Tormentor X Punisher [official site] is projected onto a wall in a dark space in San Francisco and it fills the room with “fucks”. Some are triumphant (FUCK YEAH), some are awestruck (Fuuuuuuuuuuck) and some are short, sharp exclamations of frustration or despair (fuck). Some of these come from the person playing the game, some come from spectators, and there’s another variety that come from the game itself. They are the snarling aggression of the marine character, as she tears through the hordes of hell.
“Let’s fucking do this!” she yells at the beginning of every round.
Top-down Devil Daggers was the phrase that popped into my brain when I first played Tormentor X Punisher back at Gamescom last year. Visually, the two games have very little in common, beginning with that change of perspective but going straight through to Tormentor’s artstyle. Where Devil Daggers is nightmarishly surreal and unnerving, Tormentor is like an explosion in a blood bank that takes out the neighbouring comic book store and guts factory for good measure.
The similarities are found in the small, flat and featureless arena that is the entire playing field, and the one-hit kills that will make your play-time on each attempt brief and tense. I’ve been shanked, shot, burnt, flattened, stabbed and exploded. Whatever the specifics, demons are always the perpetrators. They’re the only other living inhabitants of the arena in solo mode (there is two-player co-op, of which more later) and they’re awful things.
Rather than spawning in a series of waves, the horrible bastards spawn in a single wave that goes on forever, as far as I can tell. They arrive via burning portals, which appear randomly across the arena floor, and at first they’re simple creatures that only have a melee attack. Soon, there are weird purple wizards that launch projectiles, shield-bearing strikers that must be attacked from the side or rear, and eventually boss monsters, which appear in a random order and have unique attacks and weak spots.
Survive for long enough and the bosses cycle, appearing two at a time.
There are only two weapons in the game and to reload either one, you have to fire the other. That’s a pretty good summary of Tormentor’s tone - you reload the shotgun by firing the machine gun, and the other way around. It’s a very silly game, tongue crammed so far into its cheek that its penetrated straight through the flesh and is flopping out the side of its head. It’s like the version of the Doom box-art come to life that I imagined when I was sixteen years old.
The small pool of monsters and lack of weapons or equipment to grab made the appeal a little short-lived back at Gamecom, but the new build, which I’ve had my mitts on at GDC, adds plenty of wrinkles to the flow of carnage. Lovely, wrinkly carnage.
First of all, while you’re still limited to two guns, they’re capable of evolving as you play. Tormentor rewards style, in the form of combos, shots bounced off walls and multi-kills, with perks. You’re not told what these are and there’s no pace-killing inventory or trait screen to manage or check them, they just change the behaviour of your weapons on the fly. Bullets start to boomerang or burn, or maybe other things that I cannot report on accurately because the screen was too busy with blood and bodyparts to understand everything that was happening.
That’s intentional. Tormentor relies on the player getting into the zone, reacting before they’ve registered the thing they’re reacting to, and playing without the comfort of a pause for thought. There’s an unusual quality to it. When I played at Gamescom I improved steadily, chasing higher scores, but at GDC I felt like I was starting again from scratch. My journey up the learning curve was slightly faster, perhaps, but I was out of practice and it showed. Acclimitisation is necessary.
Further complexities come in the form of reactive enemies. Most of them don’t last long enough to learn anything about your playstyle, but every new creature that spawns has the knowledge of the ones that came before. There’s not a great deal for them to think about, but if you play Pied Piper of Damnlyn style, as I like to do, your predictability becomes a vulnerability.
The Pied Piper method - the name is my own creation - involves holding fire and leading enemies around the map until they’ve formed a giant pursuing mob, and then cutting them down en masse. It’s a great way to rack up loads of points in one burst, because you’re rewarded for a quick series of kills, and you can double up on bonuses by facing away from the horde and firing a shotgun straight into a wall so they’re all taken out by a rebound shot.
Do it too often and they’ll figure out what your game is, single enemies splitting off from the pack and attacking from the side to avoid the massacre. Then they’ll rip your face off.
Thanks to the changes to weapons and enemy behaviour that take place in the fleeting moments between deaths, Tormentor feels larger than its constant stream of kills suggests. Add in bosses that can change the terrain of the arena, leaving walls and poison in their wake, and the layout at thirty seconds in might not resemble the layout two minutes later at all. That’s assuming you can survive for two minutes. Or thirty seconds. It’s worth repeating that the game is cruel, those one-hit kills making even the feeblest enemy as unforgiving as the mightiest boss.
In the spaces and seconds between death, I felt myself improving. Because everything resets at death and you’re starting fresh every time rather than unlocking new abilities or weapons, the progression in Tormentor is internalised. I found it almost impossible to peel myself away rather than hitting restart. As in Hotline Miami, death in Tormentor is as brief as the time it takes to push a button, and it’s hard not to think that on the next attempt you’ll survive just that little bit longer.