We’ve finally hit 100 Switch reviews here at The Elite Institute, and I’ve been pondering what to do for the 100th release.
Do I review my favourite game on the console? Do I review an entry in a series that’s special to me? What game could I cover that would feel appropriate?
The answer was served to me on a plate by PQube. Tormented Souls was originally just a game in the review queue, but I never expected to love the game so much. Not only is it a great indie title, which is our bread and butter, but it’s also a love letter to one of my favourite genres: survival horror.
Many thanks to PQube for the review code.
The story opens with the protagonist, Caroline, receiving a letter about two girls who disappeared at the Winterlake Hospital. Considering that she never usually gets letters, she feels obliged to go and investigate for herself – especially as the attached photo seems to attach some kind of guilt to Caroline herself. Stupid decisions lead to unfortunate consequences as she promptly gets knocked unconscious soon after arriving. Waking up naked in a bathtub, hooked up to a respirator and with an eye missing, Caroline needs to explore the hospital to find out what’s going on.
Despite the questionable setup, the story feels like traditional survival horror fare, and unfolds as such. You won’t meet many people along your journey, and the encounters that you do have tend to raise more questions than they answer, but things slowly piece together over time as you gradually explore more of this evil residence. There’s the odd twist and turn here and there, but there are also some story beats that will probably only click with you moments before the reveal. It’s all done rather well, and even the more predictable elements don’t feel out of place.
NPCs aren’t very frequent, meaning that a lot of it is done through environmental storytelling and notes that are scattered around. Quite why everyone leaves such notes scattered around in the strangest of places is beyond me, but fans of the genre will feel comfort in finding all these extremely well-written notes everywhere. It does a good job in helping you piece everything together so that by the end, you feel satisfied with the conclusion.
Speaking of conclusions, there are a few possible endings, but they’re not hugely different. I managed to get the best ending on my first playthrough, which felt very satisfactory as it didn’t involve jumping through bizarre hoops just for the true ending. Unfortunately, there’s nothing really to unlock once you beat the game, other that a clue that can lead you on a side quest to obtain a moderately better starting gun. A tad disappointing, perhaps, but not a dealbreaker. Hopefully extra modes or unlockables are added down the line to encourage people to experience Caroline’s journey more than once.
Starting out in the bathroom, the game quickly introduces you to the two core gameplay elements in Tormented Souls: exploration and puzzle solving. Since the room you start in is locked, you’ll need to search for the necessary objects and notes in order to crack the combination of a padlock. It’s a rudimentary puzzle, but serves as a great tutorial as it requires you to examine, rotate, and interact with the objects in the room if you want to succeed.
It sets the scene well, and fans of the genre will feel right at home straight away. The rest of the game also plays out in a similar vein to the classics of yore. You’ll start off in a small section of the hospital and will encounter various locked doors: some of which are simply locked from the other side, whereas other contain prompts for certain keys, and even have very cryptic clues attached to the doors. You have an inventory to store key items, resources, and notes, which thankfully has no limit to how much stuff you can hold.
As you proceed through the hospital, you will gradually open up more and more areas – with certain objects or items allowing you to backtrack and open up areas in earlier sections of the map. For those who may not be too familar with the genre, it’s almost like a Metroidvania in its non linear progression. No area of the map ever gets left behind for long, but thankfully the place is memorable enough that you’ll have a rough idea of where to go. Failing that, there’s always a map you can pull out, which can help you get around -although I found it rarely seemed to open on the actual floor I was on, which seemed like a little bit of needless extra hassle.
Key items may be as simple as a key to a door, but usually it’ll be something that acts as part of a puzzle. Puzzles are all of the Resident Evil variety, where you’ll have to follow cryptic clues just to open a cash register, but they’re also all really satisfying and logical in their own way too. Most of the puzzles are simple enough that you’ll be able to figure it out, but tough enough that you’ll feel clever for figuring it out. Things can get a little overwhelming later on once you gain access to the whole hospital, but there are rarely any moments where you think ‘what the heck is that for?’. A short while into the game, another gimmick is introduced that adds another element to the hospital and shakes puzzles up a little; however, I won’t spoil anything as it’s certainly more interesting experiencing it without prior knowledge.
