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.
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.