In my opinion, the horror genre has become stale in terms of environment. It's not often these days an original choice in venue is there to lend a new dimension of terror to a title, be it AAA or indie-developed. Five Nights at Freddie's took the world by storm with its frightening look at what happens after dark in themed kiddie restaurants, but soon wore out its welcome after spawning four sequels and an army of clones. Good news is on the horizon, however, as next year we are geared to receive an onslaught of unimaginable terror, and not just from what America's next political administration will be up to. 2017 is looking to be chock full of scary titles, ranging from indie titles like Gray Dawn to more well-known releases, such as Outlast 2.
Among this parade of spooky adventures is Agony, product of the fittingly-named Mad Mind Studios, which promises to take us to the granddaddy of all horror settings: Hell. This isn't the slightly cartoony hell of this year's DOOM either, but a true, festering, stomach-turning pit of perdition, the likes of which I haven't seen since Visceral Games' take on Dante's Inferno. Having been granted the chance to peer into the abyss with a developer demo, I now come to you to recount my journey into the burning depths and reveal what makes me feel that Agony is worth every cent it'll cost when released.
Graphics & Design
Firstly I will speak on the graphics. It goes without saying that the game is fabulously beautiful, and I mean that in the sickest sense, because the art style in itself is enough to make those with weak stomachs flee from their desks in nausea. Hell is built out of the damned. Ever step you take is upon a foundation of flesh and bone, mixed sparsely with rock. This nightmare realm is rendered in Unreal Engine 4, and in some places it lives and breathes, making the body-horror you face and the environment itself often one and the same. The walls are lined with teeth, and mounds of corpses fill every space nook and cranny. Pagan idols wrapped in thorns serve as pillars, and every chamber is home to a grisly tableau of supernatural suffering. The amount of detail put into the world is absurd, and to say it takes immersion to a whole new scale is a sore understatement.
The game ran incredibly smoothly as well, with my frame-rate not once dropping below sixty FPS. I found this very impressive, considering this was mostly a bare-bones demonstration, here to showcase the mechanics and spirit of the game rather than be an actual demo. It's clear that the people at Mad Mind Studios are putting as much thought into efficiency as they are into vanity. I hope they continue to optimize and improve of course, but kudos to them for producing such a well-oiled product even after obviously pouring so much work into just making the game look fantastically grotesque.
Hell in Agony is pure chaos. It's easy to get lost in the winding and crooked passages, which are often lit, but in strange ways. There was no direct route to the objective in the demo, and I found myself wandering like a true member of the ranks of the damned, cowering and hiding amidst cages made of femurs or under piles of corpses from demons with rat tails and fly-trap heads. On that account it should also be noted that Agony does not shy away from nudity. The majority of the forsaken and wicked you meet are clad in either loincloths or nothing at all. Furthermore, both genders are equally represented among those in suffering, setting the game a full tier above Outlast in terms of how far outside your comfort zone it's willing to go, especially since the demon I mentioned also had breasts, not that that improved things when it ripped my head off and stomped my body to mush
The environment also plays a big role in defining the pacing, as well as atmosphere of the game itself. Sobbing wretches dot the corridors, all of whom felt like a potential threat, especially since disturbing them could attract demons, though at the same time I couldn't help but wonder if a wrong step would cause them to attack me all by themselves. Odd noises generated by the hodge-podge mess of compacted viscera that serves as a floor makes you struggle not to run on principle, which is something else that can get the attention of Satan's watchdogs. Bones crackle and pools of blood splash underfoot, while the walls shiver and pulsate, instilling a dread that you might just be eaten by Hell itself before any of the demons get you. It is a truly terrific soundscape made all the more spine-tingling by the fact that it's sometimes hard to separate the sounds the demons make from those of the living structures around you, making it all the more intense. Thankfully music cues prevent it from being unfair, and provide you with some warning as to whether or not you've been seen, but it's very nerve-wracking, especially since unlike Amnesia, your light source can't be extinguished on a whim.
Of course, the meat of Agony's gameplay is the same as every other first-person survival-horror game, though with a few key twists. As ever, the goal is to reach your objective or solve puzzles without being caught and killed. This is actually harder than it sounds, since despite a few minor AI hiccups which I presume have yet to be ironed out, the demons in Agony are surprisingly intelligent. Though they appear to have no visible eyes and ears, they are quite sensitive to your presence easily picking out your footfalls over the constant wails of the wicked. As previously mentioned, you can hide under corpses or in dark corners, and even hold your breath to try and keep from alerting them, but really it's best to avoid them altogether, since none of these are sure-fire ways of staying alive. If they spot you, there's very little you can do, since they often run faster than you. This all adds up to a an experience that's not exactly frustrating, but certainly more challenging than your average spook-a-thon. There are ways to throw them off the scent of course. Once you have a torch, if you get caught in a dark area, you can fling it in another direction and take refuge in the corner. With luck, your flaming stick will act as a healthy distraction while you either retreat at a cautious crawl, or else until they get bored and go find some other sad soul to maim and murder.
On that note, and given we're on the subject of gruesome death I feel the need to talk about the game's death system. In Agony, you actually play as an ethereal spirit, or at least you start out as one. As you progress, you possess flesh and blood sinners who are trapped in the halls of perdition to act as your body. If you die, you have a limited amount of time to find a new body or else face spiritual dissolution. This actually ties into the game's objectives in a rather neat way, since the chief goal of the demo was to descend through the environment in order to possess a demon chained up at the bottom of a central pit. That said, while the controls in this spirit-mode are a little wonky (in a good way), and you are gifted with a limited amount of time in it, I feel it could use some tweaking. Getting a second chance on death is all well and good, but I found it too easy to bypass large amounts of content with this mechanic, which is terrible since just exploring the world is half the fun. Hopefully they reduce the amount of time your allowed to stay incorporeal a bit, or else make it harder to skip past things. Purposely getting killed as a means of avoiding enemies is an interesting idea, but not when it detracts from the overall experience.
Agony is amazing. True, there are parts that need polishing, but that's to be expected from a game currently still in beta. Taken overall, however, the world, the level of grisly visual and artistic detail, the sound design; all of it adds up to a very powerful, fresh and dark experience. Unfortunately I was unable to discern anything about the story. While you do seem to have the ability to talk to NPCs, it was disabled in the demo, and no dialogue of any kind was present to put things in context. With this in mind, I sorely hope that the people at Mad Mind Studios pay their writers as well as they pay their modelers and programmers, because it would be a crying shame (with a side of gnashing teeth) to have the final product be weighed down by a lackluster narrative. That said, on the gameplay and visuals front, they seem to have got a good grasp of direction and purpose. I for one sincerely look forward to playing it when it's ready. For now though, we'll have to curb our sins and practice patience, at least for a little while longer…