If nothing else, I’m at least impressed that AGONY actually came out. There’s nothing yours truly likes more than coming home after a long night at the bars, popping in some earphones, and watching horror video game trailer compilations until the sun comes up. As such, AGONY had long been on my radar, but its continued proliferation in newly released videos began to suggest that it would be yet another double-A White Whale, banished to the same frustrating corner as the perpetually impending ALLISON ROAD. But, lo and behold, the bell finally rang, and I had no choice but to answer.
We awaken in Hell without any memory of who we are or how we got there. Contrary to the belief espoused by AC/DC, Hell most certainly is a bad place to be, and our character decides it’d be far better to escape than to wander around for all eternity. Slowly piecing together that we’re a king named Amraphael who made a bad deal with the Red Goddess, one of the architects of Hell, while alive, we decide to try to make our way through labyrinthine damnation and reach her lair, where we’ll attempt to convince her to help us escape if we can survive the various demons that block our path.
This is almost literally the cover of Cannibal Corpse’s “Hammer Smashed Face”
The second Hell simulator of 2018, I can’t say in good faith that AGONY doesn’t do a better job of representing the tableau than its unintentional companion piece. The graphics are impressive, doubly so considering the budget, rendering the underworld in a way that is visually arresting and squeamish. Blood flows, fires rage, abject biostructures pulse, and various bodies and body parts are strewn, flung, and hung all around. It’s rather juvenile in its dogged determination for doing The Most at every possible moment, but achieves a nearly goofy sense of cartoon-like overexaggeration that brings to mind the cover art of early ‘90s death metal in a way that’s almost charming. In short, it’s certainly one of the more memorable incarnations of Hell in recent cultural memories, if maybe not one of the better, and for a game where you spend four hours traipsing down where the sun don’t shine (forgetting for the moment the major red flag of having a game with a $30 price tag be only four hours long), that’s important.
Unfortunately, the buck mostly stops there in terms of what AGONY does right. A key part of what makes the concept of Hell so frightening is just how permanent it is; life in prison has always scared me more than the electric chair, and the thought of getting tortured for an unfathomable amount of eternity is certainly a skin-crawling one. But I don’t want that painful tedium to carry over into a game set in Hell, and all that really needs to be said about AGONY at the end of the day is that it’s boring as rocks. This is, as with many “horror” properties, somewhat to do with the rather deaf way in which it was marketed—this is a “dark fantasy” game, and a puzzle-heavy one at that. That’s in no way saying that puzzle-heavy games are inherently boring, but the game makes it painfully clear that anything other than the graphics was a distant afterthought. The “puzzles” in question mostly involving perpetual backtracking and bumping around, trying to find non-intuitive avenues to go down, afraid to use the chintzy amount of power you’re given to use a beacon to show you the correct path. It would be more accurate to say solutions are stumbled upon than realized.
And again, even that could still contribute to a captivating and high-strung game: after all, AMNESIA: THE DARK DESCENT is regarded as one of the greatest games, horror or otherwise, of all time. But for as much as AGONY’s art department deserves a scratch behind the ears, the rest of the development team forgot to give us anything to latch onto. Most of the denizens of Hell consist of sullen looking people that repeat the same phrases over and over again, feeling more like an Elder Scrolls NPC than a tortured soul and never contributing to any greater sense of challenge. There are a few demons that are actively trying to kill you (more on this later), yes, but their behavior patterns are easily determined and even more easily avoided.
I say “avoided,” because defeating the Hellspawn is out of the question. AGONY doesn’t see fit to institute a combat system of any kind, and while that’s not a nail in the coffin in and of itself, the major flaw in most post-AMNESIA survival horror is just how boring it is to wait for bad guys to go away. It makes some amount of logical sense that a game set in Hell would be more based on survival as opposed to knuckle-dusting, but there’s just something impotent about you only ever being able to briefly possess demons and get them to do the dirty work for you. Don’t even get me started on how the big boss fight with Satan occurs with you firmly bunkered up behind a pillar as you send others into the fray to fight via proxy.
In addition, not to situate my fedora too snugly upon my head, but the world of AGONY makes absolutely no sense. Why isn’t there any sort of bureaucracy in this accursed realm? You are a rogue agent mostly left to his own devices, able to freely move around without anyone ever taking an undue amount of umbrage with it. When you get to Hell you just get to waltz around a macabre waiting room without immediately being shuffled off to eternal pain and suffering? Why are there notes left behind by other lost souls? Where do you go if you’re “killed” in Hell? Why are there plants??? That’s not even mentioning the sexual politics of the whole affair, in regards to which I’d like to invite you to look at the title stylization and proclaim problematic at best. It’s one thing to be as relentlessly horny as whoever it was that came up with the female models of the game, but there’s a subtle sense of fear and/or derision towards women that taints the thematics as well, making the sexualization of the Red Goddess and her minions all the more unsavory.
Presented without further comment
So with that, AGONY can now be banished into the massive corner of What Could Have Been, a fairly resolute disappointment that’s earnest in all the wrong ways. I went into it assuming I’d have to take its presumed “edgelord” element to task, but in all honesty, the depiction of Hell, gore, and viscera, the already-infamous baby bashing scene included, is still what I find to be the only notable takeaway from the game. Besides the hard-to-shake feeling of some latent hatred simmering just below the surface of the nihilism inherent in having no real goal, objective, or context for the same, AGONY is simply not engaging to play. I’m rooting for the double-A studio renaissance on a conceptual level, but examples such as this take large strides in dashing my hopes.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend