Well, it’s safe to say that Polish developers OhNoo Studio certainly know how to subtitle their games. When I first laid eyes upon Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, it was pretty clear that the game was going to be dark and disturbing, but quite frankly, I wasn’t at all prepared for the range of emotions it would make me feel. Revulsion, disgust and grotesquery of the highest order yes, but sadness? Regret? Despair? Surely not.
Thankfully though, OhNoo Studio completely blindsided me with their melancholic masterpiece. Upon reaching the end credits, I felt depressed, drained, but also deeply moved in ways I just completely wasn’t expecting. Tormentum is easily one of the finest point ‘n’ click adventure games that I’ve played, and one that I just can’t stop thinking about long after the credits rolled. Though it’s a fairly traditional take on the genre, the game is nonetheless a wonderfully crafted sombre and poignant gothic tale, woven together with incredible care and attention to detail throughout. Its puzzles won’t perplex you for long and the majority of its morality mechanics are predictable and formulaic, but Tormentum delivers with such confidence, style and finesse that it manages to feel both surprisingly refreshing and hauntingly original.
Starting with quite possibly one of the most instantly intriguing main menu screens I’ve ever seen, Tormentum immediately beckons you into its strange and twisted world by enveloping you in the tattered, musty robes of its mysterious hooded protagonist. Awakening from an amnestic dream, you find yourself suspended in a cage from the skeletal underbelly of a rather disturbing flesh-covered zeppelin alongside a fellow prisoner (a rather peculiar rat/weasel hybrid fellow to be precise), with no memories whatsoever of your past, or how quite how exactly you managed to end up in this rather worrying scenario. Yes, that tired old storytelling chestnut I hear you sigh, but trust me and stick with it, as from this well-worn opening cliché, Tormentum crafts a gloomy and intriguing story.
Initially imprisoned, our cloaked character feels compelled to escape the gloomy castle he finds himself trapped in after receiving threats of torture-induced penitence, (completely understandable under the circumstances) and embark upon a perilous pilgrimage to a mysterious stone statue out in the wastes. However, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange and perilous land…
Tormentum is a concise nightmarish journey through a dark and distorted landscape, but not one without depth and heart. For a start, the game’s art direction is absolutely stunning. Heavily inspired by the works of H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński, the game has a beautiful yet horrific painterly style, incorporating all sorts of hideous body horror elements, hellish landscapes and cruel creatures into its palette.
From start to finish you’re surrounded by suffering; torture, misery, death and pain permeate each and every screen, and the effect is like journeying through a gruesome gauntlet of Bosch paintings, each one more disturbing and demented than the last. Sepulchral towers of flesh and bone wrench their gnarled towers and screaming buttresses toward the dark stormy skies as if writhing in eternal agony. Grotesque beasts and withered beings cloister in dark recesses, some acting as direct demonic deterrents, others as ominous omniscient observers. Hell, even the relatively humanoid characters you encounter aren’t reassuring in the slightest; often hissing, snarling and sneering at you, or just coldly indifferent to your presence.
Everything feels hostile, desolate and utterly alien, and there’s that familiar sickly combination of loneliness and fevered paranoia in the air that you get when playing games like Dark Souls or Silent Hill 2. At times it can feel like you’re playing an interactive Bergman film; your hooded character roams through dark catacombs, barren wastelands and decrepit mausoleums on an existential Kantian quest for answers in a hopeless, rotting world. In other words, it’s not exactly a laugh-a-minute comedy.
Strangely though, despite the game’s oppressive atmosphere and visuals, Tormentum surprisingly never slips over into gratuitousness or farce. I found that the heavy mood actually instilled in me a mood of quietly morbid fascination rather than shocked disgust or unpalatable revulsion. The game’s world feels vast, oppressive and completely devoid of warmth, yet somehow it remains fascinating and dangerously exciting to explore. In fact, the closest parallel I can draw to Tormentum in terms of mood and atmosphere is possibly something like the excellent Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem; not in terms of outright horror or psychological frights per se, but that it evoked a similar cocktail of deeply uncomfortable foreboding, tinged with the morbid thrill of discovery.
Speaking of morbidity, like a lot of the best horror experiences, Tormentum has that exhilaratingly tense juxtaposition of temerity and trepidation clashing together at all times to drive you deeper into its mysterious world. Interestingly, I found that a lot of this tension came not just from the creepy art direction, but also directly from the puzzles themselves. In particular, the game does a fantastic job of forcing you into making some absolutely gut-wrenching moral choices with the various characters you encounter on your journey. Although a great deal of these choices are largely the sort of typical well-telegraphed binary good/bad nature you find in countless games (i.e. do you kill a certain character or decide to spare their life), their presentation in the context of the game’s heavy atmosphere makes them feel gripping and compelling rather than hackneyed. As the whole world is twisted and strange, it’s never quite clear whether what you’re doing is right or wrong, good or evil, caring or cruel.
