One has to wonder about the life of all those incredibly talented artists that work on video games; often having to see all their hard work mangled into polygons that really don’t do justice to their vivid imaginations. One only has to look at the artwork for the likes of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 or Deus Ex: Human Revolution to see the discrepancy between the concept and the on-screen actuality. No matter how good modern graphics might be, there is a level of detail, nuance, and personality in some art that no amount of fancy technology can ever hope to faithfully recreate.
Of course not all games require their artists to make this sacrifice, and it is one of gaming’s great pleasures to experience the profusion of different art styles and visual design ideas. However, to base an experience solely on the strength of the visuals, as it very much appears to be with Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, it can present a number of problems which the game in question only partially manages to mitigate.
That Tormentum has such a striking and beautifully grotesque aesthetic is of course its great attraction, but in its desire to show you the many different shapes and shades of its nightmarish landscape it abandons almost any serious attempt to engage through its gameplay. Although one begins to suspect that this may well have been deliberate; that a concerted effort was made here to not have you distracted from admiring all the giant necrotic worms and mutated lifeforms on display.
There are the mandatory point and click puzzles, but they are remarkably easy, and the game leaves many easy-to-find notes which provide the solutions to those puzzles not immediately intelligible as to their solving. Whilst this does help the pacing, it leaves a sense of missed opportunity, as does the narrative.
Story-wise Tormentum concerns itself with the tale of a mysterious hooded adventurer who has lost his memory and has been made a prisoner of an enigmatic castle, the inhabitants of which being obsessed with cleansing creatures of their evil through that most elegant and subtle method of mutilating their bodies. Unconvinced by the motivations and dare I say efficacy of your captors, you set out to escape your prison and find the location of a statue from your dreams, pointing the way towards some sort of clue as to who you are and why you’re here in this strange world.
Now whilst you meet lots of weird and wonderful creatures and characters, and while you have various moral choices to make, the narrative structure is a largely barebones succession of NPCs asking you to fetch an item which in turn requires you to fetch another item for another NPC to make progress. It’s all rather rote and there is a strange juxtaposition of locations, as if everything of interest in the world is but a few footsteps away. This again does improve the pacing and makes all the fetching and carrying much more bearable, but it does come across as rather odd and makes the world feel somewhat smaller than it otherwise is in reality.
And so on it goes with the simple puzzles and basic interactions for a handful of hours and it’s frustrating to experience as adventure games generally tend to have better stories than this. Once the whole picture is revealed as to what is going on there is a sense that the narrative hasn’t really grappled with the subject matter to the level of depth needed to make the final revelation emotionally engaging. It’s a situation where the detail and nuance of the art is not matched by the plot or the storytelling. The final reckoning with regards to the choices you make also doesn’t do much other than to annoy as the method for determining what ending you get is a rather presumptuous and unfair rug pulling exercise, coupled with some rather clunky and perhaps unnecessary exposition.
What you have here is very much what I found with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (a comparison to which Tormentum maybe doesn’t quite deserve); where simply being in the world, experiencing its atmosphere and ambience, takes primacy. The narrative is there should you want it, but it’s not necessary to enjoying what the game is really trying to offer. The mood is intoxicating; the sense of despair and decay is well evoked, and the music does an admirable job in complimenting the emotions that are tied to what you’re seeing. You really do get a sense of the pain and suffering that goes on, it’s just a shame that I kept wishing for the story to have done more to give it meaning and not simply use it as a device to get you from A to B.
Upon reflection Tormentum might well have benefited from being far more enigmatic and opaque as to its narrative intentions. There also seems to be a good argument here for there to have been no dialogue at all, that the narrative should have been conveyed solely through visual cues as that would have lent even more emphasis on the art and let it do the storytelling, seeing that it already does so much work in getting you involved with what’s going on in the first place. Either that or simply better writing was required to make you feel more engaged with the plight of the player character. As it is, once you strip away the art the experience becomes far less compelling, and even though the writing isn’t cringe-worthy by any means, it really fails to fully capitalise on the allure and promise of those gorgeous visuals that accompany it.
One could imagine Tormentum as a really stylish and intriguing continental Europe graphic novel, as it stands; it’s a rather basic, if beautiful adventure game. If the credits and steam trading cards are anything to go by there seems as though there was much unused art, and looking at all the unmet characters and undiscovered locations, I’m left to hope that whatever tale lies hidden in those images is better than the one I just went through, because by gods, they deserve it.