When UK tabloid newspaper The Sun says your new title is "the most controversial game since Grand Theft Auto" you know you’re on for a winner. This potential for upset has been a double-edged sword for developer Mad Mind Studios, who’s been battling the censors and had to cut an undisclosed amount of content to secure an ESRB rating of Mature. With its early footage replete with graphic imagery and bloody violence, expectations are high for gore-hounds and fans of survival horror. The final product emerges as a stylish and frustrating experience with some striking imagery and unforgiving systems.
A defenceless psychological survival horror, reminiscent of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Agony follows the journey of a mysterious fallen soul searching for the Red Goddess. This hellish figurehead may be able to help him escape his damnation, but the particular corner of hell he finds himself in is filled with her hostile followers. To survive the journey, you’ll need to solve puzzles to open pathways, while dodging the attention of demons that want to use your spine as a skipping rope.
Demons kill you instantly when they catch you, so stealth is key; hiding and holding your breath are your only tools of evasion. For the most part you don’t have any weapons to speak of; fire can be an ally but also a hindrance as it attracts the enemy. Death happens a lot and it's also where Agony gets interesting – and frequently annoying.
As your soul floats out of your body, you can find and possess a nearby "lesser being", which gives you a second chance to avoid being thrown back to a checkpoint. You have a limited time to search for a possession target so remembering where these martyrs are is of paramount importance. The temptation rises early to bypass the demon routes and find the next poor soul to take over, but those lesser beings have sacks on their heads that prevent possession unless removed, so if you haven’t found them while you're alive, they are useless to you while you're dead.
Soul mirrors are your respawn checkpoints, but their placement is painfully staggered at times. There's a custom difficulty available which is awfully tempting to use from a very early stage. Mechanics are poorly explained and it’s easy to get lost when trying to avoid the split-cranium demons, so having infinite charges of your "destiny line" (a waypoint system) and removing the complication of the fidgety possessions makes for a much less irritating experience. It doesn’t help that the demon pathways sometimes seem random and the encounters themselves happen far too frequently. Other horror games of this ilk usually pace out their stealth sections to give the player a breather, allowing them to soak in the narrative; here there are short minutes between demons.
The setting goes a long way to glossing over the game’s obvious mechanical flaws. Taking place in a hellscape inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and the poetry of Dante Alighieri, Agony throws you into a miserable pit of despair from the off. It recalls Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice with the constant chatter of tortured souls harrying the protagonist and sporadic sensory assaults punctuating the main story mode. Disorienting perspective shifts are seamless and effective, creating the feeling that this is a world without rhyme or reason.
The game’s environments are by far it’s strongest asset. Severed limbs rain down from a crimson sky, giant human hands protrude from walls, while demonic babies hang from umbilicals in slime-filled caves. Writhing forests of tendrils and gigantic chambers that seem to be made of viscera, there are some truly unique sights here that aren't for the faint of heart. Some of the the more overtly graphic imagery is hit and miss, at times feeling like overkill, even for a game set in a baroque depiction of hell. A sequence that sees a makeshift stone wall being built using baby demons as mortar – each one screaming as they’re crushed – is deeply unsettling. Conversely, the bare-breasted demons stalking you and the obvious metaphor of the forbidden fruit used to upgrade skills, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Everything is consistent with the theme, but the shifts from macabre beauty to trashy spectacle are jarring.
While the presentation of the world is largely impressive, there are some uneven elements that often break the atmosphere the devs have worked so hard to build. Poor voice acting renders a lot of the story sequences unintentionally funny and there are some issues with the sound mix in dialogue scenes. Visually, the game has some noticeable performance issues, with screen tearing and erratic framerates on PS4 Pro. These technical issues will most likely be patched with time, but they do sully the experience while they exist. There is a generous selection of graphics options that do reduce some of the above issues when tweaked (hint: remove blur, aberration and turn up stick sensitivity at the start).
Much like Frictional Games’ Soma, which patched in an extra mode that reduced the hide and seek parts of the game, Agony feels like it would benefit from the excision of its stealth sections. It’s a gorgeous game, with some terrific horror imagery, but it's one that you barely get to see when you are hiding or sneaking around to avoid being eviscerated. The demon encounters become more manageable as the game progresses, but it struggles to recover from the damage done in those opening hours.
After finishing the main story, there's a challenge mode with online leaderboards and a Succubus mode, in which you play as one of the Red Goddess’ acolytes. The former bundles together the frustrations of the main game without the story, and while it’s tempting to experiment with the game's systems, it still feels like a slog. The latter is a somewhat cathartic experience that puts you in the cloven hooves of a Succubus, a snappy power trip that recalls Alien vs Predator with it’s shift in power perspective.
A depiction of hell that hasn't really been fully realised before, Agony is marred by frustrating stealth sections and some poorly explained mechanics. The horrifying imagery is generally effective and the overall presentation manages to survive some glaring technical issues, but this is very much an acquired taste in every sense of the word.