Hell sucks. To what degree it sucks depends on what source you’re using. Dante’s Inferno tells of the various circles of hell which range in severity from merely living in an inferior version of heaven to being covered in excrement and whipped by demons. The Christian hell is a place of fire and pain, and other religions have their own underworlds. Agony‘s hell distills all the worst parts of the legends of hell and the afterlife into one of the nastiest places ever portrayed in video games, and for the most part, it looks incredible.
Peel back the flesh, bone, and blood veneer though, and you’ll find that apart from visuals Agony has a severe problem. Unfortunately, what makes a video game a game is not just the visual, but what you can do and how you can do it. This inverted paradise is a treat to look at, but the real question is if the visuals are worth the chore of actually having to deal with playing the game. Unfortunately, Madmind Studios would have been better off just relying on the visuals to carry the game instead of what we ended up with.
Agony Review: Blood and Willies
Since the driving force behind playing Agony is to see the next brutal setpiece this game feels more like the Dark Souls of walking simulators. The environments of this game are a spectacle of depravity and violence. All of hell is made out of the blood, meat, and bone of the damned. Agony showcases a world where violence is a constant and demons continuously torture and destroy the souls of those damned to spend eternity in this godforsaken (literally) place.
There’s plenty of intestine ripping and weird genital stuff to keep any fan of the macabre on the edge of their seat. Agony really turns it up to 11 as far as raw grotesque imagery goes, maybe more so than any other game to date. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, there would be a scene with demons using unborn (imagine newborns with old man faces) as mortar for bricking a wall by just piling them up and slamming rocks on top of them.
The thing is, though, that after the 8-10 hours the game takes the beat, it all gets pretty dull. There’s only so many succubus orgies and impaled bodies you can see before you’re inured to the whole thing. Agony certainly has variety in its carnage, but not so much in its theme. While I was impressed with the entrails, viscera, and raw violence, by the end the constant reds of exposed muscle and darkness of creepy caves built out of bone and sinew wore out their welcome.
The sexual content wears out just as fast. We’re still at the point where a mainstream(ish) game showing graphic sexual content is still quite rare, but around the twentieth time, you see a demon boob or some poor sod’s wrinkled winky before he’s bashed to bits you’ll be rolling your eyes. There was some small controversy around the game portraying sexual violence, but it’s done in a way that is almost comical. Perhaps it’s the terrible voice acting and lip sync, but what’s supposed to be shocking fades to the background as only another part of the circus of Agony‘s hell.
Agony Review: We’re in Hell, Now What?
While the visuals pop, the story does not. You’re a lost and nameless martyr of one sort or the other, and you’re looking to find the Red Goddess as she is somehow able to help you escape from hell. There’s some forgettable lore told through journals and other writing in the game, but for the most part, you’re just moving ahead based on the vagueries of finding the Red Goddess.
The Red Goddess, who you meet several times through your journey, is maybe the most devastating aspect of the game’s story. She’s supposed to be portrayed as desirable, but the “sultry” vocals that are supposed to be alluring just make her come off as an enthusiastic phone sex operator. She’s an over-the-top character in a game full of over-the-top everything, and she doesn’t work at all as a goal post in the game. I might want our intrepid and shriveled hero to make it out of hell, but I didn’t really want to have anything to do with her, and that made the final goal of the game a real trudge.
Typically I might be more lenient with a story set in a location as otherworldly as this, but hell and the various other underworlds of world religion may be the most written about subjects in human history. When it comes to pre-existing lore, you can’t get better than hell. There’s so much to go on just from the Divine Comedy alone. Unfortunately, Agony‘s hell doesn’t have quite the character of Dante’s portrayal and is instead a very one-dimensional place with very one-dimensional inhabitants.
Instead of exploring something interesting like the War in Heaven where Lucifer was cast into hell or having multiple circles for different sinners, the whole thing seems kind of samish. Some of hell is caves made of bone and flesh, some of it consists of forests of tangled growth filled with the suffering damned, but all of it speaks of a singular kind of violence and damnation. Given that there seems to be at least some crude form of society in Agony‘s hell (which isn’t really expanded upon) we get very little in the way of intrigue, just boundless horror, and chaos.
Agony Review: Hell Simulator 2018
Of course all the above would be minor strikes against Agony if the gameplay was fun or engaging. It’s not though; it’s the pits. Firstly, the only thing to care about in the game, since it lacks a decent story is the visuals. Agony could probably get away with that if the journey itself were enjoyable. Unfortunately, your trip through hell consists mainly of wandering around trying to find items to unlock doors so you can go to a new area and repeat. Even that would be okay if you kept getting to proceed to new areas steadily, but there’s a big catch here that just ruins it all.
Agony is hard. Not fair hard like Dark Souls, poorly balanced hard. Everything in hell can own you, so you regularly have to dodge around any demons you meet. Maybe appropriately so these demons have supernatural senses, and sometimes there’s just absolutely no way to avoid a situation where you get discovered. If you get found, you can run or hide, but most of the time you’ll die. It only takes about one or two blows from most creatures to break your frail figure, and then the real fun starts. When you die, you’re able to project your soul into another body. However, you can only do it to certain creatures, and the big catch is that you can only do it if you met them before and pulled the black bag off their heads. You get about 10 seconds to do this after you’re dead and if you can’t then, it’s back to a checkpoint.
Checkpoints are physical locations you have to actually activate, some of which are quite hidden. They’re usually far and few between so that means if you die then you’ve got a hike to get back where you were. This would be a minor annoyance except that without constant forward progress Agony becomes, well, agonizing. There’s no story to push you ahead, so the only real drive is the desire to see what’s around the corner. However, if you have to have to jog through the same 20 minutes of territory 2 or 3 times to finally turn that corner, then it starts getting really hard to care.
Even worse is that the game doesn’t really tell you how these mechanics work. Also, all of hell is pretty dark and mazelike, and the one tool that will sometimes help you find out where to go, Destiny Lines, are inaccurate and have a limited number of uses. By the time you figure this all out though you’ll be gritting your teeth to continue to play the game because you fell down a hole and lost 30 minutes of progress.
Agony Review: This Game Can go to Hell
There’s been a lot of different renditions of hell over recorded history, some more pleasant than others. I don’t believe that video games have ever entirely captured just how terrible of a place it’s supposed to be, though a few have tried. Agony set out to fix that in spades, and it’s an ambitious title that takes on territory that few studios would dare. However, interactivity is a vital part of what makes a game work, and despite the interesting visuals, there’s a lot to be desired on that front.
I feel like Agony would have been better suited using the same vehicle Dante’s Inferno used. It would have made a great game to stroll through as there’s a lot of incredible visuals to see, but trying to play through it in the state it’s in is torturous. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this game as the payout of eye candy isn’t worth the time you have to put in slogging through hell behind the eyes of a depressingly slow husk of a dead man.