Survival is the name of the game. Well, the name of the genre, at least.
Here’s a few tips to keep you alive.
SAVINGThis will likely be your primary worry. Tape reels aren’t very frequent, but they’re also not too infrequent either. I usually wait until I find a new save room in the early game as you are certain to find one there at least.
NEMESISIn the final part of the game, there’s a tedious super powerful enemy that randomly appears.
The good news is that also means you can leave and re-enter the room to make him go away again.
THE DEPTH OF FEAR
Of course, puzzles and exploration aren’t the only thing you’ll be doing at Winterlake. The hospital’s dubious experiments have resulted in a variety of horrific creatures that lurk the building. They all look monstrous and more akin to the abominations in Silent Hill rather that the typical undead. Many of these creatures are so deformed that they’re unable to move around without the aid of hospital equipment, so you’ll find many of them wheeling or hobbling across the ground. Their attacks may be rather limited and predictable, but it’s clear that their function is to add to the terror and to reduce your chances of survival. Hearing the sound of their metal scraping along the floor out of sight is enough to put you on edge as you ready yourself to fight.
Combat is quite simple, with it consisting of aiming and shooting, with a dodge function to help you avoid incoming attacks. It’s rudimentary and doesn’t feel like a step up from the old survival horror games, but it also doesn’t feel like it needs to. This isn’t Dark Souls and Caroline is no Knight. There’s a limited arsenal and limited resources, so the simple combat serves its function of adding to the atmosphere of the game.
Oh, and what atmosphere it has! Not only does it look pretty stunning for the most part, but Winterlake is so well-designed. Fixed camera angles can be a mixed blessing for games: on the one hand, it allows for better visuals (see the GameCube remake of Resident Evil for a perfect example) and the limited viewpoint can add to the tension; on the flip side, if it’s not handled well, it can just lead to frustration as you can’t see what the hell you are doing. Thankfully Tormented Souls pulls it off with aplomb. There may be the occasional area that doesn’t quite work well, but only perhaps a few rooms in the entire game. Tank controls are here, as are free movement controls, allowing you to move around as you prefer. I found the latter works well enough, but traditionalists are free to opt for tank movement if they feel it helps. Neither gave me problems while getting around, so go with whichever goes best.
It’s also worth noting the excellent sound design, which is filled with atmospheric music that reeks of familiarity whilst also being original. The save room music is very similar to that of the Resident Evil games, giving you that sense of safety and relaxations of all the horrors waiting outside – even if the save room is in an actual toilet. The rest of the music is full of dread and never gets tiresome, no matter how much you’ll hear is. As enemies cotton on to your presence, things get more intense as you hear their moans and their scraping across the floor.
Despite all my fawning over the game, it’s not quite perfect. From a technical standpoint, it is in the need of a patch to sort out a couple of things. First of all, the game crashed on me on my first journey to the basement. It was no big deal and I lost very little progress, but some others have had numerous crashes in this area around halfway through the game. Thankfully I was lucky enough not to have this issue happen more than once, but it is something you should be aware of in a game that relies on limited manual saves.
The one issue I did notice though was potentially much more serious. Early on in the game, I noticed that when reloading a save, my gun wouldn’t be fully loaded. After some experimentation, I realised that loading a save whilst in the game would leave your ammo as it was when you loaded rather than as it was when you saved. As you can imagine, this could result in ammo being far more scarce of a resource than it should be. Thankfully, loading from the title screen (which you are thrown back to after death anyway) works as it should, making it only a minor inconvenience.
Another thing that I didn’t care for in the game was the Nemesis-like creature that you trigger towards the end of the game. Once activated, rooms will have a random chance of it spawning in. Considering you’re unable to kill it, it becomes more of a nuisance than an actual threat. It does fit into the story, but the actual mechanic just doesn’t work here. Limiting it to scripted events like in Resident Evil 3 would have perhaps been a better alternative. It’s not enough to spoil the later part of the game, but I found myself rolling my eyes whenever the creature’s music kicked in.
Not only is Tormented Souls an excellent traditional survival horror game, but it’s probably one of my favourite survival horror games too. It may not top the absolute classics, but it comes pretty damn close. Whilst the game will probably only appeal to fans of the genre, those who are should fall in love at first fright.