Agony has been one of my most anticipated titles for a few years now. Its Kickstarter and early videos promised a delirious and disturbing trip through the circles of Hell, openly drawing influence from the likes of Clive Barker and Dante’s Divine Comedy. With striking visual design and a soundtrack of tortured souls, it looked to offer a dark and mature experience that would really take advantage of the processing power of contemporary machines. Whilst the visuals and atmosphere mostly live up to these expectations, my abiding feeling after playing Agony is one of having been tortured by bugs, crashes, unbalanced gameplay and often unfair insta-deaths.
Aesthetically, Agony is impressive, although there is a huge need for decent v-sync on the standard PS4 version which suffers from constant screen tearing. The visual design is interesting and suitably demonic, with everything having a fleshy, oozy texture. The constant soundtrack of screams and tortured souls will be familiar to anybody who has been to a toddler’s birthday party, as will the overall sense of nausea just held back from full extrusion.
The design of the demons is wonderfully Barker-esque and you really feel transported into the underworld. There are more boobs and todgers than I have seen in a legitimately released game for a long while, and the backgrounds of many areas are complete with scenes of torture, rampant succubus orgies, and demons feasting on the damned. These aspects capture the mood of Hell really successfully. Voice acting is mostly of a high standard, but its a shame that the narrative part of the game feels relegated behind the stealth horror conventions that take over so completely.
The beginning of Agony sees you falling into Hell, with your soul being forced from your crushed body as it hits the ground. It is here that the game introduces you to the possession mechanic that is central to its gameplay. Upon the death of your mortal body, you are able to take over nearby tortured souls and continue along your way. A message early on informs you that dying is inevitable in Hell and that you will often need to backtrack in your spirit form to locate a new host. This is all well and good, and promised to be a neat take on the frustrations of instadeath in stealth horror games such as Outcast.
The problem is that the timer that runs down whilst you are outside of a body is far too fast and the end result is that you often face an annoying delay before an inevitable reload at the last checkpoint. I understand that this mechanic is there to provide a sense of urgency, but given that you cannot interact or progress as a soul it seems unnecessarily restrictive. On top of this, most of the hosts in later areas are hooded and impossible to possess unless you interact with them whilst inhabiting a physical form.
Checkpoints themselves in Agony are irregularly spaced. In some sections they seemed to be present every few minutes, but then there were areas full of annoying platforming and lethal demons that necessitated lengthy replays whenever I died. On its default setting, the checkpoints destroy after three deaths, but I would strongly advise disabling this until a later playthrough. Imagine Dark Souls where fireplaces are removed after an arbitrary number of deaths and you’ll understand the sadistic nature of this restriction. I get that the game is designed to be punishing, but when the default settings work so hard against enjoying the game something has gone wrong somewhere in the design process.
The bodies you inhabit when exploring Hell are outwardly different but all play exactly the same. The main difference you’ll notice is which bodyparts will be most prominent when you inevitably see yourself being torn to pieces by the demons that prowl the halls of Hell. The first level of the game features the vagina dentata headed onoskelis that have been so prominent in the promotional imagery for the game. You are informed that these demons are blind, so they hunt through sound and heat. This description makes them sound perfect for the beginning of a stealth horror, but in reality they seemed to have an uncanny ability to spot you from a ridiculous distance and instantly disembowel you.
The various hiding places across the environments are only effective when the demons are not alerted to your presence, so are often pretty useless. The end result is that the early parts of the game are massively frustrating and require an unwelcome level of endurance from the player who is still feeling their way into the game.
The levels in Agony are huge, but split into lots of smaller locations. This design has the unwanted effect of making Hell feel like a series of corridors with the occasional open space. The visual design of all of these areas is perfectly dark and oozing, with slimy walls and streams of blood but the majority of locations do begin to feel overly familiar. When combined with the repeated replaying of checkpoints, as well as quests that require you to explore these areas to find a certain number of random body parts to unlock doors, everything gets old pretty fast.
As well as these collectible sequences, there are puzzles in which you must paint the correct sigil with blood to open doors or remove barriers. These sigils are scattered across the levels with environmental clues as to which is correct. In practice, these clues were often needlessly obscure and the actual process of painting the runes is fiddly. Several times it didn’t recognise a correct sigil until after I had tried a number of other, incorrect ones.
Later on in the game, you are able to possess more powerful hosts, but even this has much of the fun removed as the timer returns with a vengeance. The only way to extend your time as a demon is to kill the wandering tortured humans, but in doing so you are removing the possible hosts for your soul when the timer runs out. This proves to be counter-intuitive as the game offers you extra abilities and power whilst ensuring that you cannot take full advantage of them. Coupled with the fact that you cannot repossess a previous demonic host, the end result is yet more annoyance and frustration.
Even with tweaks to the gameplay, the game is lacking in polish, and the 1.01 patch still felt like an early beta. There was plenty of screen-tearing, possessed bodies were often rooted to the spot, and cutscenes wouldn’t trigger. After a full game crash in the middle of a particularly frustrating section involving multiple demons, sigils and many hooded hosts, I took the sanctum of the Playstation Home Screen as a sign that my time in Hell was done for now, and I would certainly have abandoned the game earlier were it not for the needs of this review.
Agony is, true to its name and intentions, a hellish experience. My excitement for the game was quickly quashed behind bugs, crashes and unbalanced gameplay, failing to live up to the potential of the game’s core ideas and outstanding visual design. I hope that I can travel back to Hell following some substantial patching but, as things stand, Agony is torture in all the wrong ways.
Version Tested: PS4
Also available on PC and Xbox One