Review: Tormented Souls (Sony PlayStation 5)

10 mins read

Review by Matt S.

Developers; if you’re going to give players a map, but not tell them where they are on the map, that in itself is fine. I actually appreciate the commitment to the “old school” there, and the lack of hand-holding. However. If making sense of the map then means being able to read the room names (so you can figure out where you are based on the room you’re in), then perhaps playtest the game on a small screen. I played most of Tormented Souls getting very lost, and that’s entirely because the text on the maps was so small they were functionally useless to me. Naughty.

Anyhow, that’s my one whine with Tormented Souls out of the way. This is a grimy, grindhouse, sadistic little horror game, and I mean that in the best possible way. It plays like a homage to Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but where Silent Hill was an elevated kind of pseudo-philosophical horror, and Resident Evil was B-trash fun, Tormented Souls is vicious and vile. Again, I don’t mean that in a bad way (though the audience for the game is pretty limited because of it). If you like your horror exquisite, then Tormented Souls is pretty bloody special.

There’s nothing particularly intelligent about Tormented Souls. This game isn’t making some great point about humanity. It’s not particularly allegorical – any references that you might draw from the game to real-world events, people, or nightmares is purely your own read on it. It doesn’t even have the primitive philosophy of slasher films (the “have sex, get slain” moral righteousness of a Friday the 13th or Halloween, for example). In playing through the ten or so hours of Tormented Souls, I was most strongly reminded of the haunted house experience. The developers simply went out there to celebrate the heritage of older horror games and give you a sequence of spooky moments. There’s a plot, but it’s barely relevant. What you need to know is that you’re playing as a woman, and she’s trapped in a haunted mansion filled with monsters.

It’s a game of pure catharsis in other words. The haunted house has been a fun summer activity for the Japanese for decades, if not centuries, because the simple catharsis of such a space spooks the brutally oppressive heat of the Japanese summer right out of you. That formed the basis of those early horror games (though they would also be inspired by horror cinema), and with Tormented Souls, it comes full circle again – it was likely inadvertent by the developers, but this game captures that Japanese haunted house catharsis beautifully. Catharsis is something we really should think about more in video games than we do, and to highlight, I’ll quote a chunk of an article from Esquire before getting back to Tormented Souls:

“Last year saw the release of a series based on The Purge movies—the next in this successful franchise is out next year—the dystopian premise of which is an America where, on one night each year, all law is suspended and the populace is free to commit (or survive) mayhem as it sees fit.

“This is considered beneficial for society, a means of ensuring there’s virtually no crime the rest of the time. The Greek word ‘catharsis’, by the way, roughly translates as ‘purging’ or ‘purification’. It certainly seems that we find these movies entertaining: made on a USD3 million budget, the first Purge movie made over USD34 million on its opening weekend.

“It also speaks to how screen violence—or “strong violence, gore”, as Netflix puts it in its programme descriptions—is on the increase, arguably in parallel to a decline in the opportunities most of us have in our lives for real physical aggression, short of finding some ersatz version of it through sports.”

The value of catharsis to us personally and within society is debatable – the Esquire article goes on to highlight a debate between Aristotle and Plato on the subject – but whatever the case, Tormented Souls is a pretty pure example of it. From the opening scene, where the protagonist wakes up attached to a ventilator, completely naked, with her eye having been gouged out, we know that with Tormented Souls we are in for a visceral gauntlet of extreme imagery, aggressive, angry energy, and emotional and physical violence. Catharsis.

And that’s why it is so fascinating that little details within the game are elevated and cerebral. You’ll first notice it when you start observing paintings in the mansion that sets the scene for the first chapter, only to discover that they’re not just random art assets created by the developer’s intern, but lavish recreations of very real (if often disturbing) paintings. And then there are the game’s puzzles themselves, which are, again, inspired by retro Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but they’re often complex and brain-teasing, and really will force your focus. This juxtaposition between the sheer visceral violence and elevated, thinky bits doesn’t feel like it should work at first, but it does, and that helps settle the game into a rhythm that prevents you from ever becoming too comfortable.

Tormented Souls plays very much like those earlier horror games. It even has tank controls! I know that’s going to be controversial, but I’ve always liked tank controls in horror. The slower turning acts to disempower the player and makes the crawlies behind you even more terrifying than what’s in front. The enemies follow the same trajectory as classic horror, too – the first ones that you’ll encounter are slow and barely concerning, but then you’ll start running into beasts that can one-hit you and the game can become significantly more frustrating. This frustration will be compounded by a save system that is in many ways cruel – like with Resident Evil and its type writers and ink ribbons you’ll need save tapes and recorders in Tormented Souls. But the tapes are incredibly rare, meaning that you are going to need to spend a lot of time hoping that you’re not about to run into a powerful enemy and wind up with the game over screen. Finally, weapons and resources are hard to come by, so you’ll also want to run by as many enemies as possible to preserve ammo.

From memory, Tormented Souls doesn’t even have a difficulty option (I could be wrong here but I genuinely don’t remember seeing one when starting a game or in the game settings). There are no overt hints along the way, and you’ll need to pay attention to what the various clues and visual hints you’ll come across are pointing you towards. Tormented Souls was clearly a work of passion by the developers, and while it might come off as a little too earnest for its own good, the overall impression it leaves is of quite a positive one. Just look at Daymare. These “homage” projects can go so, so wrong, and it’s a testament to the quality of Tormented Souls that it sidesteps all of that.

Tormented Souls isn’t trying to be a necessarily accessible horror game. It embraces the retro heroes of the genre, and throws challenging puzzles and combat at players. More than that, though, the game has a nasty, hard edge, and ends up sitting at the loud and extreme end of the horror genre. If you enjoy your cathartic horror experiences, however (as I do), then you’ll love the gauntlet of pain and torn flesh that this one throws at you.

Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

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