Swooping onto the Commodore Amiga in 1992, Agony was to be Art & Magic’s first and only dalliance with the 16-bit machine. Published by Psygnosis, the team took the iconic owl and gave him his own game. The developers had previously worked with Ordilogic Systems and Ubisoft on the excellent Unreal two years prior, so there was not doubt that Franck Sauer and Yves Grolet could conjure up something special.
Agony has an interesting set-up in the fact that the entire intro sequence was omitted from the final version of the game due to memory pressures and quality assurance, leaving us a with a very short passage of text. Thankfully, when manuals were still a thing, there’s plenty to get stuck into.
After years of experimentation, The Grand Sun Wizard Acanthropsis discovers the ‘Cosmic Power’. Unfortunately, his dabbling with the unknown costs him his life, but not before he can pass on this knowledge to his apprentices, Alestes and Mentor. In his twilight hours, he devises a test to see who is worthy, pitting his two disciples against each other in the hope that one will fail. The player assumes the role of Alestes who transforms into an owl to cover ground to the cosmic power quickly. However, Mentor has other ideas, unleashing waves of malicious creations to halt your progress.
It’s a fantastical story that leaves you yearning to see the long lost animated intro sequence that would have added another two floppies to the three disk package. But alas, it was canned by Psygnosis and Grolet, citing the quality wasn’t up to the extremely high standard of in-game art assets.
Gliding into the first level, it becomes apparent the team at Art & Magic delivered an incredible feat in terms of presentation, even for Psygnosis’ high standards. The graphical style of our protagonist is as majestic as the real life birds of prey themselves. A sublimely smooth animation cycle, the component parts of which are the hypnotic powerful wings and kicking legs of Alestes, are quite something as you push forward through the environments, all with relatively few frame drops and sprite flicker.
And speaking of environments, Agony has some of the lushest scenery to grace the Amiga, utilising a host of tricks to realise this magical world. Three layers of parallax scrolling and in-game palette swapping make the levels feel like a living, breathing entity. Waves crash beneath you and the continuous flashing of background colours gives the impression of a distant world on fire. There’s also some little background treats across the game’s six levels that show a great attention to detail, from a mysterious lightning-summoning figure to ferociously swaying trees – it’s all meticulous and deliberate.
While the enemy sprite work is as equally detailed as the backgrounds for the most part, their animations are somewhat rudimentary compared to our flying predator. Animation frames are limited with grunt type enemies have none at all as they move across their pre-determined paths. The colour schemes are also muted, mainly being varying shades of one colour. Despite this, there’s a huge amount of variety to Mentor’s creations. From spiders to wraiths, there’s no shortage of minions to dispose of, with only the ghost genie’s comically out of place, looking like they belong in an episode of Funnybones. Each level also has it’s own boss and can be a little variable in quality, but all-in-all, there’s some truly inspired design work.
As with any Psygnosis title, sonics are again of superior quality, going toe-to-toe with the visuals. Music comes in the form of no less than eight composers. Tim Wright’s haunting piano score introduces the game with Jeroen Tel undertaking most of the heavy lifting for the game’s heavily sampled in-game soundtrack. Other contributors listed in the loading music credits include Alistair Brimble of Team17 fame, despite his track not making it to the final version.
The bombastic in-game music propels the action, feeling primal and befitting the flying battles between the beasts. It does come close in some areas to feeling a little too much but manages to stay on the right side intense, providing some memorable highlights such as the slightly off-key and foreboding Forest tune.
The more subtle side of the score is present during the loading screens, complementing the evocative art and making waiting times a bizarrely memorable experience.
Sound effects are well done but take a backseat to the musical score, as your thumping projectiles vanquish the enemies with a satisfying crash.
Agony’s audio package reinforces Psygnosis’ reputation for high-end musical presentation and it’s clear why the soundtrack is still a fan favourite today, with black metal blasphemers Dimmu Borgir liking the intro tune so much, they ripped it off for their track, Sorgens Kammer.
While Psygnosis were well-known for presentation, the same can’t be said for gameplay, with many criticising the publisher for style over substance. Thankfully, Agony does have substance but to what degree is debatable.
As a shoot-em-up, Agony feels fast and fluid as you dart around the screen, killing animal brethren and fantastical foes alike. But the big and beautiful sprite work comes at a cost. The expanse of the play space takes a huge hit, feeling limited and sometimes cluttered when compared to the tiny vessel of Project X for example. As such, the action feels linear, even for a shooter, and your freedom to dodge projectiles is perceptively smaller.
Collision detection can also be a little off, with a stray bullet or stream of fire clipping a wing as it animates upwards or downwards. While this is intermittent, it can be a little frustrating in what becomes an increasingly frantic and challenging game. The difficulty curve initially feels imbalanced as you dominate the first level only to hit a wall during the latter portions. However, one feather in Agony’s cap is a subtle mechanic whereby it is imperative you collect all the power-ups and spells you can and as quickly as possible. Failure to do so will result in our hero collapsing into a pile of bone and feathers more often than not, meaning perfecting early environments is key to giving you the best chance later on. Boss battles also feel slightly anti-climatic, with basic attack patterns that can’t live up to the spectacle of their design.
Power-ups are incremental with each death knocking them down one notch. Once your echo-location projectiles are fully upgraded, flying sword drones are up next after which spells then kick in. You’ll want to save these spells for the later stages only using these if failure is imminent. There’s a great variety of magic to cast including vulnerability and plasma shields, which can be accessed via a menu system and giving you a brief respite.
As soon as you’re fully levelled up, you feel overpowered as you destroy the gaggle of enemies making a beeline for you. But the sense that this can be taken from you quickly adds an extra element to the gameplay as when you die once, you’ll probably perish quite quickly repeatedly afterwards. This punishing cycle of events places a real emphasis on multiple playthroughs, learning enemy placement and developing a strategy for spell conservation early on. While Agony doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it gets most of the basics right and provides some highly enjoyable action.
With only 6 levels on offer, Agony is quite short but there is significant replayability. A lot of this will depend on how much you buy into Art and Magic’s ridiculously atmospheric offering, but having revisited this many times since its original release, it never fails to astound and engage, with an audio and graphical styling that still stands tall today.
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