Always Ten Steps Behind, Always Ten Steps Below
There’s no denying that Madmind Studios’ Agony is a beautiful game to look at, even if it’s equally horrifying. A lot of games this year have given us visions of Hell – some have been excellent, like Devil Daggers’ infernal gameplay and downgraded presentation, while others, like DOOM 2016’s tepid yellow cliffs, left much to be desired. But nothing else comes close to the distinct visual presentation of Agony‘s underworld, built almost entirely out of bits of human beings (in fact, the demo features a chilling scene where you watch some kind of demon building a wall by piling bricks on top of babies). It’s colorful, visceral, and immediately striking – and Madmind clearly knows this, since the graphics are what most of the trailers and previews have been focused on.
As for the rest of the game? Well, having played the demo they sent us to completion, I’m…cautiously optimistic. While it has yet to deliver on the promise of its incredible artwork, I’m certainly intrigued enough to keep an eye out for when it comes out in 2017.
The premise is based on one of the most tried-and-tested tropes in gaming: amnesia. Your journey begins as one of many souls trapped in the bowels of hell. Presumably you did something bad in life, but you don’t remember anything, except that you need to find a mysterious figure known as the Red Goddess in order to escape. From there, the demo involves descending a pit to possess your first demon, running into bizarre puzzles and visions of torment on your way down.
Oh, and monsters, of course. Agony is a horror game very much borrowing the gameplay style of recent hits like Amnesia and especially Outlast – the only way to avoid the monsters is to hide, something which you can’t do for very long, since the monsters can only see you as long as you’re holding your breath. Fortunately for you, death is only a temporary setback, as the protagonist has the ability to possess other damned souls when one host dies. The way that you possess and then discard other beings (who we’re told you will even be able to converse with in the finished version) as though they were just sets of clothes certainly doesn’t make you seem like any more of a good guy, but it works quite well as an interesting gameplay mechanic, forcing you to hurriedly jump from host to host to prevent being permanently destroyed.
What doesn’t work as well is the game’s attempts at horror. Maybe I’m cynical from having played too many of these sorts of games, but while I found Agony‘s atmosphere all nicely creepy, I was never truly scared. Maybe that’s partially because of the fact that dying has no real consequence. But I also think it’s a lack in subtlety. The scariest horror games leave something to the imagination, force you to wonder what’s scurrying around in the dark. That never happens in Agony. You know what you’re scared of – it’s the great big demons wandering around with horns and faces full of teeth, torturing people. And the level design doesn’t really heighten tension either – yeah, a fire-breathing wall that looks like it’s made out of human teeth or a ring of servered arms is gross and unsettling, but it doesn’t make me as a player feel afraid for my life in the way that Outlast or even Five Nights at Freddy‘s does when you hear someone behind you moving in the stillness.
Speaking of level design, while it’s all very pretty, the amount of over-detailing on everything makes it difficult to figure out where you are, where you’ve been, and what is a path you can walk through, meaning that I felt like I was spending more time wandering lost than enjoying the experience the developers had created for me. It felt like navigating an unfamiliar environment, but not in a scary way. More in a boring way.
But where the game truly earns the name “Agony” is in the technical issues. Now to be clear: I’m well aware I was playing an alpha build demo. I knew what I was getting into, and I was made well aware of the fact that there would be technical issues. But I feel it’s worth mentioning the framerate issues mixed with the bizarre way your character swings to and fro, even when you’re standing still, made me feel physically ill to the point that I had to stop to take some ibuprofen. Maybe this is some kind of innovative new form of immersion, where a game about Hell doesn’t just show you what it’s like to be in a realm of excruciating pain, but actually simulates the experience.
Also, I fell through the bottom of the level at one point, although the game is so surreal that at first I thought it might actually be part of the game.
Truth be told, most of this is picking at nits. Even if the gameplay isn’t truly “scary” and there’s a few bugs that need to be fixed, Agony‘s story (smartly told through quick, bizarre interactions with the world), puzzles (like searching for mysterious runes) and presentation all have me hooked, and it shouldn’t be too hard to fix these issues by the time the game launches in June. Fans of hellish horror should definitely keep an eye on this one.