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Agony Review

Madmind Studio’s Agony is a game that unfortunately lives up to its name. It’s a Kickstarter survival horror indie that had its sights set on transporting gamers to the very pits of hell with a mature and visceral take on the underworld and with no restraints to their artistic design. Despite this, it seems that their ambition was too great, and ultimately crushed this once-promising title in its infancy. With deeply flawed mechanics, incoherent design, and an almost nonexistent story, Agony feels like a rushed title that was brought out into this breathing world too soon and then left for the wolves.

Welcome to Hell

In Agony, you take the role of a nameless soul damned to hell and without recollection of your former life. Within the maddening walls of flesh and mutilated limbs, you’re driven along a relatively linear story, guided by a demon queen referred to as the Red Goddess. According to the opening cinematic, your character feels a lingering desire to follow the Goddess and seek her out in hopes that she might deliver you from this nightmare and restore your memories. On your journey, you’ll venture through the bowels of hell, passing through macabre constructs and nightmarish forests on your quest to seek out your escape from your punishment.

Along the way, you will find yourself hunted by demons, and here the survival horror elements come into play. Using places to hide and controlling your breathing, you’ll need to escape from the clutches of these monstrous hunters and perform a small variety of puzzles, which range from collecting body parts to memorizing symbols and drawing them in blood on the walls. The deviation in this system is the death mechanic. Agony expects you to die, and allows you to guide your spirit to other lost martyrs where you can possess their bodies and continue on again. Throughout the story, you’ll steal the bodies of dozens of other prisoners and even demons in your attempts to escape your eternal prison.

Horrific Problems

While the elevator pitch for Agony seems like the makings for a solid game, what was delivered is an entirely different creature. At its core, Agony was intended to be a survival horror title — much like Red Barrel’s Outlast — but the mechanics are bare-bones at best, and you’ll likely find yourself rarely using most hiding spots or holding your breath since you can typically just kite the average demon as it clumsily stamps around without any sense of subtlety. Most of the game will be spent performing mundane searches for body parts or sigils while trying to avoid the demons that will either never notice you or see you on the other side of the hall and almost instantly murder you, even when you’re trying to use stealth mechanics. There’s rarely ever any in-between.

The rest of the game will be mostly spent as something of a platformer as you try to traverse your way through the eye-achingly busy levels by jumping across chasms or swimming through underwater tunnels that are both as likely to kill you as the demons. Even deadlier than either of those are the small fires that litter the ground, which can easily kill if you accidentally put your toe in them — that, or the invisible bees that are sparsely located in certain levels which murder you in a few seconds. (No, I’m not joking about the bees. I wish I was.) Levels sometimes feel haphazard and a mess to travel, littered with places that don’t feel like they were tested at all. You’ll find yourself clambering through disheveled corridors and climbing up walls, which emphasizes the atmosphere in some part, but on the other hand it can be incredibly trying. This back and forth, rinse and repeat of puzzles and platforming rarely provides any tangible challenge and will likely fill you with more frustration than any satisfaction.

Possession

The gimmick of the game is the possession system, allowing you at certain times to hop your spirit to a different body and possess one of the many same-looking prisoners or demons. Possession works best when you’re stealing the body of another martyr, and that’s where, to some degree, it shines. While they all look basically the same, you’re allowed to progress in your challenge without having to go back to the previous checkpoint and, depending on whether you possess the body of a man or woman, your voice changes accordingly. It allows for a continued flow of movement through the levels and provides a considerable sense of otherworldliness to setting.

Possessing demons is intended to be a major selling point of this system, but it quickly becomes apparent that either very little thought was put into it, or it was sadly put out unfinished. Possessing demons stops you from interacting with most of the game, from picking up items to even activating any respawn points. Each demon type has a unique set of skills to them, but the mechanics are one-note and feel clumsy, while also having a frustratingly limited possession time where you’ll be kicked out of the demon’s body at any random moment and be forced to either repossess it, or try to find a new body.

