Agony Unrated: All this in flesh and sex
Updated: Jul 21
This article contains various depictions and discussions of rape and other forms of abuse. Viewer discretion is advised
Agony was a game that caused something of a stir within the gaming community. Agony’s depiction hell and all the things that came with it, sparked curiosity and interest in a number people (including myself). Then the reviews came into the picture. Critics and audiences alike panned the game from almost every single angle. In other words, people hated this game. However, I was still curious about the title (mostly morbid curious in all honesty) and eventually picked it up. After I purchased Agony I discovered I got both the normal R rated version and the X rated Unrated version. The Unrated version was especially notorious for containing graphic sex, children getting eaten and interactive rape scenes (thankfully absent from my playthrough). Because I am that type of man, I played the Unrated version. I knew what I was getting into, and I do accept that Madmind Studios actively sort to bring the full terror of hell warts and all. Agony's core idea is great with tons of potential. But the execution is broken beyond repair.
After being cast into hell, Nimrod is forced to traverse hell in order to find the Red Goddess (implied to be the Whore of Babylon ) who appears to have to power let damned souls escape. Along the way we learn how Nimrod became a sinner and turned his back against God in favour of the Red Goddess and the fallout of that.
The story is surprisingly weak and unfocused. Even though the overall goal of the game is to find the Red Goddess, we find her multiple times and then lose her through some underwhelming climax. As Nimrod has the classic case of amnesia we are subjected to a dull exposition dump, that is woven in as smoothly as a car crash minus the effect of the collision.
It’s impossible to get invested as Nimrod has barely any back-story or personality, asides becoming a Satanist and causing the end of the world (implied Red goddess influence). He is a one dimensional shell, a blank slate because of the amnesia, that does not appear to enjoy or regret his decisions and the consequences. A person that is an alleviated camera man, watching things unfolds rather then has a personality. The Red Goddess is an interesting villain, well performed (Karem Strassman).
More on the red Goddess
She always keeps her motives just out of reach, and as a result keeps you guessing. I just wish her relationship with Nimrod had more of an impact. Because he is a silent protagonist, we never get a sense if he is afraid of her, in love with her or in worship. He just finds her, dies and continues to find her. There was a fantastic opportunity to see how the Whore of Babylon twists and manipulates men and women to her will. But the execution is less how demons prey on the desires of mortals but of a puppy being led by a string.
That analogy in of itself sounds interesting. But the encounters are too empty, void of tension or interplay. There is no interesting dynamic between slave and master. Instead its a repetitive action of finding her, seeing her ass and keep going. You stare at her then the game continues its slow drudge through disturbing set pieces. Agony tragically wastes what could be an interesting villain on repetitive encounters that do nothing asides from ending chapters and showing off models rubbing against each other.
Atmosphere and shock tactics: Sexuality
Sexual imagery is everywhere in Agony. From the demons that have vaginas for heads to demon orgies. One might think that Madmind is trying to set up a theme of sorts. Maybe a theme of corruption and how sin takes even the most pleasurable of activities, and twists it into a nightmarish version of itself? Unfortunately no, instead of creating build-up to the scenes of demons raping women or infusing the imagery with themes that work into the story (think Silent Hill 2). Agony wants to shock you.
It rams the imagery up to 11 and repeats itself over and over again. First time you see a demon orgy you feel a little uncomfortable, even somewhat disgusted. But after the third time you are bored. See one demon raping a screaming woman, see them all. Instead of crafting a atmosphere that waves the dark side of human sexuality into the world carefully, with downtime to recover from the imagery. Agony bombards you with horrific imagery until you as numb and indifferent to the visuals as the average shopping trip.
Atmosphere and shock tactics: babies and environments
One could say that the use of shock tactics is the point. Hell is horrific always all the time. That is true but in practice it does not create a compelling horror journey. If you keep the visuals at 11 all the time, you cannot expect anyone to maintain investment. You see one wall made of flesh and mouths you have seen it all. You walk over one floor made of human corpses once, you have seen them all. There is no sense of escalation; there is no humanity to ground the player with sense of danger .Miles Upshur from Outlast being a good example of grounding the player in reality. He gives the player an identity that they can use to experience what Miles experiences. We don’t even get to hear Nimrod’s name until half way through the game. The world you explore is too far removed from any sort of reality to make up with the inefficiency in character.
Now about the babies...
