It may have been Rock Paper Shotgun that recently posted an article along the lines of “Why Isn’t There More Surrealism In Gaming?”. I certainly didn’t read it, but the title posed an interesting question. Surrealism is something I admire, Dante’s Inferno being one of my favorite games visually, and though the style sees some success in smaller titles, “mainstream adoption” isn’t exactly in its vocabulary.
Maybe it’s for the best, as a plague of mainstream games that are even more troubling and confusing than they already are isn’t something I’m clamoring for, but it’s still something I appreciate seeing when it comes along.
Tormentum – Dark Sorrow is a game that revels in its boundlessly dark imagery and compelling surrealism. It’s the same sort of thing Dante’s Inferno was going for. Where Dante’s Inferno was a deliberately and shockingly twisted depiction of hell, Tormentum takes that same mission statement and applies it to a point-and-click adventure game set in an oppressive, nightmarish wasteland.
Let’s just get this out of the way, since it’s the game’s main selling point and what’s definitely going to draw the vast majority of people to it over any of its other features. The art is beautiful, and consistently fascinating to look at.
Everything is drawn with a warbly, smudgy brush that I’m not able to define in words. Its original creature designs are interesting, especially a race of long-necked, winged humanoids called “Icari” (plural for Icarus!), who covet eggs more than anything in the world and stare at you with completely glazed eyes.
Music is sparse but effectively atmospheric, aside from the credits rather abruptly opting for a metal song and negating the preceding four hours of atmosphere. Most of the sonic impressions put on you are reverby mechanical grinds and fleshy squirting sounds. Tormentum is completely devoid of voice acting, which I feel would have added a lot to the game’s world had it been tastefully voiced. The English text is somewhat awkward and not always in tune with the rest of the game’s tone, often taking an oddly lighthearted approach. Some weary, gravelly-voiced denizens would have smoothed out a lot of rough edges and probably have brought these issues to light.
Where Tormentum stumbles a bit is in motion. Its stilted animations don’t exactly do it justice. Sometimes the primitive nature of the movement of still images can be chilling in its own right, but more often than not, it just comes off as cheap. Tormentum also lacks true character movement, your character really just standing there on the screen as a symbol of your presence. This is where the game really begins to lose the production value and class it seems to have at first, and begins to feel more and more like a gussied-up hidden object game.
The gameplay itself doesn’t consist of much hidden object, but still isn’t very interesting. It’s a series of item gathering and generic puzzles that rarely feel adhesive to the game’s world. Aside from some boiler-plate “moral dilemmas”, you’re seldom put in the position to do anything with the game’s intriguing nightmare landscape but look at it. Add to this the fact that failure is literally impossible, and you have one singularly dull video game. The game’s world fails to ever feel truly dangerous due to the fact that at no point are you ever truly in danger, which has a significant damping effect on the game’s tone. Interaction doesn’t stray much from casual point-and-click convention, which I think is a waste of a hugely ambitious art direction.
Tormentum isn’t anything spectacular narratively either. It culminates in a reveal that was only coincidentally hinted at moments before and is essentially the equivalent of Christian Bale kneeling before you and explaining the entire movie, rather than being subtle or thought-provoking in any way. The small stories that happen along the way (and there are actually quite a few) are pretty compelling and inventive. If I can credit Tormentum’s yarn with one thing, it’s that it’s entirely unpredictable.
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, there is one thing I feel I have to bring up, and though it’s limited in scope, I feel it’s pretty significant – not a small amount of Tormentum’s imagery feels directly ripped from other media. A certain amount of this is predictable, but the examples of this I came across are not only fairly important portions of the game’s story, but almost entirely analogous to someone else’s design.
For example, the second act of the game involves you powering up a train in a desert referred to a handful of times as a “wasteland”. This struck me as eerily reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Waste Lands”, in which there is a train usually illustrated similarly to Tormentum’s, that travels across a “wasteland” not unlike Tormentum’s, for a purpose literally identical to Tormentum’s. In the same desert, giant statues of creatures with elongated skulls rise out of the sand, producing a scene not at all unlike a scene from Primordia involving a giant robot and a rag. Also, I’ll be damned if I didn’t see some xenomorphs engraved here and there.
Tormentum – Dark Sorrow is, however, a very original game on the whole. Its art direction is bold and incredibly well-executed. It leaves quite a lot to be desired on the gameplay front, but as a gallery of stunning, hellish backdrops (one portion of the game has you navigating a house decorated with what seems like concept art), it exceeds even the expectations the screenshots set. It falters in nearly every department but the one you’re probably most interested in this game for, and in my mind, that’s just fine. It was well worth the time I put into it to see what new thing Tormentum could show me, and it consistently delivered.
Ethics disclosure: The reviewer was provided a review code from the developer.
Tormentum – Dark Sorrow is available for purchase on Steam.