*Due to the immensley explicit nature of Agony, reader discretion is advised for images and written content below
When MadMind studios first revealed footage for Agony, no matter where your gaming tastes lay on the spectrum of “messed up,” its unwavering commitment to presenting hell was impressive. It’s fair to say we were all taken in by the frankly refreshing levels of shock tactics MadMind were going to. Although, no matter what we saw in those trailers (and this could be said of any game trailers) we weren’t playing the game ourselves.
Console owners may feel a little hard done by as Agony is visually toned down substantially to hold up on older hardware. Although, for players across the board, Agony’s striking art direction may not be enough to carry them through to conclusion. Where gameplay is concerned, Agony’s colourful hell is dulled by a risk of lacklustre gameplay and a poorly told story.
The entire story of Agony is set in Hell. There’s no flashbacks to the life we had before to give any context to what’s going on. Strictly speaking that’s fine as we’re playing as a lost soul with total amnesia. The player is expected to go on a self guided tour through all the grim fleshiness that is Hell and find their way to the Red Godess.
We can pick up hints about this Red Goddess from various mumbling NPCs who for, some unexplained reason, seem to know more about this place than we do. This is just one of the many questions regarding context in Agony that we’re just not supposed to ask. There are many voices online asking questions about just what Agony’s story is about and they’re only going to wind themselves up. A little like when you show your grandma Transformers for the first time and she asks so many practical and rational based questions about Cyberton and the All-Spark, she just ruins it for herself. Don’t be one of those needlessly curious people about Agony’s story and you’ll easily learn to stop giving a hoot about context.
The world of Agony does start to offer a little momentum from about a third of the way in, when cutscenes kick in and certain demons begin to take an interest in you, refreshingly, not in a hostile way. The Red Goddess takes an interest in the soul that we play as from the get go, and occasionally flirts with us the same kind of messed up way you would expect Jack The Ripper to chat up a corpse. These little strings of dialogue help the player to understand how every soul is also going through what seem to be her trials of Hell in search of a worthy soul. Of course, the further along we get without being eviscerated, the more of an interest she takes in us.
There are loose story beats to tie one moment to the next. The occasional cutscene reveals Agony to have been visually dumbed down across all platforms when we get close up images of NPCs, revealing dulled out textures. Not only does this take away from really enjoying the brief cinematic moments, but so too does the dialogue. There may have been supposedly talented members of The Witcher 3 team behind Agony, but it has not prevented both the writing and voice acting from being… well – terrible. Almost pointless. Aside from the ambient mutterings delivering crumbs of context to the player, almost everything NPCs say is pointless drivel, soaked in hyperbolic despair. Worse still, they will say their designated line over and over. Literally. There’s less than a second before they repeat themselves…
Agony is a walking simulator dressed in very fancy clothes… of gore. That means its environs can be occasionally hypnotic and morbid to look at but, no we cannot fight. As mentioned earlier, Agony is all about passing the Red Goddess’ trails of soul self-worth. A kind of personal development course for demons in waiting. This largely comes down to seperate areas that repeatedly involve sneaking around demons to get from one skull to the next until we’ve placed them all where they belong. Tadaaa! The big magic door opens in the squelchiest, gooiest and most colourful way and on we go. A pretty cut and dry formula when all is said and done. Many online have criticised Agony for this (whether rightly so is debatable) but is this simple gameplay setup not almost identical to other highly praised walking simulators?
It would be if it didn’t add a few extra things into the mix. That being possession. Death of your corporeal form in Agony does not result in an instant load screen as players get to float their soul about looking for a new bag of bones to inhabit. The possession process involves some kind of camera manipulation but Agony did such a poor job of explaining it, I set it to “Easy Possessions” so I only had to hold one button. Fail to possess in about thirty seconds and then you’ll get smacked with a load screen. Later on, this same principle can be applied to demons which is jolly useful if one is in your way. Don’t like the problem? Become the problem. Problem solved!
Frantically pressing buttons to achieve an uncertain goal is not the only time Agony will grind at your patience. Hellish fingerpainting classes await you to open certain doors in which we must first find a corresponding sigil to memorise for said fingerpainting class. Fine to start with. Later – many sigils lie about and the player is expected to trial and error their way through each, until opening another variation of squelchy door. It barely qualifies as “puzzle” and the confusion begins when you start asking questions like “how critical is the game being of my line drawing,” “do I have to nail every one of these sigils or just the one?” The questions go on in your mind, introducing a kind of uncomfortableness that, despite the setting, I doubt was intended by the devs.
