The Sorrowvirus: A Faceless Short Story is a frustrating game. Part of that is the sort of deliberate, atmosphere-building user-unfriendliness that you often find in horror games; part of that is puzzles that are more tedious than brain-bending. But most of all, Sorrowvirus is frustrating because it’s an intriguing, original concept that could be something truly remarkable if a few baffling design decisions and some Switch port troubles didn’t keep getting in the way.
As a piece of psychological horror, Sorrowvirus is more than a little intriguing. Wyatt Heyll, A terminally ill young man can’t stay dead thanks to the titular virus—when his cancer finally takes him, instead of simply moving on, his soul gets lost in a nightmarish Purgatory built on his worst memories, until he finally escapes… but when he does, it’s back to his painful living existence for a brief moment, until he dies again. So it goes on: an endless cycle of grief and torment.
The thing is, this Sorrowvirus was meant to be, if not quite a cure, at least the means to one. Wyatt’s parents deliberately infected him with it, in the hopes that Purgatory’s rumoured healing capabilities could treat his ailments. It didn’t, but the cycle of undeath and the fragments of organic matter Wyatt brought back with him each time gave his parents the hope that they could find a cure eventually. And so he suffers, endlessly, forced to keep living in agony for the sake of parents who can’t accept their grief.
It’s a potent setup for a horror game that’s dripping with creepy atmosphere and a grim but poignant story to uncover as you delve into both Wyatt’s mind and his parents’ increasingly manic research notes. Unsettling, distorted versions of everyday locations create an eerie backdrop for a game that revolves mostly around exploration and piecing together narrative fragments, with an assortment of creepy dolls and well-placed jump scares for good measure.
There are no monsters to fend off or hide from, though Purgatory has one rather grave threat: time. If Wyatt forgets what time it is, he risks getting stuck here for eternity, and so he needs to periodically check in with clocks scattered about the place. Go too long without visiting a clock, and he’ll succumb entirely to madness—adding a layer of time pressure and tension to some puzzle-solving aspects of The Sorrowvirus.
It’s a creepy, tense, provocative, emotive tale that plays out through repeated trips to Purgatory. Each “instance” is relatively brief—an hour, give or take—with the full story gradually emerging through repeat runs, with details changing each time to layer new information on top of old and push you towards different endings. Each instance is intended to be played in a single sitting, for the sake of atmosphere and making a thematic point, you can’t save part way through. For Wyatt, each trip to Purgatory is a desperate rush to find a way out, with no option to just take a break for a bit, and the developers want players to have that same sense of pressure. There are checkpoints, at least, so you don’t have to return to the start of the game each time you die, but you can’t quit.
I can appreciate and respect that. Deliberate inconvenience and abrasive design are tools that, when used well, can build mood and sell a point like few other tools in a game developer’s kit, and from the likes of Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil to more recent efforts to call back to those, like Tormented Souls, it’s something that horror games, especially, have a long history of pushing boundaries on. And to a certain extent, it works here, too: the lack of a save option certainly instills a bit of desperation in the player, and it’s an intriguing way of adding a bit of tension to a game that otherwise has little of it, mechanically speaking.
The problem is that The Sorrowvirus: A Faceless Short Story feels like it’s trying to be two very different, mutually incompatible things at once. On the one hand, there’s everything I’ve described above: a short, potent narrative horror with a point to make, and lack of the ability to save as a part of that; on the other hand, there’s the sort of really annoying puzzle game that only really works when you have the option of turning the thing off, walking away for a bit, and then coming back with a fresh mind. Those two can’t coexist.
The puzzles in The Sorrowvirus aren’t particularly clever, but they are rather annoying—the sort that see you hunting for hidden objects in murky locations, while a hidden timer counts down. They’re not challenges of logic or problem solving so much as tests of your ability to comb a map in meticulous detail to look for a few needles in a haystack. That’s tedious at the best of times, and even more so when you have the clock working against you and randomisation means you can’t just memorise locations (or cheat by using a walkthrough). In that situation, it’s easy to find yourself just going around in circles, looking at the same things over and over, repeatedly missing the important little detail tucked away in the corner—the kind of roadblock that taking a break and coming back later with fresh eyes usually does wonders to clear.
Only, in The Sorrowvirus, you can’t do that without having to start the whole game (or, at least, the current instance) again from the beginning. In a more focused game, where there is a general degree of forward progress even if puzzles or fail states do mean you occasionally get a little stuck or have some minor setbacks, the “no saves” thing could work. In a game like this, though, where it’s possible to get stuck indefinitely until you solve the 3D version of pixel-hunting puzzles? It just becomes a source of annoyance that hinders exactly the mood that the game is trying to build. There’s nothing like excessive frustration to pull you right out of the moment and shatter any sense of immersion or emotional connection.
The Switch port puts a weird spin on things, too. On one hand, having a sleep mode means there is, at least, a hardware-level way of taking a break from the game; you might argue it’s not in the spirit of the game, but it can help a lot with keeping the story moving. A quick step back away so that you can come back with fresh eyes is far less disruptive than just bashing your head against the wall ad infinitum. On the other hand, despite being a competent enough port for the most part, lighting effects take a hit—the moody lighting looks great in the PC version of The Sorrowvirus, but on Switch, it just makes things hard to see. And in a game with a lot of puzzles about finding objects tucked away in dark corners, well, that’s a problem.
So I’m torn. The Sorrowvirus: A Faceless Short Story is a fascinating game in concept, with its looping narrative, creepy atmosphere, grim yet moving tale, and a psychological horror touch built into some neat gimmicks. But that potential gets lost in annoying puzzle design and the lack of saves—something intended to help build atmosphere, but that too often just kills it—and what should be an eerie, unsettling game instead just becomes a tedious one.
The Sorrowvirus: A Faceless Short Story
Developer: Adam Sklar
Genre: Horror, first-person adventure
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.