Agony is based on various renaissance paintings and loosely (emphasis on loosely) the first Canter of the Devine Comedy. Written by Dante Alighieri, Dante’s Inferno is a key text to how we view hell. Babies are present in hell. At least those who were unbaptized. But, unbaptized children would only be found in the first circle of hell, namely Limbo. They were not being fed to monsters, screaming while being eaten alive. They were not having their heads being torn off or used as building blocks for walls. These things do not happen in Dante’s Inferno.
They do however, happen in Agony. Instead of trying to craft an atmosphere that uses the disturbing imagery to create a one of a kind journey. We are thrown a series of situations with children in pain, with all the grace and tact of an edgy web comic. We are exposed to meaningless images that are designed to trigger the disgust emotion and the parental instinct. Unpleasant, but ultimately shallow and cheap. It does not scare, it just disgusts before becoming boring.
A jaded person would call Agony a walking simulator with extract steps and distractions. I would agree with this assessment to an extent. Walking from point A to point blood spattered orgy appears to be the main gameplay loop. You wonder through a series of disturbing environments, slipping past a demon with a vagina for a head until the game tells you to stop. However it is more than just a walking simulator, there are puzzles, sneak past demons as well as an interesting possession mechanic. I will look examine all of these in detail, including that one boss(?) fight as they all had potential for something great. Sadly, the execution fails terribly.
The possession of hell people
Agony’s one interesting game mechanic comes in the form of possessing people. How it works is that whenever you die (more on that later) you have the chance to possess people who will act as your extra lives. You can also possess demons as well throughout the game for a nice power fantasy. Sounds pretty good no? Well, here is how it is screwed up. Controlling your disembodied spirit feels like controlling a car on ice. It makes finding people to possess a chore because you are always sliding in and out of range and character models. On top of that, there is no apparent run feature in soul form, which is galling considering that you are on a timer while out of a body.
The ending result is that of frustration, as one struggles to travel long distances of empty hellscape to find someone, then get into position then channel the ability. There is no reason to have such a long channel when on single button press would do. It is just another finicky process to an already annoying mechanic. While on the subject of processing things, the demon possession sounds lovely in theory but in reality it offers little use asides from two predetermined moments in the game. You cannot pick up important items or progress the plot in any way (asides from those two moments). It’s a interesting idea wasted with undercooked design.
At the start you are given the opportunity to have unlimited ‘destiny lines’. These lines essentially show you the way to where you have to go. I could not recommend that option enough as it is otherwise impossible to know where you are supposed to go. The visuals blur together with a miasma of flesh and other body parts, they all look the same as result. Normally you are supposed to make your way to whatever is glowing purple which is only present, some of the time. While we are on that subject, I would like to talk about the starting level. It is ideally the easiest level in the game, it serves as both the tutorial and teaches the player what to expect. The chamber of judgement demanded a sacrifice of blood to weigh down scales.
Where was the heart in this darkness?
I got my first heart from a nearby crucifixion victim (I tore it out of him, he’s fine) but apparently I needed another one in order to progress. It does not say this but rather that something was missing. After searching the room a few times, utterly baffled before discovering a hole in the floor that I was apparently supposed to go down. Once inside I was met by a series passages that all lead to nothing. There were no purple hues to guide me and the map was vague at best. There was no way to know where I was supposed to go.
The darkness didn’t help either because (like with a lot of bad horror games) not seeing where you are going is scary. With the help of a walkthrough and turning up the gammer I was able to proceed. But that area was the start of what would be a reoccurring feature. Vast levels that actively discourage exploration, due to a lack of appropriate sign posting. You are almost entirely reliant on the destiny lines because without them you will waste time wondering around in circles.
I would like use the Spider cave puzzle ( as referred to by Game pressure ) as an example of Agony not explaining puzzles. You are in a room filled with iron maidens, you have to place body parts in bowls as blood sacrifices. So I explored the room not understanding what I was supposed to do. I suspected that I needed to open the iron maidens. Unfortunately there was no way to open them. Going though the portal simply resulted me back where I was (the game does not tell you in any way that you were travelling between dimensions by the way) . So I found myself solving the puzzle not out of intelligence but rather stumbling across randomly opened iron maidens. The solution as a result of this lack of communication was numb and more of surprise then the sense of clarity given, by good games.
There were times when I solved the puzzle before I even knew that there was a puzzle to be solved. These cases were rare, but ultimately not much of a problem as the game was not wasting my time. What did waste my time however, were with the sigils paintings. How it works is that special doors can only be opened by painted sigils found in the nearby environment. In a better game this would not have been a problem if it were not for the horrid communication. Because there are often multiple sigils scattered in a certain area with only one being correct. This is not a problem in of itself if the game communicated the fact that it was the incorrect sigil. I was convinced that I was drawing it wrong until I checked a guide.