As Tormentum progresses however, there’s a handful of more nuanced interactions which aren’t so transparently labelled as a clear-cut right or wrong, good or evil choices, but rather lie in much more juicy and ethically ambiguous territory – several of which left me extensively agonising over which was the right decision to make for quite some time, let me tell you. It’s here where the game excels, requiring you to make decisions that, at times, felt comparable to Telltale Games’ usual modus operandi. What’s important though is the fact that regardless of how you decide to act in the strange world of Tormentum, the fact that you can sympathise with each and every one of these wretched creatures and sorry souls you encounter, no matter how repugnantly vile, is testament to the game’s minimal yet powerful narrative.
The minimalist ambient soundtrack is also a key part of the experience, subtly contributing a great deal to the game’s atmosphere and mood. Eerie drones, dissonant horns, ominous synths and booming timpani swirl around with rustic guitars, weeping theremins, ghostly vocals and sombre strings to create a warped yet delicately melodic score. It interweaves incredibly well with the visuals, and it’s also cleverly used as a sneaky red herring in a couple of scenarios to completely deceive the player. I won’t spoil how exactly, but the audio design demonstrates an astute and admirably devious intelligence lurking below the soft harmonic surface.
Whilst the game may look like a Dante-esque nightmare you can’t escape, it actually plays more like a lovely dream you enjoy spending time in. At first, on my first playthrough of the game, I often never knew whether I was safe like in prototypical point ‘n’ clicks, or one wrong click away from a grisly death at any time. Luckily for me then, OhNoo Studio wisely focussed on immersive storytelling over implementing punishing trial and error mechanics and the result is a game that relishes and rewards both your company and your curiosity. You’re never punished for exploring; rather, Tormentum encourages the player’s interest, and rewards those who take the time to really poke around in the gorgeously disturbing environments. The level of detail in each disturbingly picturesque scene is incredible, and more often than not you’ll be startled by some small thing you might have missed on your initial observations, or find a helpful detail which might shed some much needed light on your current predicament.
The game’s puzzles aren’t particularly taxing, but neither are they insufficiently challenging, striking a nice equilibrium between intrigue and potential frustration. With the exception of a rather devious musical notation conundrum towards the end, you’ll rarely be held up for long, and you can comfortably complete the game in one sitting. While I can appreciate that this might well be a negative for players who really like to wrestle with a challenging set of fiendish puzzles, I personally I think that OhNoo have managed to get a nice middle ground here that makes sense for the type of game they wanted to make. The emphasis is clearly first and foremost on immersing the player in this strange world and the mysterious characters that inhabit it. Obviously, puzzle difficulty and player immersion aren’t mutually exclusive, but as the game world itself already feels hostile and uninviting, I could see that including some seriously hardcore riddles could easily put players off the game for good. Either that, or I’m probably just an idiot.
If you do happen to get stuck on a troublesome puzzle however, the game does a great job of helping you out without crossing the line into patronising hand-holding. An often overlooked part of any game is the user interface – fortunately, Tormentum has a brilliant one; it’s simple, clear and most importantly, a joy to use – the best part of which is the protagonist’s notebook. Upon discovering any important puzzle clues, your character will jot down the relevant information in its yellowed pages, which can then be later referred to at any time during puzzles etc. This saves you having to tediously traipse back and forth between a puzzle and it’s corresponding solution whilst trying to desperately remember absolutely minute visual detail, or having to write down notes yourself. While I do love that old school DIY aspect of having to keep a pen and paper handy (or perhaps ink, quill and suspiciously-fleshy parchment if you feel inclined to roleplay) when playing a good adventure game, it’s undeniably helpful to have the game provide you with persistent digital equivalents.
Unfortunately, Tormentum does suffer some pacing issues in the third act, and ultimately the conclusion felt a bit heavy-handed in contrast to the wonderfully ambiguous nature of the rest of the experience. Compared to the nebulous opening, the ending feels more like a contrived deus ex machina; admittedly, although this does sit well with some crucial themes of the game, personally it just felt really at odds with the delightfully indefinite nature of the majority of the experience.
Regardless, it’s the journey not the destination that matters, and upon completing your pilgrimage across the wastes, you’ll have experienced quite the (disturbing) adventure you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. This a big month in the gaming calendar for Poland and the Polish dev scene – thanks to a little game called Witcher III: Wild Hunt – but if you’re more of a point ‘n’ clicker than a hack ‘n’ slasher, then I highly recommend Tormentum. Just remember, as Tolkien wrote:
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.”