For a title with so much R rated content, it’s ironic that Agony feels like a 13-year-old boy’s interpretation of a great horror game.
With faultless enthusiasm and well-meaning ambition, the latest offering from Madmind Studios is its own worst enemy, ultimately stumbling over its inability to graduate beyond a boring glorification of violence, sex and overindulgence.
There’s no method to its madness and no statements are made beyond attempts at face value shock and awe. In its goal to channel the most inspirational horror from across the ages, Agony seemingly fails to grasp what makes the genre great, and with a run-time of roughly ten hours, I’ve seen quite enough of its intricately animated, shrivelled penises and salacious dominatrix demons.
So much for being subtle.
A first-person, survival horror title in the vein of the Amnesia series and Outlast, Agony puts you in the shoes of the unnamed fallen; freshly deceased and cast down to the fiery depths of Hell itself. Memories (and much of your skin) burnt away in a dramatic descent, you’ll seek to escape, all the while searching for the ‘Red Goddess’, a mysterious figure with knowledge of your former identity. Aside from cryptic ravings in the form of collectible scrolls, and some truly dire voice acting, Agony does little in expanding on its initial premise and the story is largely unnoticeable. Your motivations and directions are vague, with each stage feeling like a lacklustre ferryboat tour as you plod through the motions from one grotesque depiction to the next.
There’s some interesting environmental design but by the tenth ‘shocking’ occurrence, I’d stopped paying attention to my surroundings, completely desensitized by the tiresome attempts to disturb me.
With no weapons or combat skills to speak off, confrontation means death in most instances. It’s up to you to sneak, hide and flee from the various denizens of Hell as you search for the next critical path. There are genuine, atmospheric moments in the opening hours as you’re introduced to the mechanics of evading enemies. The inhuman clicks and footsteps as a blind abomination seeks to sniff you amidst a pile of bodies provokes real tension and veritable relief as they give up and move on. Aside from the power to possess enemies later on, this is the extent of enemy interaction and it quickly grows repetitive.
Run, hide, wait, rinse, repeat.
If you’re discovered and killed, it’s not game over. In one of Agony’s more original twists, your soul is ripped from your body upon death, and you’ll have a limited amount of time to hover around searching for a new host. Fail to find one and you’ll appear at your last, often far too hard to find, checkpoint. Hosts typically take the form of other tormented unfortunates and, on easy mode, you’ll merge at the touch of a button, continuing your journey seamlessly.
On harder difficulties, this process takes the form of a frustrating mini-game and it’s never fully explained. In fact, nothing is properly explained in Agony aside from a handful of vague button prompts. That is, if the technical aspects of Agony decide to behave themselves and the prompts appear at all. All too often, I missed an important item or died trying to connect with the environment as I impotently flailed around, trying to look at a specific point from the strictly defined ‘correct’ angle, to enable the interaction.
Your time in Agony is essentially divided between two, equally mundane tasks: Find the right sigils to open a door, or find the right items to open a door. Reasonably large levels offer a number of enemies and limited environmental barriers between you and the items you seek. This gameplay loop is unsatisfying, repetitive and once again; poorly explained. Having passed a number of the aforementioned sigils, it was only as I reached my intended door that the game informed me I was meant to interact with the runes, now two or three rooms behind me.
It’s padded busywork and pulls focus from the games’ environment, arguably its one redeeming feature.
With such a minimal offering of gameplay, I’d much rather Agony presented itself as a true walking simulator, allowing you to enjoy the world at your leisure and experience a decent story.
The world design is undeniably imaginative; pulsating walls, warped architecture, horrifying monstrosities in the murk and constant, gut wrenching screams. Any legitimate terror is from Agony’s suggestions rather than the outright presentation. It’s the glimpses, truly unsettling, out of the corner of your eye as someone is dragged into the dark, just as you arrive. These rare moments are true horror, leaving your mind to fill in the blanks.
The majority of the time though, Agony shows too much. “Look at all this blood, isn’t it horrifying?! Look at that succubus with her breasts out! Her breasts are sexy but her face is a caved-in trench of teeth, isn’t that a subversive contrast? Isn’t it scary?”
No, not really Agony… yawn.
Occasionally, you’ll converse with other tortured souls and even the Red Goddess herself. Random NPCs will parrot their one or two badly written lines over and over until, hopefully, you die and have to possess them. Sometimes you’ll run into a more scripted interaction, with the bizarre inclusion of player dialogue options. Don’t be fooled, each option leads to the same lines and they rarely bear any useful information.
The acting and delivery is awful. Things start badly with an introductory monologue resembling a parody of an elderly character from Blackadder (which is already a parody).
The Red Goddess, and succubi in the main, sound like a cheesy porn film, moaning through each of their ‘nuanced like a hammer to the head’ lines. They’re reminiscent of the mistress characters from the original ‘Dungeon Keeper’ series, entirely appropriate in its B-movie, self-aware kitsch. Agony on the other hand, takes itself far too seriously. It’s practically comical.
Gameplay qualms aside, Agony just runs so poorly on the Xbox. I never heard an uninterrupted voice line throughout my entire time with the game. Instead, Agony gets halfway through a line, then repeats all dialogue to that point on a loop until you’ve read the subtitles. Misplaced sound cues, awful frame drops, long loading screens and multiple hard crashes round off the frustration.
In many ways, Agony delivers an authentic experience of the archaic interpretation of ‘Hell’. Playing this game feels like torture, an exercise in utter tedium as you perform the same tasks and witness the same, ‘gruesome’ scenes. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s that meta, it simply tries too hard. Squandering any potential it might’ve had, the result is a shallow, monotonous experience that’s not worth your time.