Although most often associated with the movie Alien for his design work on the Necromorph monster, in the early 1990s Swiss surreal artist H. R. Giger made his debut in the video game world with the Dark Seed series, which featured his signature dark, morbid artwork and a terrifying story. Twenty years later, though the artist himself passed away in 2014, Giger’s legacy in the genre lives on. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Polish indie OhNoo! Studio's horror-themed adventure Tormentum: Dark Sorrow presents a game inspired by Giger and Poland's own surrealist painter Zdzislaw Beksinski. Though easy puzzles, a lack of adequate characterization, and an absence of scares may drive some players away, those who simply want to gorge themselves on beautifully dark scenery will want to stick around for the few hours it takes to breeze through what the game has to offer.
Graphically, Tormentum's influences are worn proudly on its blood-soaked sleeves. Both Giger and Beksinski are known for their unique macabre styles: Giger for bold and disturbing "biomechanical" art, featuring nightmarish integration of humanoid and animal forms with machines, and Beksinski for dreamlike works in which creatures and architecture seem to emerge from intricate, flowing structures that resemble bent twigs or bone. Beksinski's influence is actually the more obvious inspiration throughout Tormentum, such as when a face or nude female figure appears in the twisting forms of a wall or a massive cathedral whose ribbed, organic facade seems to grow out of the very ground beneath it. Giger's influence is less obvious at first glance, though certainly evident in several monsters – one of which is clearly an homage to the Necromorph – and a few room designs, though even the most Gigeresque works in the game are tinged with Beksinski's flowing, organic style.
This is certainly not another Dark Seed, even with Giger's influence, but that's not a bad thing by any means. Egyptian themes and even the slightest hint of Art Nouveau make brief appearances at certain points along the way. When combined with Beksinski's signature influences, such flourishes make for a daring combination of styles that surprised me greatly because it works so well. If the goal was to create a macabre yet visually sumptuous game, the developers have succeeded wildly here.
Locations are varied as well, and fit in with the hellish, decrepit environment. Players begin their journey in a castle full of passages and rooms, but eventually the game moves outdoors, where occasional bouts of fire and brimstone rain down on a desolate, inhospitable landscape. Areas such as an old mine, an ancient tomb, and even a farm with a living, ghastly scarecrow that's lost its ability to frighten birds provide some variety to the creepy settings. As outlandish as some of these elements are, they feel completely believable in the context of the surreal world in which they're placed.
Animation is limited for the most part to what's necessary or functional, such as a large machine vibrating to life or a monster rearing its head when provoked. Other minor movements include things like rats scurrying along the floor and the repetitive slicing of a sword through an unfortunate victim of torture. They’re a nice touch, but seeing these animations in action reveals their repetitive nature, most taking no more than a second or two to complete before looping back to start again. It gave me the sensation of viewing an interconnected series of paintings, and indeed, that's essentially what you get in Tormentum, creating a bit of emotional distance from what's happening onscreen.
That sense of sterility extends to the general tone of the game. The menacing atmosphere maintains a sense that evil is always present, but it only ever lurks at the edge of detection. The few torture scenes are disturbing but not really scary, the atmosphere impressively macabre but unlikely to inspire nerve-wracking tension, and the few truly startling moments in the game are worthy of a mild twitch but nothing more. The game does a good job of retaining an element of creepiness throughout, but I was hard-pressed to find anything genuinely scary to get my blood really pumping. There were plenty of moments where the developers could have dialed up the fright, but even when it seemed I might come face to face with a giant man-eating spider, the moment of terror never truly came to pass. Instead, the game simply shows the spider's legs which, while ominous, simply didn't frighten me. I hate spiders, and the most consistent way to freak me out in a game is to have a giant spider make an appearance, but Tormentum largely wasted the opportunity.
Music is surprisingly varied, ranging from chanting vocal tracks, eerie strains of organ-like synthesizers, and even a country-themed guitar piece, to name just a few. In general the score enhances the atmosphere of each location, heightening the tension at appropriate moments without ever becoming annoying or over-the-top. The sonic elements aren't as stunning as Tormentum's visuals, but the sound effects are sufficiently immersive. Footsteps pound when using a flight of stairs, and things like the rush of a blazing furnace are convincing. More fantastical sounds like a monster's roar and audio feedback from a puzzle also do their part to enhance the experience.
Scattered throughout this gorgeously disturbed world are a wide variety of puzzles, from connecting one side of a circuit to the other by rotating colored traces into the correct pattern, to placing gears on the correct pegs to open a door, to brewing up a poisonous concoction to clear a hideous monster from your path. There's no shortage of activities for you to engage in, and most of them are well-designed, just fairly basic in their implementation. Some were new to me, such as a clock-styled combination lock that requires a precise sequence of presses in order to unlock, but more often than not the puzzles are not unique to Tormentum, many having been used numerous times over the years.
Veteran adventurers are likely to be disappointed in the almost non-existent challenge the puzzles present, though players looking for a more laid-back set of brainteasers, or those new to the genre, will likely be satisfied with what they find here. Even the dreaded slider puzzle, which normally sends chills down my spine, crumpled like a paper demon in just a couple of minutes. The greatest challenge came from a tangram-like puzzle where you must fit a set of geometric shapes into a square board correctly – in this case so that you can retrieve a key – but this puzzle, too, requires more patience than brainpower, solvable in just a few minutes. Inventory obstacles are likewise simple, such as bringing characters one or more desired objects, using a key to unlock a door, or finding the parts to repair broken machinery. There are no combinations required, and it's always obvious from simple deduction (or clues left for the player) what items go where.
Other tasks you encounter generally fit the nightmarish atmosphere, such as repairing a machine that conjures up a spirit who can help you and gaining access to an old mine inhabited by a monster. There are also some other pleasantly surprising tasks, such as figuring out how to get a creepy old locomotive working again or sprucing up (or destroying) an old painter's works of art. I would have preferred a greater challenge overall, but the lighter difficulty just meant easier access from one deliciously morbid scene to another.Continued on the next page...