This week, Yahtzee reviews Agony.
"Atmospheric"? "Psychological Horror"? "Story Rich"? "Nudity"? "Sexual Content"? "Gore"? "Psychedelic"? Whoa, you can stop now, Steam user tags! You had me at "Psychological Horror"! Well, I'll be honest: "Nudity" sealed the deal. What's more, a title like "Agony" will be near the top of my Steam library list, so when I'm looking for it later, I won't wear out my scrolling finger and it'll be fully prepared for the inevitable wank. Plus, I'm impressed by the way Agony resisted the urge to bolt an unnecessary subtitle on the end, 'cos it really seems like the kind of game that would, like "Agony: Whore of Babylon", or "Agony: The Revenge of Barbie Pink".
So for all those reasons, I played through Agony, and having done so, I now see another advantage to it: the title is very easy to do a games journalism with. "Agony: It Certainly Was.” Hmhmhmm, smug, smug. Let's all stroke our chins about misogyny and then give excessive coverage to an indie game made by someone I know. But anyway, Agony is a first-person stealth adventure thingy that reminded me somewhat of Sid Meier's Jericho by Clive Barker in that it seems to take place in a world composed entirely of raspberry jam, so half the textures have that weird glisten effect on them that look like my video card is being swarmed by lightning bugs, and every time I move, it's like I took LSD and ate Pop Rocks.
The story is, you are a bloke in Hell, and none of that weaksauce metaphorical Hell either; this is full-on Hieronymus Bosch climbing-in-and-out-of-giant-anuses territory - ho yes, no symbolic confrontation with our sins in life here, unless our sins in life consisted of being a novelty cake designer for lesbian S&M weddings - and your mission is to escape from Hell. At least, I assume it is. They don't tell you much at the start; all you can do is press forward to continue exploring. I just assume if you're in Hell, you probably want to be somewhere else, unless you're planning to complain about the noise. On the way, you're given directions by the Red Goddess, a sinister temptress with her bum out who taunts you from atop her throne of bloodstained labias.
Remember the Lust level from Dante's Inferno? Oh, sorry; let me take that a step back. Remember Dante's Inferno? The game, not the first canticle of the Divine Comedy. Yeah, that thing that had a huge marketing push, and then it came out and everyone instantly forgot about it. Well, there was a level themed around Lust in it, and Agony is basically that multiplied fifty times and with a big bucket of the pink slime from Ghostbusters II thrown over it.
Agony makes me think that the phrase "Psychological Horror" is getting bandied around a bit too easily these days. Psychological horror, to me, means something more of an understated creeping dread about it - more "Eheeeeh-" than "Euuugh!" - and Agony is very much on the "Euuugh!" side of things. Yeah, fucking transcribe that one, bitch! There is very little psychological about the horror involved in being in a room made of bones as human tripe pours from a nipple-shaped wall dispenser, and we have to tread carefully to avoid getting chased down and torn to shreds by big-titted demons with heads shaped like vaginas. Well, I suppose that's a little bit psychological in the sense that the art designer should probably talk to a psychologist; preferably one behind a whip and a chair and an inch of reinforced glass.
Your main objective throughout the plot is "Find the Red Goddess", which you succeed in doing multiple times, but it never seems to take. "Oh, you found me! Go find me again! I'm over there now, in that temple on the crest of that distant hill shaped like a giant buttock." And in keeping with the Tom Clancy's Jericho comparison, we have the ability to come back as a ghost after death and possess any damned soul who isn't wearing a bag on their head, necromancy being powerless against the divine magic of burlap. So every other person hanging around the level get to be your extra lives, which they probably didn't picture for their futures during their sessions with the high school guidance counselor, but that's Hell for you.
These basic mechanics aren't terribly well-explained; when I first saw the contextual icon for "take bag off head", I thought it was the icon for "push person over", and since the person was standing on the edge of a cliff at the time, I was like, "Jeez, there's no need for that kind of pettiness! This is Hell, not a staff meeting at a failing startup!" Eventually, I figured it out, but I suspect the basic mechanics weren't terribly well-explained to most of the developers, either. "We're doing a stealth game? I always forget what that means; I guess it means that if you try to move quickly past the vagina-face monster, then it hears you and bites your face off, but if you carefully move slowly past it, then it will also hear you and chew your throat out." Um... no, I think you're missing some of the basic principles there, Agony. "Oh, right. About those hiding places; I'm pretty sure I know how this works: you're running away from Vagina-Mush, you quickly get into a hiding place, then Vagina-Mush catches up, spots you instantly, and masticates your nipples off. Wait, I confused myself. What were we talking about?"
Most of these hiding places are also impossible to recognize as such until you're standing right over them and a contextual icon appears; they're little piles of cartilage pancakes against a background of more cartilage pancakes. See, the cluttered environment design is making all the important stuff get lost in the noise when it's not actively halting me in my tracks 'cos my hitbox got caught on an extruding canker, thus allowing the pursuing vagina monster to catch up and nibble me pancreas out. And yet, environments are simultaneously too busy and extremely boring; turn things up to eleven and stay there, and it's just as dull as staying at one. Repetition, you see: seen one pulsating ulcerated jawbone with little tiny bell-ends instead of molars, seen 'em all.
So what other mechanics have been thrown into this big, undisciplined bucket of liquidized offal of a game? Well, after a while, you can possess the vagina monsters as well as the humans; don't know why you'd fucking want to, since only the humans are allowed to pick up items and work the puzzles that are necessary for making progress, so all you can do is run back and forth around the current map trying to find something to kill yourself with, or failing that, stand in front of a mirror for a while, jiggling up and down. Also, there are a grand total of three character upgrades, as token as the wheelchair-bound dude from the Burger King Kids Club. "Increase how long the player can hold their breath"? Oh, there's a "hold breath" button! Now I understand! I'm supposed to hold my breath as I move slowly past the vagina monster, so they won't--oh, it spotted me anyway and gnawed my gonads off. Never mind!
In truth, the actual core gameplay mechanic of Agony is "press forward to continue", and everything that's layered onto that like flecks of greaseproof paper on a turd - stealth, puzzles, collectibles, labyrinthine maps - all of that is annoyance and busywork so we can say it's not just a walking simulator. What was the idea setting out on this, Agony? To make a fun game? Pahahahahaha! But seriously. Were you trying to shock me with all your gore and tits? 'Cos you failed. There's no relatable humanity to give the shocking stuff context; we might as well be watching you smear ground beef on a RealDoll. "All right, fine; we just wanted to draw some bums and process unresolved feelings about when our teenage babysitter made us go to bed early." Well, that I respect, but piss off now, Agony; you're dripping pussy juice on the afghan.
- Hell of a guy: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- For the record, running a Google image search on 'Agony Cover' seems to bring up an awful lot of heavy metal albums
- Insert menstruation joke