Going back to possessions, I was grateful for this mechanic because good God, Agony is hard. The first difficulty spike comes in the Maze of Madness, which also introduces the first skull puzzle challenge. Players can hold their breath or hide in piles of body bits or holes in the wall to avoid them. Although, as we progress through these challenge areas, more demons awaken, walking paths that may be more predictable were it not for the relentlessly gloomy passages in which we’re expected to avoid them. “Run or calmly shuffle along the floor and hide” – is nothing new for the walking simulator / horror cocktail. Here however, despite the fantastic Hell design on show, Agony’s world design makes things feel needlessly difficult as a penchant for squinting is a must.
I was also grateful for the second chance possession mechanic for another reason. An altogether wrong reason. Pulling it off would prevent the game’s whacked out checkpoint system from kicking in. Agony is loaded in very large segments to cut down on your load screens. In theory, this is a good thing. The player must splat a mirror frame spewing out fans of arms (sorry, there is really no other way to describe it) to activate a checkpoint. In the loading of this massive area in which we’ll get no load screens (that is if we don’t die) the underlying code of Agony seems to get a little confused about exactly where we were and where we should get loaded back in. This was sadly a big black mark for the game as I loaded back in one checkpoint hop back. Sometimes, I’d have a long eventless marathon through Hell. Other times, I’d be back where I actually left off…
In a nutshell, Agony is a walking simulator that has just about the same amount of variables others of its ilk use to be unique. Although, with the checkpoint issue, a sense of momentum takes a big hit. It’s at its best when taking us from A to B, as opposed to circling the same areas over and over, playing hide and seek with hungry demons during a puzzle. Almost to the point that I think Agony would have been better off leaving out the puzzle element, focusing yet more on its brilliant world design and just being… A tour of disturbia porn. That worked well enough for Layers of Fear.
Graphics And Sound
Who’s watched a Marilyn Manson video? Hands up. Yes, we all have at some point or another. They’re weird aren’t they? Perhaps sexually uncomfortable at times? They’re also hypnotic. Quite literally. Can you honestly say you watched Marilyn Manson’s video for Personal Jesus and were able to look away? Well Agony has the same kind of weird thing going on.
If we’re going to really get critical of MadMind Studio’s rendition of Hell, it’s worth taking Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy into account (there was nothing funny about it. It was just referred to as a “comedy” as it was written in a format that until then, only comedies were written during renaissance Italy). In his first volume, Inferno, he focused on Hell and literally wrote the book on the concept of the nine circles of Hell; a concept of Hell that has stuck right up to today. We picture Hell the way we do today because of Dante Alighiere. Having studied Inferno myself, I can report that Agony’s Hell is very consistent with Dante’s classical vision. For having rebuilt it so faithfully, MadMind Studios definitely get bonus points. Though it’s a shame they didn’t use the same technique as Dante where influential figures of the time could be found in Hell, recognising the protagonist and giving clues about who who they used to be.
That said, the world design of Agony’s Hell is so vividly realised, it is not for the faint of heart. Expect to see undying and naked sinners skewered through mouth to arse, forever choking. Expect to see unbaptised babies hung by the neck by their umbilical cords. Undulating walls comprised entirely of teeth that try to chomp at you and piles of dismembered bodies. Lakes of blood, disturbed only by the endless echo of screams. Play Agony for an entire day and you will absolutely have some messed up dreams the following night. Especially if you happen to be a dentist.
But this is Hell and if any setting was ever going to push the envelope for sheer messed up imagery, this would be it. As a result, Agony enjoys some seriously in-depth atmosphere. It’s just a shame that sense of immersion is choked out by the previously mentioned gameplay issues.
All in all, Agony is a perfectly acceptable walking simulator horror experience. It seems to be suffering a bit of a hard time online and I believe that’s down largely to just how difficult it is. It wastes no time in challenging your patience and this is only exacerbated by the squiffy checkpoint issues. It also suffers from going so hard with the messed up and disturbing imagery that it eventually loses its impact on the player. This is a tough line to walk when juggling all the aspects of a horror title, as devs attempt a balancing act between momentum, immersion and overall gameplay. There’s plenty of extra stuff to find like letters and collectible statuettes but with things being this difficult, they’re barely worth seeking out.
If you know for a fact that you enjoy horror and you enjoy walking simulators with a puzzle twist like SOMA, Agony may just about feel worthy of its asking price. If on the other hand, you’re not a patient gamer; someone who prefers a good story and for things to not let up during your experience, your money will likely be better spent elsewhere. Regardless of whether you’re playing on PC or console, you will likely encounter the odd disappointment founded in overall performance (some moments are janky thanks to the game’s insistence on crazy amounts of motion blur) or visual quality.
Ultimately, Agony’s main selling point is it’s trippy yet slow ride through hell. Turn off film grain (always thought that was a silly idea for games) and gorge your eyes on some truly freaky and unique stuff.
|+ Fantastic world design||– Laughable writing and VO|
|+ Superb atmosphere||– Unforgiveable checkpoint issues|
|+ Gets originality points||– Poorly told story|