Maybe it would not have been so bad if the environments were not so cluttered and over designed. It is unnecessarily hard to find and spot a sigil when the walls are covered in flesh and bone along with the darkness. Agony frustrates and wastes my time through uncommunicative trial and error. It does not help that the puzzles themselves are repetitive in design. You will weigh bowls with the heads of the damned round about three times, in a nine hour playthrough and write sigils over ten times. There is no change in how the weighing puzzle happens as both have monsters thrown in. The shape only changes with the sigil, the only difficulty is finding the correct one.
In the overdesigned, bombastic visual and sound design (dammed souls screaming in pain and sexual satisfaction) it is very difficult to hear or see the demons. However you are still expected to sneak past demons in standard stealth. You can crouch, hold your breath all that jazz. The problem is that the game has a bad habit of not warning you that demons are nearby. Because of the environments and sound design, it makes it very easy for demons to sneak up on you and kill you in one hit.
Its a cheap means of padding out the runtime. The distribution and availably of hiding spaces is horrid with multiple ones in a single passageway, then none in wide open spaces. They are only highlighted purple some of the time. The environments do not help either. When stealthing there is no consistency in if a demon spots you, you can crouch and hold your breath but a demon might still see you regardless.
Failure of hiding places
Furthermore, getting into a hiding place while being chased will only result in you being found instantly. There is also a problem with the enemy placement, namely in narrow corridors or places where there are no hiding places. The Floating Temple is the most egregious example of this. Where I had to cross a number of single lanes where for some brilliant reason, demons are placed directly in front of you.
No way to dodge or hide you will just die because haphazard placement. As I have said before, it is a cheap means of difficulty. The AI does not help either. It often is either too stupid and wonders in tight circles where sneaking is impossible, spotting you miles away or not noticing you when they should have. In stealth gameplay, the AI needs to have a distinctive pattern in order for the player to know when to sneak past. When sneaking becomes impossible due to the AI breaking, I am left angry.
That one boss fight
The game ends with a boss fight. Or at least what passes for a boss fight. What happens is that you are able to possess a Chort which is used to fight the Beast (implied to be Satan) in order to posses it. However instead actually fighting it with gameplay we watch the Chort fight and lose against the Beast in a cut scene. Then you possess a Onoskelis who has to blow up some wall pustules (which in the overtly disgusting everything of the level did not stand) the level is monochrome for some reason with a haze effect (for some reason). As a result of the game’s inability to sign post and actively removing colour and visual clarity I had no idea why or what I was doing. After bursting two pustules the Beast dies for some reason. Then the final cut scenes happen. It left me feeling both cheated and underwhelmed. It promised me a fight but instead provided me a lame puzzle and a few cut scenes.
Art style and Graphics:
There is massive missed opportunity with the imagery in Agony. The monster designs in particular are inspired. The Onoskelis are viscerally disturbing in their unsettlingly sexual designs. They deserve a better game. I cannot help but wonder if (along with the obvious inspirations mentioned previously) that Madmind Studios have looked at HR Giger’s work. The use of bone and flesh with the sexual undercurrent is very much classic Giger. Even if the visuals completely desensitise the player and clutter up the levels, they are fascinating. I will give the art designers credit for creating something so distinctively disgusting. However graphical fidelity is rather lacking, texturing is often flat and the character models possessing a strange doll like quality close up (the Red Goddess in particular). Character animation is limited (sometimes laughably so) which make some scenes unintentionally funny.
The game has problems with physics. The Chorts in particular have problems of sending Nimrod flying through the air with each strike. As a result, I have gotten stuck in the ceiling due to this. There were times when falling body parts would get stuck in the walls. The physics to go haywire as a result. Furthermore, there were also some drops in frame rate at certain places. One particular example was a maze where the frame rate dropped below 10 FPS. It was not even a particularly demanding scene which makes the frame rate all the more peculiar. Please keep in mind that the frame rate problems seem to be unique to me, it might not happen to you if you fancy playing Agony.
Agony’s left me bitterly disappointed. The ideas it has are good. But the execution is abhorrent. Agony fails to be scary, fails to be shocking and fails to be a good, compelling game set in hell. I was empty and hollow when I should have been left disturbed. Agony’s failure to be even an onslaught of shocking imagery is made all the more apparent by terrible mechanics and level design. Agony is unpleasant for all the wrong reasons.
2020/03/12 Edit: Pics have gone uncensored !!
2020/03/29 Edit: Gramma improved