where characters forced into a walking pace. True “cinematic” gameplay would mean to capture aspects of cinema; something the first PlayStation era horror games figured out thanks to the limitations of the hardware.
Cinema is defined by two key factors: shot composition and editing. Tormented Souls revels in its cinematic gameplay by emphasizing heavily in the simple act of navigating its beautifully rendered 3D environments. Every fixed camera angle is a magnificent, picturesque frame and moving between shots is a “cut” or edit.
Like her forerunners before her, Caroline can be (and should be) controlled with tank-controls, which keep her moving in the direction she is facing to prevent controls from getting confused between shots. Tank movement is tight, finely tuned, and always mapped to the directional buttons at all times.
It’s as if Dual Effect is beckoning gamers with an aversion to tank controls to adapt and learn how to play a survival horror game like a patrician. Controls that are relative to camera position are always an option, and are mapped to the left analogue stick. These are training wheels for the untouchables who are hopeless to adapt, and flounder like ants in the afterbirth.
After figuring out how to walk, Caroline will be traversing dank halls and dark rooms, while sometimes being chased by surgical freaks across dimensions. Figuring out cryptic and obtuse environmental puzzles is large part of the classic survival horror experience and Tormented Souls, proudly carries the tradition.
It won’t take long to get stumped or hit a wall in Tormented Souls. Dual Effect designed this game seemingly for classic horror game veterans who know their way around creepy mausoleums, and who would be acquainted with all the old tricks. Newcomers will be hopelessly scratching their heads in bewilderment, and will be utterly lost on what to do and where to go.
Tricks like closely investigating key items for hidden switches or compartments, or combining unassuming objects, are classic gimmicks for this genre. Where Tormented Souls differs is not just how challenging it begins, but also how the developers compounds the stakes on Caroline by making the darkness completely deadly.
Exploring, dealing with freaks, and solving puzzles is made more complicated in the dark; and Caroline can’t use her nail gun or home made shotgun if she is holding her lighter. A lot of the time, she is going to have to restore power in an area if she hopes to progress.
Leveraging the darkness is one of the few ways Tormented Souls is unique from its brethren. Some enemies are fixed into a position where they act as a flesh gate, and will attack if anyone approaches. When positioned in dark halls, they become perfect barriers against Caroline since she can’t kill them unless there is enough light where she can use her weapons.
Some puzzles will also make use of a limited version of a two-world mechanic, where Caroline will explore a dark world version of an area. The way the realities play off each other in their own ironic twist will have players pondering the greater significance of the symbolism.
The macabre imagery is something out of the mind of Clive Barker; religious iconography cross-symbolized with surgical fetishism. Fans of juicy meat will be impressed by how the game engine renders the pulpy gore effects and raw viscera.
Tormented Souls plays very consistently with how classic survival horror games used to play in the early 2000s. The system was perfected by then, and there really was no way it could be further improved upon. However, Tormented Souls did make a few errors that it has no business making.
For some reason, Dual Effect failed to implement a map screen. While there is a map function, Caroline has to open up her inventory screen first and shuffle around to her files section and has to manually open up the specified map. There is no way of knowing if a room has been cleared or not either, like in old Resident Evil or Silent Hill 2.
The environments in Tormented Souls can become very involving and intricate, so this oversight is especially egregious. Having some notes written on Caroline’s maps would have been very helpful to keep track of all her collectibles, and add some much needed guidance.
Update: The game has now updated to bring up the map with a single button press, along with highlighting where the player is. You can find more in our coverage here.
Fighting in Tormented Souls is a means to an end. Each encounter is more of a drain on resources than anything involving a skill ceiling. Most encounters are better off avoided, as players become adept at kiting threats and back stepping from enemy lunges.
Resources are very tight in a game like this. No matter what, it always seems like Caroline is on the verge of barely making it out alive. Just when the situation is most dire; the utilities seemingly appear when she needs them most. Through out the experience, the balance of resources is pitch perfect, and it always feels like survival is just barely achieved.
Most of the time it’s the harsh and oppressive atmosphere that psyches the player out. The low Gothic and breathy music in the background is like a smoldering boil that is constantly driving. It’s an impressive soundtrack that is as good as the material that inspired it.
Unfortunately, the voice acting does not meet the heavy ambient music quality. Caroline’s voice actress cannot say a line of dialogue to save her life. She is never convincing and her Canadian accent slips in and out of her performance through out. Most of her line readings sound like she is not sure of what she is saying.
It’s a stark contrast to readable flavor text that reflect her inner thoughts, which are often serious and fit the circumstances. The only other laughable quality in Tormented Souls is the enemy designs, which look like the variants from Outlast. They do not have a wide range of animation, and move like they’re from a horror game from 2000.
There is an explanation for much of the design choices in Tormented Souls, but finding answers is as challenging as the puzzles within. The narrative has to be pieced together from various diaries that have pages scattered, and by paying close attention to environmental clues.
The story is hard to follow since it’s not told to the player in a traditional way. There are very few cutscenes, and the game’s developers respect the player’s intelligence to figure it out on their own. Tormented Souls is a game that demands patience and putting in the time to figure out the mysteries is how it rewards diligence.
This is not a horror game for fans of Dead Space or Resident Evil Village. Developers do not make games like Tormented Souls anymore; the remake of Resident Evil and Silent Hill 3 were the last of their kind. This style of survival horror is an acquired taste that caters to methodical and his stakes exploration.
The puzzles cannot be brute forced, and hitting a wall is a large part of the intended gameplay experience. Dual Effect did their homework, and they know their classic survival horror very well. Their confidence in puzzle design and aesthetics make them a worthy successor to the classics that defined the genre.
Tormented Souls was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a review code provided by PQube. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.