Oh bloody hell, another horizontally-scrolling shoot-'em-up. Looks like we picked the wrong month to do Definition Of Sound on horizontally-scrolling shoot-'em-ups, right kids? So, just for the sake of the argument, let us see where this month's three biggies would fit into our definitive listing.
Apidya slots in, I reckon, just below R-Type II (although Mark Rates Apidya as the best) and just above UN Squadron as the Amiga's second-best example of the genre, while Project X would come somewhere between ST Dragon and Dragon breed. Agony, though, is trickier to place.
CONTRADICTIONS - OR NOT?
It is astonishingly lovely to look at, but very simplistic to play. It has got brilliant intro music, but the worst in-game music I have heard in years (well, it is not technically bad, but musically it is, um, an individual taste). It seems quite tough, but you find yourself on the fourth of the six levels inside half-a-dozen-games, and completion is not much further away, although at least you only get a few lives and no continues (what is the point of having continues in a computer game anyway? Why not give you fifteen lives or whatever at the start? These things keep me awake at nights, y'know) to make it too easy.
It is relaxing and pleasant to play, but by definition that means there is very little you could call excitement or tension to be found in it. Personally, I much prefer playing this to Project X, but recommending people to go out and spend their £26 on this when they would probably complete it the same day is a trickier proposition.
Project X might be bugged, unfair and ridiculously frustrating, but you will get your money's worth out of it for sure (if being frustrated is where you get your kicks). So you see the dilemma (Great cars, them Dilemmas - Ed). When it comes to the review, should the heart rule the head, or do I go against my personal feelings, or should I just cop out entirely and give 'em both the same mark? (Why don't you tell us a bit about the game and we'll make up our own minds? - Several reader's voices).
I know, why don't I tell you a bit about the game and let you make up your own minds? Yeah. Agony consists of six reasonably longs scrolling levels, each featuring very (very) pretty graphic backdrops and multi-level parallax scrolling (the raging seas of the first level, with three layers of water rolling and chopping while rain pours down, is a particularly impressive sight - Project X, chew your heart out). Even the furthest-away areas are animated, with waterfalls cascading down mountains and rope bridges swinging in the wind, while the foreground is littered with little jokes like the gravestone with 'The Bitmap Brothers' name written on it.
SHADES OF THE BEAST TOO
Curiously enough though, the thing that springs to mind most when you are playing Agony is a shoot-'em-up version of Shadow of the Beast II. The graphics are in a very similar style, some of the little motifs from that game (like the rope bridge) are present here, and even some of the attack waves (the fish leaping out of the water at you, for example) are the same. But - hey! - this is not crap, so that is enough of that comparison. Let us talk about the sound instead.
NO, IT REALLY, REALLY IS AGONY
The sound, frankly, is where it all goes horribly wrong for Agony. It opens promisingly enough with an exquisite piece of piano music which bears lengthy listening, but start the game and your ears assailed with what sounds like a hyperactive five-year-old wearing boxing gloves discovering the 'orchestra stab' effect on his big brother's Casio keyboard. Later levels introduce the same effect but with bass drums and electronic bagpipes. Eek.
Psygnosis advertised the game as having 'an exorbitant soundtrack', and they were right - if they paid any money for all this stuff, they were done. There are a few sound effects in the game too, but as you will have the sound on your monitor switched off by this time, you will never hear them, so I won't bother mentioning any more about them.
Agony - It will make you feel good
AND NOW... EVERYTHING ELSE
Let us round off, why don't we, with a few words about the gameplay. As previously mentioned, it never exactly glows with the adrenalin-rush of certain other efforts, but it is deceptively hard after the first couple of levels - only having three lives, plus a free one at 80000 points, means that every mistake you make is a costly one. At least, though, you retain most of your power-ups when you die, so you have still got a chance (not that power-ups are a really central feature of this game).
As you progress through the levels, your enemies get more and more fiendish, blending in with the colours of the landscape, so that you rally have to be concentrating if you do not want one to sneak through your defences when you are not looking and deliver a sucker punch, which I find infinitely preferably to the 'make it so fast-moving and unpredictable that it kills you before you know what the hell is happening' routine beloved of Project X.
OH NO! MORE COMPARISONS!
None of which, it has to be said, leaves me any closer to deciding how this one shapes up to this month's other two blasters. Well, it is not as good as Apidya, but then that was obvious from the start. But then, I thought the same about Project X - I really was not expecting this to come anywhere near it. Certainly, that is much more of an arcade game, and intro aside it stomps all over Agony sonically. Graphics-wise, Project X is big and bold and has more variation than Agony, but for the parallax and between-level scenes and general sheer prettiness of it, Agony comes out comfortably on top.
And as for gameplay, Project X has more to it, but it is not the one I have been playing the most. In fact, it is still lying in the corner where I threw it in a furious tantrum after yet another bout of independent power-up selection screwed up my chances of reaching the third level again (see the review for more detail). Agony won't ever leave you sweating and breathless, but it will make you feel good, and only you can decide which of those things is most important to you personally. Me? Well I am not quite sure. I hate to admit it, I really do, but think I can feel a bit of a cop-out coming on...