Horror fans are spoiled for choice these days and there are plenty of games looking to make things go bump in the night, but Madmind Studio caught our collective attention with its game Agony, with it promising a far more brutal horror experience. No, they weren't offering haunted asylums or creepy houses like its competitors, instead, they decided to crank the fear up to 11 by throwing you into the depths of Hell itself. What could be scarier than eternal damnation, right?
We thought the alpha looked very promising back at the end of 2016, working as a bit of a guided tour through the game's visual aesthetic as well as featuring what would become Agony's signature blend of grotesque gore and guts, but now the game has been unleashed not only on PC fans but also on those masochists playing on PS4 and Xbox One who want to experience the underworld for themselves. The good news is that this visual spectacle is untouched from the alpha. The bad news is that what you do in this world doesn't stack up in terms of quality.
At the start of Agony, you're dropped (literally, in this instance, through the clouds) right into Hell Almost instantly you resolve to see the leader of this place, the Red Goddess, to jolly well make sure you don't stay in this hellhole. That's the overarching story and there's not much to go on aside from that as you move from place to place talking to weird and... not so wonderful characters about the Red Goddess and where you can find her. It's simple enough but doesn't offer a whole lot of spice, and some tangential narratives wouldn't have gone amiss.
You aren't alone in Hell though (although we thought there'd be more sinners, in truth) and the various people you talk to all offer you a mix of insane ramblings and disturbing behaviour. One guy, for instance, starts stacking rocks on top of babies after you finish your polite chit-chat, and another tries to assault you once he finds out you've got a torch. The trouble with these interactions, however, is that they're often not really of consequence and the poor acting and repeated line of dialogue don't exactly help matters.
A brief introductory passage introduces you to the central mechanics of the game, and if you've been through the running and hiding extravaganza that is Outlast, this might feel a tad familiar. It's all about solving puzzles to open doors and advance to the next section of Hell, but after the light challenge of the first few rooms we get introduced to some enemies, the demons which appear on the cover looking like... well, we'll let the screenshots speak for themselves.
The first maze you encounter is when the frustration really starts to creep in and the Outlast comparison feels at its strongest. You can't attack these demons and you need to rely on running, hiding, and stealth to make sure they don't kill you - and trust us, they will, and you'll be seeing the same death animation time and time again. In principle this should be a dream for horror fans, as you're making sure you balance your need for a torch with the fact that the demons have a hankering for your flesh and are attracted to light, using hiding spots and stealth to your advantage. The problem is that it's all executed poorly.
The demons are notoriously hard to predict and they saunter about like they've got out of bed and forgot what they're looking for. Also, there's a mechanic whereupon your death you can possess the body of one of the other tenants of Hell, but this often results in a demon killing you as soon as you possess them... it's like killing you at a spawn. This happens in part because the mechanics aren't explained in-depth, and aside from the opening 30 minutes or so where basic controls are conveyed, the ins-and-outs of stuff like possession and respawning are brushed aside.
The basis of the game is this dance of death between you and the homicidal demons, going through room after room and maze after maze as you go, but the trouble is that the exploration feels so video-gamey. With the visual style clearly setting itself apart from the crowd, it feels like Madmind Studio didn't apply that same philosophy to the gameplay, as you're constantly looking for X amount of keys to open a door before finding X amount of another item to go through the next door, with all the action taking place in mazes which are rather dated in their level design.
The technical performance also leaves a lot to be desired. We played on PC for a bit and saw that there were some misplaced subtitles here and there, along with a few frame-rate dips, but the PS4 version was even worse. Here the shimmer of light on the walls looked inexplicably like shimmering lights of paparazzi cameras and the frame-rate was horrible, with the whole package looking a mile worse than its PC counterpart.
Of course it'd be remiss not to mention the gorgeous visuals, which have been lauded long before release. It's a good-looking title in the sense that it offers some of the most intense grotesquery in all of gaming and there's a sense of sick joy as you marvel at the doorways lined with teeth, the chasms filled with guts, and the corpses and skeletons that litter every room. An agonising amount of detail (see what we did there?) has been put into this side of the presentation and it really shows. All we'd say is that you should refrain from playing it when it's light outside because you won't be able to see a thing with how dark it is.
A colleague of ours summed it up perfectly when he said that Agony felt like a game designed by a visual artist but without a lot of gameplay to back it up, and that pretty much hits the nail on the head. Based on our impressions of the pre-release material and the alpha we thought we'd end up in horror heaven, but it turns out that Agony is actually a one-way ticket to generic video game hell. Madmind's horrific adventure is full of bugs, there's a distinct absence of story, and the repetitive gameplay it offers means that it fell way short of its potential. You might as well stick to Doom for your hellish escapades, then.