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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: PlayWay
Developer: Madmind Studio
Release Date: May 29, 2018


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PC Review - 'Agony'

by Cody Medellin on June 1, 2018 @ 2:30 a.m. PDT

Agony is a first-person survival horror game where you will begin your journey as a tormented soul within the depths of hell without any memories about his past.

Over the decades, we've had countless games that took us to Hell. Some had a more futuristic or modern look, but most of them went for the classic medieval look that fits perfectly for the landscape. All of them presented players with a place that looks uninviting due to the constant dreary atmosphere and the demonic denizens willing to tear you to shreds at the blink of an eye. It's been a long time since we've seen the type of Hell depicted in Agony, the first game from Polish developer Madmind Studio, so its depiction of the place of eternal damnation will stick with the player for years to come. The rest of the game will also stick with them — for the wrong reasons.

The story follows a very well-worn formula. You play the role of an amnesiac who only knows that he's falling straight to Hell. While your memory is gone, you still have your wits about you, and you somehow know that there is salvation in the form of the Red Goddess, who helped design Hell and knows how a soul can get out. Determined, you seek out the Red Goddess to get some answers.

From the start, the game depicts Hell as being both fascinating and grotesque, depending on your outlook. You're surrounded by walls and structures made of bloody flesh and bone, and everything seems to be made from something that was once human, but there aren't too many organs lying around. You'll see corpses strung up, most of them naked and still moving. There are constant groans and wails, with some creatures comprised of limbs that scuttle around. That's all before you get to the really disturbing stuff, like demonic genitalia and babies being crushed and sacrificed. That's enough to make the more chaste gamers ignore the constant display of demons grinding on one another.

All of that would burn an unpleasant image in your head if you could actually see any of it. The game is simply too dark to be playable. Torches give off some light but not enough to be useful, and there are more than enough situations where you can't navigate the room or have any sense of progression. Turning up the game to maximum gamma levels helps you see the gore and uneasy movements in the world, and even though it's counterproductive to the mood, going to those extremes is the only way to make the game halfway playable.

As for the audio, it works but barely. The constant wailing and moaning sell Hell's audible torture. The score is minimalist, but it sells despair whenever it plays. The effects of squashing flesh are good, but the voices are hit-and-miss. Some do a decent job of being hammy, and others play off agony rather well. A good number of voices, however, are either overacted or indifferent.

While the atmosphere is mostly successful,  gameplay is still the most important part of the experience. Agony mostly revolves around puzzles and stealth. For the former, this means finding essential items that need to be placed in spots to open up passageways. That also means finding sigils to unlock doors, and that can become a guessing game since each area throws so many at you without any hints about which one is correct. For the latter, you're going with stealth basics, like crouching and holding your breath to maximize your silence. You can try to also distract enemies by throwing torches and hitting them, but your attacks are quite ineffectual.

Though you enter Hell as a powerless being that can barely leap or sprint for more than a few steps, you have a few things working in your favor. For starters, you can possess anybody you come in contact with. That's much easier with lost souls, as long as you remove their hoods first to attempt a possession. It can also be done with demons, but the process is more difficult because you have to die at their hands first. Death isn't immediately permanent, as you can still wander around the world for a while in search of another body to possess, but failing to successfully occupy a host body means a real death, which returns you to a checkpoint.

Checkpoints work in interesting ways. You can't simply pass by a checkpoint to activate it; you need to interact with it and wait for an animation to finish first. Once it's activated, you can only spawn from that checkpoint a total of three times before you're sent back further and have to reactivate that checkpoint once again. The same limitation is placed on your ability to call on spectral energy to act as a compass, so you can't spam the ability to give yourself a ley line to follow.

On paper, all of these gameplay mechanics sound like they'd make for a fun but harrowing journey in the most hostile and vile environments. In truth, nothing works as intended — or at all. That starts with the tutorials, which either fail to activate or do so way after they're useful. An example is when you grab a torch and learn that some gates can be burned. By the time the game informs you of this, you've already burned three gates and hurt yourself in the process, since there isn't an animation of you setting a gate on fire. The tutorial for possessing bodies appears on time, but it fails to tell you how to get that body, aside from just matching lines. It takes lots of trial and error to learn that you have to use the camera to identify the source of the line and hold it there before the line darts in a different direction. Even then, the window of time is very short, so most of your time is spent trying to get it to work. Thankfully, there is an option to simplify the possession process by pointing to the line's source, and while that may seem like an easy button, it's also the only way to get it to work.

In terms of solving puzzles, there's not much to say except that the sequences feel longer than they should since you spend a long time admiring objects instead of snatching them and moving on. Add that to the aforementioned guessing game with the sigils, and the simple puzzles can feel tedious. With combat being almost nonexistent until the latter portion of the game, your actions are mostly relegated to a stealth system that doesn't function properly. Despite your attempts at staying silent, the enemy always has a bead on you and will kill you even if you did all the right things to hide. Diving into a pile of dead bodies won't work, since you'll be immediately discovered. Small crevices do nothing to save you, and throwing objects as a means of distraction only means the enemy makes a beeline for you instead. Successfully jumping into another body doesn't give you much of a reprieve, since the enemy immediately darts for that new soul and kills you before you can react. With only a limited number of hosts in an area, real death comes swiftly and feels senseless.

The game's failings even extend to the systems that are meant to help you. Your guiding energy often does a poor job of navigating since it sometimes goes through walls or ceilings instead of giving you a clearer path — especially in pure darkness. There are times when you can't even see the guiding energy being called, so the move can feel worthless. The checkpoints work well enough, but their placement seems haphazard. Some of them are placed too close together, while others are far apart enough that you can waste half an hour of work if you die before reaching the next one; it's frustrating since progression between checkpoints isn't even temporarily saved.

It's a shame that nothing works as intended. It is equally bad that the first half of the game is simply dreadful. There's some interesting material later in the game, but between the enormously high level of difficulty and mechanics that work against you, far too many people will quit out of frustration and look up the endings on YouTube instead of slogging through it.

Agony is obsessed with getting the atmosphere right at the expense of gameplay. From the bones and viscera adorning every the world to the torture and writhing bodies, the developer has certainly succeeded at creating a place that is disturbing and fascinating. Once you get over the edgy environment, you'll recognize that there are many issues with the game: broken tutorials, inept stealth elements, a possession system that isn't explained, poor checkpoint placement, gamma issues, and mediocre voice acting. In a way, the experience you'll have with the game matches its name perfectly, so unless you're desperate for a masochistic experience, Agony gets a hard pass.

Score: 3.0/10

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