The Highway to Hell
Man, it seem like I’ve been following Agony for decades. Initially set in to motion via Kickstarter back at the tail end of 2016, the campaign promised the most visceral, abhorrent version of hell the video game world has ever seen. What followed was a rollercoaster of booms and busts, and the game’s gorgeous visuals were praised, scant gameplay videos questioned, demo received luke-warmly, and censorship issues blown entirely out of proportion. But, now we’re here. A year after the initial May 2017 estimated release, Agony is here, and it’s fine.
Like the demo released last year, the game opens up with 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. Like the rest of the game, it’s absolutely beautiful, and raises a lot of questions in that had me hooked, wanting to know more. It would have been easy for Agony to adopt the simple premise of a human trying to survive in hell, but these opening moments, paired with early hints about mysterious shadow figures and unknown beings of power, make it clear that there’s something at least a little more interesting going on.
This quest, starting at the gates of hell and continuing deeper, into ever-more-twisted areas, plays much like Outlast and other non-combat focused horror titles of late. The main goal is to find this mysterious “Red Goddess,” regain your memories, and hopefully escape eternal damnation. An action game this is not. The denizens of hell are nasty creatures, and a withering human corpse is no match, so most of your encounters with enemies will consist of running, hiding in nooks and crannies, or finding ways to distract them. Besides monsters, it’s light puzzled and collection quest that stand in the way of progress, and to be honest neither are terribly engaging. More often than not you’ll be scrounging hallways for some sort of key- whether it be some body parts, images, or something similar- and then you kind of just rinse and repeat. I understand these objectives are really just justification to keep you moving and taking in the environment, but there just wasn’t enough variety to keep things from getting stale.
The possession mechanic ads a further twist. When you die, you don’t automatically jump back to your last checkpoint. Instead, you’re given a short timer to find another body to inhabit. As you progress, you’ll even gain the ability to jump into some of the monsters for a short time. It can sometimes be frustrating as the little orb of your soul seems to have the same “hitbox” as your full body, not letting you get through holes and openings that it looks like you should, but it does spice things up and make for some tense, interesting situations.
Navigating the Underworld
Navigation is an occasional source of frustration in Agony. I’d say that most of the game is simple enough to navigate, but there are also times when it’s very easy to get very lost. You’ll do a fair amount of backtracking as you play for various reasons, and when that means walking through branching hallways with extremely similar aesthetics, it’s more a matter of “when” than “if” you’ll get turned around. The game does let you hit a button to have a little astral light float in the direction you’re supposed to go, but it has limited charges between each checkpoint, and I frequently ran out far too quickly. I’m not sure if it would have taken too much away to let players have unlimited guiding lights, but surely a few more would have been a positive, as getting lost is never fun.
There are a few visual hiccups though. Around the game you’ll find lots of people with bags over their heads. You can interact with them to remove the bag and get a voice line or two for some flavor. Every single one that I encountered had a gap in their model where the back of their skull connected to their neck, leaving a diamond-shaped open hole that definitely wasn’t supposed to be there. I noticed holes in the models of a few demons as well. I also had some occasional animation jitters when I’d be squeezing sideways through a narrow passage that’d have me kind of just spazzing slowly forward. I got caught on some awkward terrain geometry a few times too. None of these are really that big of a deal, and they weren’t common enough to really detract from my extremely positive opinion of how the game looks, but they were still there.
Living Up to Its Promise
The whole marketing angle of Agony has always been how twisted its version of hell is. So, does it live up to the hype, or fall victim to try-hard edginess? Luckily, almost entirely the former. First and foremost, it gets huge bonus points for not relying on jump scares. It’s not that nothing ever jumps out at you, but you aren’t going to be assaulted by things in your face and loud dissonant chords every time you turn a corner. The game does absolutely rely on shock value, and the border between scary and cringy lays somewhere different for everyone, but most everything worked for me. The monster designs are unnerving, and every single square inch of the environment has something going on. The attention to detail really is astounding, which also carries over to the chilling ambient audio. If it isn’t obvious from the promotional videos and images, this is absolutely not a horror game for the young or easily upset. We’re not just talking blood and some screaming. There are babies ripped and half. There are sexual organs and orgies everywhere. People get ground to a pulp. It really is something. I’ve seen the game catch some flack from people that see going for shock value as a negative, but the game’s always been very upfront about that, and I think it successfully does what it set out to do.
At the end of the day, though, Agony exists with too much dissonance to be a completely enjoyable game. For as much as I liked the visual and audio designs, and they really are pretty great, the actual gameplay is just too frustrating and dull too much of the time. I think there’s a place for games that place style over substance, but Agony doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares, extremely detailed environments, unsettling set pieces and visual design, possession mechanic is cool.
Navigation can be confusing, visual glitches, the puzzles aren’t very exciting, collection objectives grow stale.