These Secrets Weren’t Buried Deep Enough
HIGH Finding out how Caroline lost her eye.
LOW A puzzle completely unplayable to people with hearing issues.
WTF There are ranged enemies in a fixed-camera game. Madness.
The ’90s survival horror throwback genre becomes bigger every year. As videogames claw their way towards global domination with ever-more accessible titles aimed at the largest possible audiences, there’s a small cohort of developers and fans who yearn for older experiences. They want titles that push, that puzzle, and of course, games that punish. Tormented Souls goes after all three of these markets with its extreme content, baffling riddles, and combat that will absolutely wreck the uninitiated.
Set in a creepy hospital on an island off the coast of British Columbia, Tormented Souls stars Caroline Walker, a young woman who receives a letter containing a picture of twin girls along with a note asking why she abandoned them. She has no idea what the notes is referring to, but she feels compelled to check it out. In the process, she winds up clubbed over the head, dumped in a bathtub naked, and has her right eye removed! Worse? The hospital she wakes up in is overrun with hideous mutant monstrosities.
While the fancy setting and claustrophobic, backtrack-intensive puzzle design brings The first Resident Evil to mind, Tormented Souls‘ following camera, deformed mutant enemies, and glimpses into a corrupted ‘otherworld’ demonstrate that Silent Hill 1 and 3 are its main sources of inspiration. It also takes a cue from SH in item management as players won’t have to worry about limited inventory slots or finding item chests. Caroline can carry everything she finds with her, and considering that most key items don’t disappear after being used, she can count on having a packed inventory by endgame.
Tormented Souls‘ third-person camera takes a little getting used to, mostly because it’s simply not suited to the narrow hallways that fill the hospital where Caroline spends her time. In open areas the camera will be placed in a few different corners (generally looking down at the action) with the camera following and switching to a new angle as Caroline moves out of range of the old one. It works well enough, but when she’s walking down hallways the camera moves with her, generally level with her torso, with the edge of frame being roughly a yard from her feet. This makes fighting enemies in narrow passages an incredibly dicey proposition — they’ll either be visible 30 feet away with plenty of time to aim and shoot, or they’ll be hidden from view until they’re already attacking.
This setup is bad enough without taking into account enemies that can spit venom at the player from offscreen. If Caroline didn’t auto-target whenever the ‘ready weapon’ button is pushed, this would be unplayable. Fortunately, the developers seem to understand just how difficult the combat was going to be and balanced it with that in mind. There’s plenty of ammo available, as well as countless vials of injectable morphine that Caroline uses to salve her wounds. It’s not an ideal balance, but after spending an hour learning the ins and outs of combat, I found it worked well enough to get me through the story.
Speaking of the story, while things start fairly basic — creepy hospital, monsters, an evil god — it twists and turns to unexpected places and wraps up in a very satisfying manner. It’s rare to see a story improve so much over the course of being told — I started off thinking that I knew what was going on, but the longer I played, the more interesting it got! It’s held back only by some stiff voice acting and difficulty in finding a few key diary entries that explain the story’s finer points. The voice acting feels like a knowing callback to the awkwardness of ’90s voiceovers, but the squirreling away of diaries is a strange — it doesn’t feel like being able to understand the story is a feature that should be locked away from all but the most dedicated players.
Tormented Souls‘ puzzles will likely prove a sticking point for some as they are extremely convoluted — sometimes in an enjoyable way, but often in a frustrating ones. A couple of times it commits the cardinal sin of expecting players to bring information from outside the game to help solve puzzles, and while questions like ‘What day is Christmas’ and ‘what does the inside of a beehive look like’ might trivial with Google around, the developers could have done a better job of layering hints into the game’s files and locations.
Along the same lines, I fully expect that most people who play Tormented Souls will require a walkthrough, especially considering the lack of a functional map. The devs decided to go super-realistic in just one aspect — the only maps Caroline has access to are in-game layouts of the hospital which she can consult, but they do not tell her which room she’s currently in. Fixed cameras always make navigation difficult, which is why a detailed map is a vital necessity in most games of this type, but things get even worse once Caroline leaves the public areas of the hospital and the player discovers that there are no maps at all for the pitch-black warren of mazelike tunnels beneath. What should be the most dramatic stretch of the game becomes a slog.
While we normally leave mention of accessibility features for the disclaimer section at the end of the review, Tormented Souls has two puzzles that are insanely hostile to anyone with hearing issues. At two different times players are expected to listen to a pattern of sounds and then recreate them perfectly. One can be circumvented with a walkthrough, but the other is literally impossible without being able to hear the tones. Add to that an incredibly deadly recurring foe who randomly pops up around the map — the only warning that it’s arrived is a music cue. The result? Tormented Souls is essentially unplayable to anyone who can’t hear the effects and score.
Despite those mistakes, Tormented Souls is a fantastic example of its subgenre. Is it more difficult to play than it should be? Absolutely. Did the developers make it more annoying than the 20-year-old games which inspired it? Indeed. However, it still manages to be a charming experience for fans of this content because the care the developers put in is so patently obvious via fantastic locations, a solid story, and a final boss fight that doesn’t try the player’s patience. The developers clearly wanted to bring back retro survival horror in a way that people could enjoy, and while they don’t entirely succeed, it’s good more often than it isn’t — and that’s more than I can say about the glut of Resident Evil and Silent Hill clones out there.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Dual Effect and Abstract Digital, and published by PQube. It is currently available on PC and PS5. This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed twice. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: The game was rated M by the ESRB, and it contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Mild Language, and Partial Nudity. I’ve got to say, ‘Partial nudity’ is a weird way to say ‘exposed female breasts within the first three minutes of the game’, and via constant naked statues from then on. Also, I’m not sure how the ESRB missed out on Caroline constantly shooting herself up with morphine as a game mechanic. Doesn’t that count as ‘Drug Use’? Anyhoo, the point is, don’t let kids anywhere near this game!
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be be altered and/or resized. As I said in the main review, this games completely unplayable by the hearing impaired.
Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.