Painful gameplay takes the gruesome joy out of its disturbing imagery.
Agony is a victim of its own ambition. It would be inaccurate to say that what Madmind Studios has delivered is different than the one it’s shown in trailers for the past few years, but those snapshots surely do not tell the whole story. For every moment of jaw-droppingly detailed environments overflowing with gore and blood, there are moments of acute frustration due to poor level design, repetitive gameplay, and downright aggravating mechanics. It was almost as if Agony was trying so hard to be a “video game” that it lost sight of what made its trailers so grotesquely appealing to horror-loving gamers around the world.
When your tormented soul isn’t busy scouring mazes of flesh and bones looking for body parts to place on pedestals or dip in bowls of excrement, you’ll spend time hiding from demons and holding your breath trying not to get caught. Or maybe you’re setting fire to doors made of sticks. It’s all just as monotonous as it sounds, and the early portions of Agony feature three of these tedious mazes almost back to back. This eight to 10-hour journey could have been cut in half without losing any of the meat by just removing all these repetitive tasks and filler content. It’d have been a more focused and consistently entertaining horror experience.
Agony is at its best when it stops trying to shove these simplistic and repetitive game mechanics down your throat and instead lets you revel in its graphic obscenity. There is a loose story here, one about seeking out a Red Goddess as your nameless protagonist tries to escape from Hell, but it’s barely enough to register in my memory, let alone motivate me to move forward. Truthfully the only thing that kept me going was the sheer curiosity to see just how far the artists would go with their horrific imagery, and to their credit, I was never left wanting.
Agony is at its best when it lets you revel in its graphic obscenity.
The environments are painstakingly crafted with deep, dark shades of red coating every inch, and its use of stark blackness is bold and poignant, ensuring you can never be too sure of your surroundings. Bodies are impaled on giant spikes, still breathing and groaning in pain, with reanimated corpses engaging in graphic sexual acts with demons and succubi. I’ve seen men slowly ripped in half, entrails loosely falling out, and I’ve had the claws of a demon rip me apart a hundred times. But as eye-popping as the grotesque imagery is, red and black can only be used in so many ways before every maze and corridor starts to look the same.
The luster of impressive details, articulate textures, and enormous hellscapes are designed to make even the strongest-willed falter, but the shock value does eventually fade given enough exposure.
Agony’s primary issue is one of over-indulgence. By the midway mark in my time with Agony, I’d seen so many naked demons, mutilated genitals, bloodied bodies, dismembered corpses, and other horrific scenes that I’d frankly become desensitized to it all. As bad as it sounds, you really can reach a point where all the death and gore and sex starts to look the same and it no longer bothers you. Horrors that made me flinch and feel partially squeamish in the first hour didn’t even make me blink by the end of it all.
Agony fails to communicate critical information.
A major contributing factor to this is just how often I was forced to replay lengthy sections. Save points are scattered sporadically throughout Agony inside large mirrors that are infested by about a dozen arms and a decaying, decapitated skull. When you yank on the skull it screams at you and gets sucked back inside the mirror, which is somehow its way of registering a checkpoint. The problem is, these checkpoints don’t feel evenly dispersed. Sometimes I’ll find two within five minutes, but then I’ll go 20 or more minutes without finding one, end up dying, and have to slog through that section of Hell all over again. Walking down the same hallway lined with dangling fetuses five times in a row is incredibly frustrating and quickly wore down what little patience I had for the slow-paced movement speed.
Whenever you’re discovered and killed by one of the roaming demons, your spirit leaves your body and has a limited time to fly around the environment in search of hosts to possess. If you succeed, you have a fresh new body; run out of time, and you’re sent back to the most recent checkpoint. This would be fine except that it’s an excellent example of how Agony fails to communicate critical information.
On Easy difficulty, you can possess host bodies just by pushing a button, but on the higher difficulty settings, Agony never explains what you’re supposed to do in order to successfully possess someone. For instance, it never tells you that any of the wandering NPCs with bags on their heads can be possessed – but only if you remove the bags first. Given how often you die, that sort of information really should be explained front and center.
The awful voice acting drags down an otherwise convincingly hellish vibe.
And speaking of poor communication, all of the awful voice acting in Agony drags down an otherwise convincingly hellish vibe. The sounds of footsteps sends chills down my spine, as does the slow dripping of blood from dead bodies into pools around every corner. But the moment a character opens its mouth to speak, the immersion is ruined. Whether it be poor lip syncing, just plain bad performances, horrible recordings from bad microphones, skipped dialogue, or any of the other countless issues, I honestly found myself laughing at the awful delivery more often than not.
The only other times you strategically use the possession mechanic are to travel long distances across chasms. But naturally, you can only pull that trick if there is sparkly purple stuff in the air to let you know the designers meant for you to do it right there and then. Otherwise, you’ve gotta find another way around. Like much of the rest of Agony, the possession system sounds nice on paper but feels under-explained, underutilized, and rigidly scripted in practice.