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Agony Review — Flamin’ Hell

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Agony

Since Agony’s release, much has been made of its failings: reviews have waxed lyrical about technical faults, and opinion pieces have decried its content. The most important thing to note is that such criticisms are deserved. However, the nature of many of the available commentaries suggest that their writers explored only the opening hours, failing to reach a transformative shift that, if not resulting in greatness, at least mitigates the egregious flaws of the early game. Nonetheless, despite going some way towards achieving the potential within Madmind Studios’s highly sexualised interpretation of Hell, even the later, better stages only barely give merit to the game’s existence.

Rarely has Hell been envisioned with such a single-minded determination to shock. A “terrifying” interpretation of the underworld was one of the key pillars that earned Agony its funding two years ago, but that goal goes unrealised. Perhaps tempered with a modicum of moderation, the body horror that comprises many of the levels could make for a chilling atmosphere akin to that achieved in Dead Space. Instead, Agony is relentless in its construction of a space rife with giant teeth and fingers, gaping vaginas, and deformed penises. Despite the overburdened design, the environment certainly is disturbing, merging architectural norms with biological elements to create corridors that pulse in a parody of the birthing canal and walls adorned with the viscera of the slain. The imagery is evocative, and the unnerving nature of the realm is ratcheted up by the incidental details that contribute to Madmind’s perverse world-building—infanticide, bodies impaled in a sexualised manner, and the gibbering idiocy of those sinning souls unfortunate enough to have been condemned to this nightmare realm. Unfortunately, for much of the early hours, these details are buried beneath a thick blanket of darkness that serves to confuse, rather than increase the tension of the survival-horror experience.

At least initially, Agony feels like a horror/narrative adventure hybrid in the vein of Outlast or Amnesia, but that description tells only half of the story. Adherence to the gameplay tropes of those aforementioned titles is most prominent in Agony’s opening stages and comprises the worst elements of the experience on offer. For the first few hours, players are forced to scrabble through levels so deeply shadowed that no clear idea of the surroundings can be resolved. With linear paths, this design could contribute to a heavy, brooding atmosphere. Instead, Madmind borrows looping corridors and hub areas from Metroidvania-style titles, coupling them with a poorly implemented hint system that features a tendency to double back on itself and lead players to dead ends. Compounding these fundamental issues of orientation are the demons that patrol the levels, whose movement patterns are often unpredictable and senses preternatural. Early on, detection almost certainly means death, and the lifeline of possessing another body is poor consolation, forcing players to  traverse the same blind paths to the same dissatisfying end time and again. However, as soon as the player gains the ability to take over the bodies of demons, the game shifts gears.

This metamorphosis is more akin to that from a tadpole into a toad than a caterpillar into a butterfly—Agony remains stunted and ugly, yet gains an undeniable strength from the change. Players no longer need to hide from the Onoskeli and Chorts that stalk the halls, but can instead relish in dying by their hands and the power that stems from their possession. Although narrative progression is often halted while in these forms, the user is able to utilise their enhanced abilities to clear stages of other enemies and force the demons to commit suicide on environmental hazards before resuming the weaker human bodies without fear of frustrating deaths. The change in design comes alongside an aesthetic shift. The world brightens, making navigation a more straightforward and enjoyable process, and the sanguine environments are traded out for diversity via forest, flame, ice, and body parts. Core gameplay continues to require finding various keys to unlock doors, but the process is stripped of much of its tedium, leaving a game that is functional, if not inspired. Whether these later hours make up for the off-putting opening will be up to the individual, but many users, perhaps understandably, will not persevere long enough to draw conclusions.

The torturous beginning may be excused were Agony to provide a strong narrative throughline to draw players onward, but the game fails to provide on that front. Players fall into Hell as an amnesiac, and only the barest hints of the protagonist’s past are divulged during the adventure. The clues allude to evil and power, but little is ever made clear. Instead, the story focuses on the character’s quest to return to life through the power of the Red Goddess. Her hypersexual nature, alongside some of environmental designs and the feminine evils of the Onoskeli and Succubi, has led some commentators to criticise the title as misogynistic, but that claim misses the mark. Agony is equally misandrous; men therein are represented primarily through the Chorts—hulking beasts driven solely by the primal urges of violence and sex. That depiction is emphasised in the final boss, who appears as a brainless entity serving only as the plaything of the Red Goddess. In Madmind’s world, women may be villains, but they at least have agency and power. To its credit, Agony makes a strong attempt to flesh out its story with the notes scattered liberally across the landscapes, but even they cannot provide the compelling hook the game so desperately needs. As the writer ascends to power, they descend into depravity and madness, and that tale is left fragmentary and inconclusive because players will not necessarily collect all of its pieces. Simply, the narrative is a mess, rarely providing a much-needed sense of clarity and leading to a conclusion suggestive of a sequel that is probably best left unrealised.

agony5

However, Madmind should not give up its craft. Many missteps are evident in the design process, yet the issues therein appear primarily the result of misguided ambition. Among the game’s successes, the sound design—some questionable voice acting aside—stands out. Heaving and punctuated with the screams of the damned, the ambience and background music imbue the hellscape with a tangible sense of presence. Meanwhile, although the visual design is overwrought, the sheer artistry on display, depraved and let down by poor texturing as it is, deserves commendation. The weaknesses within the graphics seem more attributable to the development team’s desire to create a lengthy experience bolstered with optional content than to any shortcomings in its ability to create high-quality content. With a clearer, more cohesive vision, Agony could have been one of 2018’s most engaging—though certainly not strongest—games. Instead, the atmosphere is squandered on shock tactics and an unshakeable feeling of abject mediocrity enforced by the beginning.

Unfortunately, Agony stumbles off the starting block and, despite a valiant later effort, is never able to make up lost ground. In this case, a poor first impression irreparably mars the experience, despite measurable improvement in many of the fundamental design principles as the game wears on. The art and audio is striking, but the project may have benefited immensely from less ambition, and the hope is that, should Madmind have a second chance, it will create a more focused and cohesive title. Agony is not great, but it is far from the irredeemable abomination the media has painted it as.

Reviewed on PC.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Review

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

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RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

A Conflicted Beginning

The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.

Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.

As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.

Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).

Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.

Gunplay To Die For

Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.

Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.

The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.

Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 2

Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.

The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.

The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.

However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.

A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast

The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.

Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.

With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 6

To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).

Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.

A Slipshod Structure

Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.

Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.

Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 8

On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.

Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

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