Fifty Shades of Red

From a design standpoint, Agony had a great deal of promise to it. The potential shows from the first moment you step in the protagonist’s shoes as you stand upon a breathtaking, if horrific, bridge of flesh and rigged bone. Your eyes are met with the macabre, fanged gate of some monolithic wall, and the towering stature of a faceless demon looming over you as you take your first step into hell. It’s a beautifully constructed vista, and there are some similar moments you will find that Agony has to offer. From first stepping into a macabre dining room as an eerie lighting lances through a gnarled mess of vines, to beholding the disturbing majesty of a corrupted grand cathedral, there are certain moments of genuine artistic triumph that shows what the game could have been.

The unfortunate reality is, however, that these fantastic scenes are incredibly rare and sparsely broken up throughout the game. The color pallet is a consistent smear of reds, browns, and purples that will likely make your eyes ache after a few hours of gameplay. There are a few areas that will occasionally change up the pace, like a portion of one of the later levels that will throw you in a frozen wasteland, but these areas are often too sparse and too short. Most of your time will be in rocky caverns littered with body parts or fleshy chambers oversaturated with blood, always teased by those rare beautiful treats only to be thrown back into the murky mess. There are too many times where you will find the game is just layered with awful textures, the most egregious of which is the blood gown that will occasionally cover the otherwise hauntingly beautiful model of the Red Goddess with this splotchy mess of red during certain cutscenes.

Uncreative And Grotesque

The concept of Agony appears to have been intended as a mature take on hell, but after the first hundred bodies, and within the first hour of the game, you’ll find yourself dulled by most of the uncreative and grotesque images that feel more in line with a gorefest slasher film than a legitimate attempt at a horror game. An example of this unnecessary emphasis on gore is the mirrors you use as checkpoints. When first activated, the totem of many arms and a screaming, limbless man will submerge into the mirror, only for a pile of blood and limbs to flow out of it a moment later. Why? Dunno, just have more body parts.

When you’re not being bombarded by gore, you’re given the same treatment with obtrusive sexuality. From an artistic standpoint, violence and sexual depravity are powerful tools that can evoke a great deal of gravitas to a scene, but Agony’s constant bombardment of both leaves them as stale and crude. There’s a constant back and forth of contradicting design where you might see brilliant potential, only to find it drowned in substandard work.

Poorly Executed Story

This is only all the more evident than in Agony’s attempt at a cohesive story that was loosely based off the biblical tale of Babylon. While it’s a fantastic idea in concept, the execution is a mess, delivered in a series of off-character notes with more than a fair share of grammatical errors, as well as bouts of terrible voice acting from forgetful, nameless characters. The nonsensical cutscenes do little to help either, offering barely anything of substance or providing you with any sense of progress. The eventual reveal of the protagonist’s identity does provide some measure of context, but it never gives you any real reason for the story itself.

If Madmind stripped away the game mechanics and focused their resources on the visuals and story, they might have created a truly memorable, if linear experience like Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear. As it stands, however, they stretched themselves too thin and ultimately their work paid the price for it.

2

The Verdict

Agony is a heartbreaking travesty of inconsistent design through and through. With shoddy game mechanics, tedious objectives, and just overall poor execution, there’s nothing fun about playing through the relatively short campaign and nothing worth your while in trying to unravel its uninteresting story. Despite the occasional rare sparks of genuine beauty and brilliance, the slog through the gore to find them isn’t worth it.

Alexander Leleux
Written by
June 14, 2018
Published in Adventure

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Alexander grew up with a controller in his hand and remains the annoyance of his gaming friends for being ‘that guy’ who continues to use one even when he’s playing on his PC. By day, he is a graduate student in medieval literature and a freelance writer. By night, he is an avid gamer, hobbyist, and victim of an unhealthy Warhammer addiction. With a passion for stories of all kinds, he firmly believes that video games are an excellent means of communicating a narrative and hopes to one day make his own mark on the Gaming Industry.

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