Exploring the Abyss
When it comes to murder, rape, guilt, and anguish, Midway seems to believe you can’t get too much of a good thing. Bloody repetition may be a key ingredient to a good grisly torture session or chain of successful serial murders, but it makes gameplay grow dry faster than spilt blood.
The Suffering: Ties That Bind is a follow up to the sleeper horror hit of 2004, the title that proved to interactive gaming (before Resident Evil 4) that you can mix spooky chills with relentless action and come out with sweatier palms and more frequent heart palpitations than a solo stroll through Central Park at midnight with big boobs. Perhaps most interesting about the first title was that it actually made you regret (or at least contemplate regretting) killing people. The actioner focused on the jailbreak exploits of one antihero muscle-head named Torque, who may or may not have butchered his wife and kids. Throughout the hellish adventure, that took us on a vacation across fictional Carnate Island (renowned for its slave ships, WWII Nazi action, and witch burnings), gamers were presented with many an opportunity to kill or not kill the innocent bystanders (prisoners and guards wanting to survive the island of lost nightmares as much as Torque would). Your dead wife Carmen and creepy employer provided appropriate suggestions, and, depending on your choices, either you went down the path to redemption (with hints and cheery flashback bonuses) or you became an evil SOB without a shred of conscience (with Eternal Darkness-like insanity flashes).
While only a small element of the experience, this moral conundrum was the most fascinating aspect of the original game. Video games are notoriously criticized for their shameless “shoot first and ask questions later” approach to dispute resolution. Nagging moms and uber-sensitive sociologists across North America sometimes like to blame street violence on motivational digital bloodbaths like Doom and GTA (even if they’re actually vehicles for venting your frustration). The Suffering series, however, is more interested in exploring the mind of the killer, the nature of violence, and real motivations to kill before it places a skull-crushing crowbar or innards-spewing grenade launcher in your hands.
The games of course are no means preachy, even if the benefits of choosing the path of innocent hero are logically more advantageous. At one point, for example, you can team with a rival gangster on route to ritzy theatre showdown, and he’ll help you blast through hordes of mutilated Slayers instead of having to face them on your own. Sometimes the Touched by an Angel-inspired interludes can be a little cheesy (convincing a junkie to seek redemption through detoxification), but others are downright disturbing (expectantly reuniting a woman blockaded from her crying baby, only for her to discover a bloodied cloth and her child inexplicably missing). It’s the inclusion of these innocents—and the continually diverging path to Hell or redemption—that sets The Suffering from the masses of other horror titles.
Unfortunately there is not much to set the sequel apart from the original. If you played the original Suffering and have the game saved on your hard drive or memory card, the moral choices you made will alter the opening cutscene of Ties That Bind. This allows gamers the opportunity to continue their trek down the path of righteousness or spiral even further into an evil abyss. However, Torque’s flashbacks down memory lane are all either retreads of the first title, or simplistic continuations. The major difference is that where the original seemed more focused in unraveling the murderous conspiracies of Carnate Island than its tortured antihero’s past, Ties That Bind lets you lethargically unravel the horrors of Torque’s history by visiting the traumatizing vistas of his hometown. But these moments of slow motion story revelation are few and far between the unnecessarily longwinded fights.
The visual landscape is also of a different nightmarish flavor than the first. Instead of dank, dark prison cells, island shacks, and sunken ships, the scene has moved to the mainland and more particularly, the inner streets of Baltimore’s ghettos, highlighting seedy bars, squatter havens, and dangerous alleys. Progress is no more open-ended, however, as the designers opted for the linear paths of the Resident Evil/Silent Hill cityscapes using inane obstacles like collapsed roofs, immovable theatre seating, and doors that just won’t jiggle open to impede our fetish for sidetracking exploration. That logical blunder aside, the level design and detail is surprisingly clever, utilizing urban clutter (fire escapes, busted automobiles, air vents, etc.) to help amp the claustrophobic tension and give Torque the mobility and challenge of evasive combat. Lighting is also more effectively designed towards creepiness (instead of frighteningly absent in the original) with sudden blackouts and flickers creating loads of eerie mood.
Perhaps most disappointing and indicative of sequelitis is in the monster design, what really made the first title a terror freak show. On Carnate Island, the Malefactors (as they’re called) were manifestations of horrific torture and capital punishment victims, a perfect motif for a game about an escape from corrupt prison misery. Steeped in the island’s brutal history (of hanging, lethal injection, ball-and-chain slavery, beheading, and worse) the monsters were horrifying and grotesquely reflective of the death most truly unimaginable (and perhaps even figments of our deranged hero’s mind). Sadly, in continuing the escape plot off the island, Ties That Bind simply brings a mostly refugee crop of the originals to the mainland, swaps their colors, and links them now to brutal inner city crime. Remember the Mainliner, the sickening, needle-laden creepy-crawly that whipped darts of lethal injection? Now he’s red, still osmoses out of blood and is the victimized expression of drug overdose. There are a few new haunts, like flesh-devouring Hellhound guard-dogs with gaping maws, an arachnid monster-machine with gang-violence guns (Triggerman), and a rapist-killer called the Creeper who dangles bits of prostitutes from protruding spikes. But these are both rarely encountered next to the asphalt-scraping Slayers that ripped the hell out of us in number one, but are not just plain annoying.
You’ll also notice that Ties That Bind is a lot more action heavy. Torque learned a few tips from Ms. Croft and now likes to double-fist his weaponry. The options for killing the escapee malefactors is also substantially more endless with dozens of gun types and far more efficient melee combat and selection. But these aren’t just bonuses. Ties That Bind on any difficulty setting but easy is relentless, with bloodbath sections that seem to go on for eternity until there isn’t a white patch left in Torque’s bloodstained trademark wife-beater. These random spikes in difficulty are not particularly fun for those who enjoy the run-and-scream aspects of survival horror, or who grow bored of mindless kill-kill-kill interludes.
Ties That Bind makes a lot of improvements over the first incarnation. The graphics are sharper; the lighting and soundscape are a perfect blend of minimalist score, urban terror (accidents, residents fighting, etc.), and “what the hell was that” effects; and the juiced-up action will satiate even the most Doom-hardened gamers. Too bad in focusing on the buckets of blood spilt, Surreal sacrificed a bit of its disturbing heart and forget to make us suffer.