Madmind Studio’s first-person horror adventure Agony sounds great on paper. A tormented soul, for reasons that remain vague to me, wanders through Hell in search of a mysterious creature known as the Red Goddess. To give players a vivid picture of this world of endless torment, the developers amped up the violence, loaded every corner of the landscape with spoiled meat, and tossed in some taboo imagery for good measure. It’s the sort of stuff that I would have loved when I first discovered Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Hellraiser in high school. But now, as an adult who has spent hundreds and hundreds of hours watching horror movies and playing games like Resident Evil 7 and Outlast, I need more than visceral gore. Feel free to crush babies and mutilate genitalia all you want in movies and games, but if that’s all you have to offer, then you’re going to have problems. And Agony has problems. Lots and lots of squishy, meat-packed problems.
Before explaining what Agony gets wrong, let’s take a moment to address what it gets right: the presentation. While not wholly original — Clive Barker tackled this kind of unchecked sexual torment decades ago — the game doesn’t hold back when it comes to disturbing imagery and blood-soaked violence. The miserable architects who designed Hell clearly had a thing for rotten meat, eviscerated carcasses, and human bone fragments. Ceilings, floors, walls, lighting fixtures — you name it, it’s caked in gristle and grime. In fact, the original version contained so much graphic violence that it received an Adults Only rating from the ESRB. Before release, that content hit the cutting room floor, allowing the game to receive a Mature rating, though there’s still plenty of hideous imagery to keep insatiable gorehounds happy for roughly 10 hours or so.
That’s assuming, of course, you don’t give up on Agony halfway through the experience. Because it’s one hell of a frustrating game. There were several moments during my playthrough that I felt compelled to throw in the proverbial towel. Not because the game felt difficult to a punishing degree, but because it never properly introduced many of its mechanics to me. At one point, I couldn’t figure out how to get around a particular demon; the busty abomination just wouldn’t allow me to sneak around it. I tried many different methods, and I couldn’t solve the puzzle. Only out of frustration did I discover that there are certain areas you can climb. Nothing on-screen let me know that I could scale that particular section of the environment — I ran head-first into it because I’d run out of logical options. I don’t mind figuring things out on my own, but not having a fundamental understanding of the game’s mechanics seems like a serious oversight.
The same thing occurred when I died the first time. When you bite the dust, your spirit rises from its hellbound corpse-soul and floats around the level. You then have a limited amount of time to take control of another damned soul roaming the corridors — but you can only do this if you’ve removed the bags that obscure their faces. Again, I achieved this goal through simple trial and error; the on-screen tutorial explained how save points work, but it failed to mention everything else. To make matters worse, you can lose your progress if you screw up this process one too many times. Thankfully, there’s now a patched-in setting allowing you to turn this on and off. Depending on your desire for a challenge and your overall threshold for unadulterated frustration, you can choose to leave this on and lengthen the time spent with the game. However, plan to do plenty of backtracking, especially if you can’t find a soul to control in the allotted time.
The gameplay itself isn’t too inspired, which is a shame given that Hell, as strange as it may sound, is both immersive and fun to explore. Sure, some of the mazes get a little tedious (if you’ve seen one enormous wall of meat, you’ve seen them all), but encountering bizarre creatures, miserable souls, and twisted mounds of human flesh kept things flesh. At its heart, Agony is a stealth game; instead of battling demons to survive, you’ll need to steer clear of them. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Since your character has the reflexes of an injured sloth on industrial-strength painkillers, trying to escape the clutches of a vagina-headed monstrosity proves difficult when you have little room to maneuver. Your foes often spot you way before you can see them skulking about in the darkness, which ups the challenge to an almost unfair degree. You can attempt to distract them by flinging torches around, but either this mechanic isn’t implemented very well or I just suck at luring away demons with fire. Needless to say, I died. A lot. In fact, that’s an understatement.
When you’re not dodging demons or gawking at the many gruesome sights and sounds Agony has to offer, you’ll solve some fairly mundane puzzles, which come in two forms: collecting items and solving sigils. While I didn’t have a major issue running from one place to another gathering whatever I needed (fetch quests are fun, sometimes), figuring out the sigils seriously bugged me. To solve a sigil, you have to write a symbol on a slate using your finger and some blood. Problem is, there are several different symbols spread throughout the level, meaning this puzzle ultimately becomes a case of trial and error. And heaven forbid if you can’t find the proper sigil and you spend 30 minutes just wandering between piles and piles of pulsating meat, wondering aloud when it’s all going to end.
If you get lost in Agony’s labyrinthine hellscape, your character can send out so-called “Destiny Lines” to show you where to go next. Thing is, that too doesn’t work very well. Often, these glowing lines would lead me straight into a wall with no clear way around. Since navigating these mazes can confuse those with a poor sense of direction, these lines should, in theory, come in handy. And they do — when they work. But for me, they caused more problems than anything else. None of this would be much of an issue if the checkpoint system didn’t feel like some kind of unholy punishment. Agony’s checkpoints prevent you from save scumming your way through the game, but in a game like Agony, you almost need the ability to save whenever you want since the gameplay and mechanics actively seem to work against you.
Unless these problems sound like a good time, it’s difficult to recommend Agony. If you play it on the easiest setting, you might enjoy simply roaming the landscape of Hell and taking in the unsavory sights and sounds for a few hours. It’s gruesome and gross, and it gets points for that. However, for those who want an actual game, Agony has nothing to offer but pure frustration. The strong ideas it does possess get crushed under the cumbersome mechanics, paper-thin tutorial, and some occasional technical hiccups. I’d love to see the developers take these problems, hammer them out, and deliver a sequel that delivers an experience that’s deserving of the incredible art design. This walking tour of hell offers plenty of outrageous moments, so it’s a shame that there’s nothing else here to keep gamers interested.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Madmind Studio/PlayWay.
Although Agony offers a vivid, grotesque, and very disturbing glimpse into the bowels of Hell, it doesn't offer much in the way of polished, coherent gameplay.