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Test: Agony

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Disturbing. Dark. Free and clear. These were the characteristics of the last videos of Agony, which started about two years ago on Kickstarter. With an oppressive atmosphere and explicit content the hell trip wants to add a new facet to the survival horror. Whether this succeeds beyond the visualization, we clarify in the test.

 

Hellish torment

 

After the last trailers I was still not sure what kind of game Agony is. Officially it is assigned to the category “Survival-Horror”. But this field is ordered multi-layered and ranges from Silent Hill and Resident Evil to Layers of Fear or Outlast. With some room for interpretation one could even add the classic Clive Barker’s Undying from 2001. Also the violence depicted in the trailers or the disturbing atmosphere, which is also created by the sometimes hidden, but much more frequently clearly depicted sexual references, awakened associations in me with the British author, who is among other things responsible for the foundation of Hellraiser.

 

The narrative beginning of Agony arouses curiosity and is intensively staged: One falls for miles into hell. But upon arrival no gates open and you are greeted by Beelzebub. Instead, one hits the ground of the facts and shatters. Why one was banished to hell or who one is, remains unclear for a long time and is finally dissolved with the altogether seven available ends on the way to the flight from hell. The role of the Red Goddess, which represents a central element within the narrative, also becomes increasingly concrete from initially diffuse and cryptic information and remains a moment of tension for a long time. Interesting is also the visual interpretation of the place, which in some religions propagates eternal damnation for sinners and which is also repeatedly taken up and thematized in the visual arts, literature and of course in games such as Dante’s Inferno or Diablo.

 

Giger and Barker as inspiration?

In terms of art design, Madmind’s team, which consists partly of former developers from CD project Red or City Interactive, is extremely uncompromising. The hell that opens up in front of you is dirty, bloody and consists mostly of organic pieces. One wades through mountains of corpses, finds again and again other tortured, impaled or otherwise mutilated souls and is perhaps even shocked when one sees the limits Agony occasionally breaks through in the performance. A symphony in black and red, whose darkness is often only broken by flames and lightning. Apparently inspired on the one hand by Clive Barker, with a small shot of H.R. Giger and on the other by paintings by Breughel and Bosch as well as comics and relevant films. The fact that the latter (especially Hellraiser, Constantine or some episodes of the Lucifer TV series) are also inspired by the visual arts or the other elements makes the circle complete. However, it would have

 

Agony not harmed, despite the dark atmosphere the darkness not so much to put in the foreground, because it has too often negative effects on the playability – but more about that. Because in the context of the visualization also the topic sex and/or freedom of movement must be addressed.

 

Although there is of course room for interpretation in this respect, for Madmind hell seems to be synonymous with physical characteristics of the woman as well as a focus on fertility. Not only because the Red Goddess represents salvation. While the souls one encounters on one’s trip to hell consist in about equal parts of a few clothed men and women, the opponents and demons mostly have female traits. The Sukkubi, for example, are not only bare-bosomed (at least well-formed), but also often have tooth-shaped and horned vulva instead of a head. The fruits of the tree of sin, with which one can increase its few property values, are apples (which, however, also resemble peaches), which are also provided with a vulva. One can observe demonic orgies and discover many other open as well as few hidden sexual allusions or references. So explicitly and directly a game has not yet dealt with fetishes in this form – Clive Barker will probably think at this point that his horror shooter Jericho appeared ten years too early. Madmind even scissored for the PEGI release; the developers recently showed what exactly was removed in a small video. But don’t be afraid: The cuts primarily concern content from a few end sequences as well as some scenes unlocked after the end.

 

Hellish Problems

 

Also the acoustic side is mostly atmospheric. Agonizing cries are mixed with confused babbling souls, the minimalistic movement noises as well as a dynamic background music, which with its screeching sounds makes the nerves vibrate in danger and provides temporary snap breathing. It’s a pity, however, that there are technical difficulties on all systems. The PC is still the least battered of them. In general, there are the best setting options and in direct comparison the most respectable use of the Unreal Engine 4. But even on a high-end mid-range computer, tearing can be observed time and again despite V-Syncs (!) being switched on, while the sporadically appearing jerkers additionally show that Madmind seems slightly overtaxed in this respect. On the consoles, whose development apparently started later and for which even less optimization time was left, the occasional tearing of the image is not enough. Tearing is an almost constant companion here.

 

It doesn’t matter at all whether you play on the standard consoles or the premium variants PS4 Pro or Xbox One X. Here, this is just as much a part of the other torments of hell that one has to endure as a player as the frame rates that break down more frequently than on the PC. To top it all off, it can happen that the acoustics get completely out of hand. Wrong samples, sound disturbances, speech output, which continues as a loop longer than necessary: The atmosphere suffers massively from this. However, with the restriction that these phenomena can only occur on the Xbox One. On three tested systems (two One X, one One S) the game was installed three times each and continued or started with different progress. The result: Five times, including at least once on each console, there were glitches. In two cases even so strong that there was no possibility to continue the game sensibly. Reasonable system optimization definitely looks different. The PS4 didn’t show any of these symptoms during testing and seems to be at least free of acoustic bugs.

 

Devilishly difficult…?

 

Depending on how resistant you are to tearing and jerking, this would still be no reason to give up the escape from the relentlessly staged hell. But this is accompanied by mechanical problems. As mentioned at the beginning of the test, Survival Horror can be interpreted very broadly. Madmind has opted for a variant that is most comparable with Outlast, even more with Alien Isolation and also takes up elements of well-known storytelling experiments. You try to work your way up section by section. Closer and closer to the end of hell. Closer and closer to the Red Goddess. From time to time one solves environment puzzles, which mostly revolve around the activation of switches and the search as well as placing of certain objects. However, one cannot defend oneself if one is discovered as a guard by the demons, who mostly take attentive but completely irrational paths. Also the escape from them is almost impossible, so that you often get to see one of the merciless death sequences, also reminiscent of alien isolation. In order to escape this fate, you should either crouch down carefully

 

or always have a place in the back of your mind where you can hide and hold your breath so that opponents who are sensitive to noise do not become aware of you. You can also try to distract them briefly by throwing a torch so that you can escape from their catchment area.

 

But to be on the safe side, you should avoid them as far as possible. If all the ropes are torn and the body in which one is stuck is killed, one still has a kind of grace period in which one, as a spirit, is in search of a new guest body that one can occupy. If you don’t make it in a short period of time, you will be moved back to the last activated control point. Depending on the level of difficulty, there is a limit for this. If you exceed this limit, there is a penalty transfer to the control point in front of it – hell is merciless.

 

Also the limitation of the luminous clues, depending on the degree of difficulty, which lead to the next goal, is in principle an interesting means to create tension and a certain feeling of urgency. But in order for all mechanics to interlock and not lead to frustration even in the short or medium term, Madmind would have had to put just as much fine-tuning into the game design as into the art design. The fact that one is rewarded for exploring the structures of hell, which are linear under the line, but nevertheless twisty, is laudable. For example, you can find statues that reset the counter for the luminous auxiliary paths. And if you free other souls who are dying in hell from the sack that has been put over their head, you have another body at your disposal in which you can slip. The fact that this element can even be used tactically by slipping past it after a fatal demon attack in spirit form and occupying a host waiting behind it is also an exciting idea in principle.

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