Agony caught my attention when it first started to be talked about in the press. Survival horror that is worth getting excited over is a rare breed nowadays. Bar your Outlast 2s and your Resident Evil 7s, there are only a handful of smaller titles that tend to grab the attention. It's a niche genre but one with a lot of lovers. That's why when something potentially interesting floats down the river, it's worth keeping an eye on. Agony looked like it had promise. Taking players a trip through hell, full of a lot of imagery that haunts the dark side of human psyche, that's a neat little idea. Perhaps a little bit 'Cannibal Corpse album cover', but you know, at least a potentially unique flavour.
I've now played the game for about three hours, and while that isn't enough to give the game a full appraisal, I thought I'd share some early thoughts. To get to the point: Hoo boy, Agony thus far is living up to its name.
The first thing you will notice about Agony is just how ugly the game is. While low-level graphics are not the end of the world, and can be overcome, the first looks at Agony certainly leave a bad first impression. Many games find a way to still be visually appealing despite graphical limitations, but Agony puts those limitations front and centre so they are impossible to ignore. Add on top of this, frame rate problems, weird lighting abrasions and very frequent screen tearing, at least on PS4, and the game really does not do itself any favours in that department.
The art team are working on overdrive here, at least. There are some neat designs and visual concepts that really do feel perfect under the banner of 'Hell, but with lots of sexual imagery'. Having one of the game's recurring enemies be a succubus whose head seems inspired by vagina dentata seems a bit crass and obvious but at least fitting. However, this mostly only works in concept. In reality, all the hard work done on all of these assets gets thrown out the window because they are pushed together into one sludgy mess. Arms, legs, bones, teeth, genitalia, dead deformed demonic babies, a glossy sheen and a huge helping of red and brown paint are all put into a blender and then poured onto the screen with wanton disregard. The assets and their ideas aren't terrible on their own, but there is just no artistic control utilised in making them work as a whole.
This does end up affecting the gameplay too, which honestly isn't all that much to write home about either. The general idea is to just keep progressing in a line, avoiding any obstacles put in your way. Thus far, there has been no active combat, you just having to hide when an enemy appears. There is nothing wrong with this kind of gameplay, of course. It's been excellent in games like Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. However, generally, the genre only works when the path is clear and perfected to a tee. The level design in Agony feels like it is actively working against you, and not in a fun and engaging way. In a good game where the level design is antagonistic to the player, a level feels like it is pushing back against you, daring you to figure it out, but it is always fair. The levels in Agony are just unclear. It's mazes you stumble through until you somewhat accidentally find the way out. This is where the mess of art confuses things further as it can become hard to know exactly where you are and if you have seen this sinewy, fleshy wall before. Confusing art and level design are mixed into a putrid cocktail here.
The trudge through hallway after hallway is broken up with some puzzle solving that also suffers from a clarity problem. The game doesn't like to tell you what's going on, either through text or gameplay, so you are left to figure out what it is asking of you all on your own. For example, the first major puzzle takes place in a maze and you are supposed to find several skulls to open a door at the end of it. Except that was never made clear until I got to the final door, and realised I had some skulls to place down because I'd been picking up everything I saw. That's not a challenging puzzle. That's a puzzle that doesn't explain itself, the developer holding the cards and not telling you the parameters of the question. In essence, that is incomplete. I have to know the rules I'm playing by for it to be satisfying, rather than accidentally finding the solution. Giving someone a jigsaw but then withholding half the pieces doesn't make it challenging, it just denies the experience worth.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising the game because I think it is offensive, clutching my pearls at the horror of such gory sacrilege. I'm criticising it because from what I've played, it is bad. I came into it wanting to see what a developer could do with a psycho-sexual survival horror. Silent Hill 2 on crystal meth sounded at least worth dipping a toe into. Instead, it's just an ugly, bloated and uninteresting set of corridors to walk down. There is an intense muchness to the game that never lets the player breath or appreciate anything going on in this world. It's like being screeched at constantly. There is no pacing to the horror, meaning that it becomes totally inept at being at all scary. The experience becomes pedestrian. Once I am walking past my tenth demonic baby hanging from the ceiling by its umbilical cord, it doesn't hold any power to disgust or horrify me. It just becomes window dressing.
And that's possibly where Agony stumbles most of all. On top of the ugly as sin graphics, nonsensical level design and the vomit of art assets, the one thing the game should excel at is being shocking and disturbing. It should cause disgust in me as I play, make me feel uncomfortable. Instead, it feels tame and unsurprising. It's the least sharp of edge. The version of hell, the sexual nature, the gore; none of it has any impact. There is too much of it and it is laced in a constant feeling of confusion making it impossible to be drawn in. The title Agony is much too exciting a name for what I've played thus far. It is boring, in execution, in ideas and as a game. I don't feel like I am in a nightmare vision of hell. It feels like I am in a nightmare vision of the Unreal Engine 4.