by Quinn Levandoski
previewed on PC
Entering the Land of the Dead
I’ve mentioned this before, but us gamers seem to be in a bit of a horror renaissance right now. The action-heavy “scary” titles that flooded the market following the success of Resident Evil 4 seem to be falling a bit out of favor, being replaced by the slower, more helpless feeling games of the last year or two. As a horror fan, I couldn’t be more happy. Attempting to continue this tried is Kickstarter success story Agony, a horror-stealth hybrid that tasks you with trying to survive in demon-infested Hell itself. The game isn’t out yet, but I was able to play a brief demo build, and things seem to be shaping up pretty horrifyingly. In a good way.
As the demo opens up, I was treated to a brief cinematic and monologue in which our mysterious protagonist describes the fall to hell and proclaims that the Red Goddess is the key to the Gate of Unending Agony. Given that none of the plot is addressed in the demo and developer Madmind Studio has been relatively hush with details, this opening asks a lot of questions without giving any answers. Is my goal to escape Hell? To rule it? To destroy it? Why am I able to possess other bodies after being “killed” in hell? Why did my fall to Hell go through a bunch of clouds in the sky? Am I an angel? A former demon? Just a regular guy with supernatural powers for no other reason than it’s cool? I suppose all of these questions mean that the demo did what it was supposed to do in that it built curiosity and had me wondering about things I didn’t even know to be curious about before. Whatever the answers are, it’s nice that it seems there’s going to be more of a plot than “get from A to B without being seen because demons are scary.”
The Devil’s in the Details
When I started actually playing Agony, the thing that became most immediately clear is that the game takes the detailing of its setting quite seriously. In the small starting room alone there were some people in cages, others wandering around with bags on their heads trying to pound their heads on rocks, limbs sticking out of the walls, giant jaw-like protrusions with grinding molars, and bodies seemingly petrified with a varnishing of black crude oil. There was a prompt to talk to these people, but the dialogue content is locked out of the demo, leaving me to wonder what they might have to say. The demo in its entirety, and I assume the rest of the game as well, deserves major credit for having some of the most detailed environments I’ve ever seen. Every square inch is filled with something creepy and moving, whether it be charred bodies sticking out of the floor and walls, tentacle chairs enveloping people, plumes of hellfire, legions of screaming people being beaten to death (Re-death? Second death?) by demons, or one of many other nasty combinations of verbs and nouns Agony threw at me during the short segment I was able to play.
Gameplay in Agony wasn’t complicated once I figured out how all of the available systems worked. The short segment I was able to play consisted of sneaking around to avoid the handful of creepy naked demons walking around and solving a few simple puzzles as I made my way down a few floors to a big, nasty looking demon being held in place by what looked like restraints of sinew. These patrol demons walked around on what seem to be pre-scripted routes, unable to see with a giant female genitalia-shaped toothy maw taking up the entirety of their head. What they can do is hear (well, I’m guessing it’s aural), forcing you to go slowly, crouch, and hold your breath as you move closely past them. The only item I was able to use to help me in the demo was a torch, and I’m really curious to see what else pops up throughout the run of the full game. There clearly needs to be a bit more to keep things fresh for more than one demo level, but at the same time there’s something nice and humbling about having so little.
Still Some Issues to Work Out
There were a few confusing sections I came to where I wasn’t really sure where I was supposed to go, which was strange given that the level was laid out pretty linearly. Having so much detail in the environment is beautiful, but it can be disorienting when you’re trying to figure out where you’ve been and where you should be headed. I also encountered an area of random death. In one particular area there’s some fire that shoots out on a timer, and I just kept dying whenever I crossed, even after multiple attempts of making sure that I wasn’t getting hit by any flames. However, when you do die, the game makes continuing a little more interesting by being able to possess another weak-minded creature- in this case, any of the wandering tormented human souls- instead of just going back to a checkpoint (though there are certain causes of death that make you do this). Here at this seemingly random death zone, and in a few other instances, it was actually better to intentionally die and then race past whatever was standing in my way to find a body past it all to possess. I’m not sure if that’s what I was supposed to do, but it worked. Right now this was about the extent of the ability's usefulness, but it seems like this will become more offensive as the protagonist gains the ability to do more with demon body possession.
Lastly, I did have some problems with the visuals which may or may not be resolved with the expanded options of the full game. For one, as beautiful as everything is, the game has a nasty blur on by default during movement that started giving me nausea. I highly recommend turning that off before doing anything else as it makes the game look crisper and more playable. While I was able to turn the blur off in the options menu, this was unfortunately one of the only options I was able to adjust, as most were locked. As far as visuals go, the only other meaningful change I could make was adjusting the gamma, which is a shame because I really felt the need to tweak the display. At their default settings there seemed to be a slight milky film over the screen, which, given that the color palette is made up of almost entirely shades of red, made it a bit difficult to see what was going on at times. I think that some tweaks to the contrast and overall brightness might help, but I’m not sure. I hope so.
Agony is a game that, at least in the demo I was able to creep through, seems to really be delivering on its promise to present a detailed, twisted version of hell really seems to be a living (nonliving?), breathing place with a whole lot going on at all times. I’ve already come across some truly reprehensible set pieces that I don’t want to spoil here, and I completely loved it. While it’s still got some issues to iron out, as much is to be expected from a beta build of a game still in development.