Serious Sam: Tormental (PC) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 24 April 2022 / 1,343 Views
Timing is everything, or at least, so goes the phrase. It certainly holds true in the realm of games, as publishers try to gauge which series will draw interest and which ones will be sent off to the magical race track up north where Captain Falcon is doing donuts in front of Sly Cooper and Rayman while swearing that F-Zero GX 2 will totally release someday. Timing can make all the difference when it comes to the success of spin-off entries as well. When positioned after a well-received main entry, a spin-off can become a wildly successful venture of its own, and in some ways even surpass the more traditional release in terms of popularity. But, when there’s been a drought in quality mainline titles, spin-offs are often seen as soulless cash grabs, doomed to failure before they can see the light of day.
Enter Serious Sam, which certainly found itself in the latter camp after the most recent mainline entry, Serious Sam 4, wound up being received about as well as a pile of depleted uranium. Before that, Serious Sam 3 released in April 2012, so it's been almost exactly a decade since the last well-received mainline entry. So now we’re left with a spin-off title that barely resembles anything the series has done before to wash the taste of the previous disaster out of our mouths, a scenario not too dissimilar to some other games I could Metroid Prime: Federation Force…I mean, mention.
In total fairness to Devolver, this has been in development since before Serious Sam 4, and might have been uniquely positioned to succeed if the aforementioned title had been a success. But, it wasn’t, and now we’re left with a release that most people probably didn’t want while the mainline games take another eight year nap. Whatever, we play the cards we’re dealt.
Serious Sam: Tormental is the game responsible for stepping into those uncomfortable shoes, and is the latest in a long series of titles which prove that Devolver Digital is willing to fund literally any project besides that Katana Zero DLC the company promised. Tormental functions as a top-down roguelite with a heavy emphasis on gun variety and bullet hell projectiles, not a million miles away from Enter the Gungeon. The plot involves the titular Serious Sam being sucked inside the mind of Mental, the main antagonist of the series. Fortunately, the inner machinations of Mental’s head are structured in a convenient linear progression of rooms, which allows for a good ol’ round of on-the-fly shooting to be had. The art style of Mental’s thoughts are also portrayed in a very uninspired, blocky format as well, which luckily for the development team just so happens to be a much cheaper way of animating a game.
But enough ragging on the paper thin story and the art style. Serious Sam has always been about the combat; on-the-fly movement and shooting, which theoretically would translate pretty well to a roguelite experience. Sam starts out equipped with a light weapon and can find various strong weapons throughout the stages. There are five stages in total, each ending with a boss. Completing the game by itself isn’t particularly hard, but the catch is that you’re never really done with just one run through. Instead, the game amps up the difficulty for the next go around, and sends you through the same levels again, with the difficulty falling back down as soon as you die.
Truthfully I’m not a big fan of this method of handling difficulty. Roguelites already tend to suffer from feeling repetitive on multiple runs, and now I’m being told that to get the full challenge, I have to play through the game multiple times within the same run, fighting predominantly the same enemies and same bosses with minimal changes outside of boosted stats. This feels like a rather bizarre choice frankly; I don’t see the purpose in forcing the player to replay the easier version of the same levels repeatedly just to get back to the iteration that’s giving them trouble. Yes, the rooms are procedurally generated to some degree, so it isn’t exactly the same experience between iteration, but the minimal changes in terrain and enemy wave placement don’t do enough to keep things from feeling very samey.
What also doesn’t help is that there really isn’t enough variety in the way that Sam (and the various unlockable characters) take down enemies. While this is, again, something that a lot of roguelites struggle with, Tormental is a particularly noticeable example because the upgrades and modifications you can make to your weapons and character don’t really affect playstyle. In other roguelites, such as FTL: Faster than Light or The Binding of Isaac, your playstyle can dramatically change depending on the equipment you find, which adds a lot of much-needed variety.
For instance, you might find a couple of burst lasers in FTL that turn your ship into a bruising powerhouse in one run, and a ship boarding device in another run that makes your strategy more about raiding and killing off the opponent's crew. This variety helps make different iterations feel more distinct from each other, and keeps the game from getting too repetitive. However, none of the upgrades in Tormental actually change how you play the game. Whether your bullets are electrified, have a boomerang effect, have a chance to freeze your opponent, or whatever else; it’s still just you moving around (generally in a circle) while trying to avoid taking damage from the ever increasing amount of hostile targets and projectiles on screen.
Outside of that, Tormental is… fine, I suppose. As with any roguelite, the difficulty is a bit unpredictable, and whether you live or die (or in this case, how many iterations you make it through) is often a matter of the random number generator. Some set-ups can completely break the game, others can make it very challenging to get through more than a single iteration.
One element that may be more of a personal nitpick is how cluttered the screen can get at points. I’m aware that, at some level, this is the point of top-down shooters with a bullet hell element, but I don’t think the difficulty is supposed to come from your own weaponry. Certain upgrades within Tormental contain so many visual effects that it becomes incredibly difficult to determine what is and what is not an incoming enemy projectile that will bring an end to your existence faster than encountering an American police officer as a member of a racial minority. The boomerang effect is one of the worst offenders in this respect, as returning bullets quickly become indistinguishable from enemy projectiles. I found that I wound up choosing my build less on what I thought was most interesting or engaging and more on what would allow me to more accurately gauge incoming attacks.
Despite everything I’ve said so far, I can’t be too harsh on Tormental. It’s a perfectly functional game, if nothing else, and for only $12 you’re certainly not risking a lot by purchasing it. It’s just an odd decision at the end of the day; even if Serious Sam was at the height of its popularity (which it certainly isn’t), I can’t imagine many people within the fanbase clamoring for a top-down roguelite spin-off. If you’re desperate for anything Serious Sam related to help ease the pain of how lame Serious Sam 4 was, then this is a satisfactory enough way to spend your cash. For just about everyone else, though, I imagine you’ll find better things to blow $12 on. Like postage stamps to put on letters addressed to Devolver Digital asking WHERE MY KATANA ZERO DLC IS AT.
This review is based on a digital copy of Serious Sam: Tormental for the PC