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Psygnosis * £25.99

For no reason other than plot, your character, Alestes, has been transformed into an owl. In order to prove your worthiness to succeed your wizardly mentor, you have to conquer six levels of horizontally-scrolling shoot-'em-up action, although I use the word 'action' in the untrue sense of the word.

The game's graphics are sumptuous enough and incredibly detailed, with animated parallax backgrounds and some beautiful sprite animation. No doubt the grand piano intro track is a work of art, but the crashy, staccato in-game music is, to be polite, a mistake. Sadly there's even more bad news; the gameplay just isn't there. And I don't mean it isn't quite 'there', it actually doesn't exist.

You keep your finger held down on the fire-button, waggle the joystick around and occasionally cast a spell. There's no excitement, no addictive qualities whatsoever and at the end of the day no game. You would have thought that Psygnosis had learnt its lesson after Shadow of the Beast and Shadow of the Beast II, but no, all the ironically titled Agony seems to be is a £26 demo that looks like a peacock but plays like a stoat.



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Wie stellt sich der Profiknallfrosch ein gelungene Ballerei vor? Na, spielbar sollte sie sein, solide programmiert und tunlichst noch hübsch anzusehen - etwas so wie "Apidya" halt. Die Messlatte ist also gelegt, mal sehen, ob das neue Psygnosis-Game drüberhüpfen kann.

Wir dachten schon, die Liverpooler hätten sich aus diesem Genre längst zurückgezogen, ihr letzter Horizontalscroller (ich glaube, das war "Blood Money", oder?) liegt ja nun bereits eine kleine Ewigkeit zurück.

Aber nix da, jetzt schicken sie einen Zauberlehrling in Gestalt einer Eule durch sechs feind-verseuchte Level, die sich gewaschen haben!

Um die Prüfung seines Meisters erfolgreich zu bestehen, muß sich der magie-begabte Azubi-Kauz mit einem Heer von Gegnern herumschlagen, von denen die meisten wahrhaft schwere Brocken sind: Die bissigen Piranhas und stechwütigen Riesenmücken aus der Sumpflandschaft des ersten Levels dienen nur zum Einballern, der Endgegner zeigt schon eher, wo es langgeht - ein überdimensionierter Schwertfisch!

Ab dem zweiten Abschnitt ist dann Großformat die Regel, fliegende Killerameisen und mordlüsterne Libellen garantieren für gepflegte Hektik am Stick.

Auch im dritten Level hat man kaum jemals die Zeit, das idyllische Wäldchen gebührend zu bestaunen; ein kurzer Moment der Unachtsamkeit genügt, und wieder ist eines der anfänglich drei Leben über dem Jordan.

Nur gut, daß die zuvor aufgesammelten Extrawaffen weitgehend erhalten bleiben: In Amphoren versteckt sich ein breiterer Schuß, ab und zu liegt auch mal ein "Beiboot" im Form eines Schwertes herum.

Am mächtigsten sind jedoch die Spells, die (zeitlich begrenzt) Unverwundbarkeit, rotierende Feuerbälle oder Plasma-Schilde bescheren, was dann auch mächtig imposant aussieht.

Eigentlich sieht überhaupt alles mächtig imposant aus. Die bunte und detailreiche Grafik ist die reinste Augenweide, das Drei-Wege-Parallaxscrolling soft, als hätte man Weichspüler in den Monitor gekippt.

Zudem wurden Freund und Feind astrein animiert: lediglich das eine oder andere Insekt hätte noch einen Tupfer Farbe vertragen können - grüne Mücken vor grünen Waldhintergrund sind schnellen Abwehrreaktionen halt nicht unbedingt förderlich, weil man den Gegner erst zu spät erkennt.

All das spielt sich vor einer orchestralen Soundkulisse ab, die den Eulen-Dompteur zuerst mit sanften Klavierklängen einlullt, um ihn dann im eigentlichem Spiel mit fetziger Klassik und knackigen Effekten wieder aufzuwecken.

Die Steuerung steuert auch prima - und dennoch bleibt Agony im direkten Vergleich mit "Apidya" nur zweiter Sieger. Um dem Kaiko-Game die Baller-Krone abzuluchsen, hätte man die Feindformationen etwas phantasievoller und die Level etwas länger gestalten müssen, zudem fehlt hier ein Zwei-Spieler-Modus.
Aber über den Titel des Vizekönigs könnte man durchaus diskutieren... (rl)



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Psygnosis do a shoot-'em-up like only they know how - get ready for the world's first 'mellow' blasting game!

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...


OWLING AT THE MOON!

Alright, alright, already. So there is no moon in the game, but we had to get that pun into this review somewhere...
Each of Agony's levels is introduced by one of these gratuitous scene-stealing cameo pics. Not that they are very important or anything, but aren't they jolly pretty to look at anyway? (We think so).

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The first level is all wet and stormy, and hence a bit oppressive and gloomy.
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You can almost smell the fresh mountain air in this level two intro.
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The third level is really dark and slimy, which does not explain this snapshot.
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Level four is so vast, you can even see the curvature of the earth. Woo.

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A lesson has obviously been learnt by Psygnosis since Beast, as Agony contains the superb graphics of the Beast series, but can also claim to be a rather playable shoot 'em up, too. As one of the apprentices of Acanhropsis, a wizard who has discovered the mysterious Cosmic Power, Alestes (that's you) must battle through six levels of nasties thrown at him by his rival apprentice, Mentor. However, in a weird twist, and to justify the main sprite, Alestes enters battle in the form of a heavily-armed Owl.

Power-ups are the heart of a good shoot 'em up, and Agony has them in spades. Periodically, icons tumble across the screen, and quick joystick-wiggling allows Alestes to swoop down to collect them. There are three types of bonus items: protective swords, potions to increase firepower, and scrolls which provide assorted effects.

To use them later, the firebutton should be depressed to reveal the list of scrolls held. Using spells at the right time can have a devastating effect on the bad guys, especially the end-of-level nasties which make their obligatory appearance.

The quality of the aforementioned Owl sprite, and the superb backdrops, unfortunately make the enemy ones look rather weedy. They are, however, both original and amusing - including creatures that look suspiciously like flying koala bears. Overall, there's a vaguely Japanese feel to the game, keeping in with the graphical style of Leander.

During the game, the monsters come thick and fast, but there's no noticeable slowing of the action. However, the actual gameplay, whilst suitably frenetic, isn't exactly original - perhaps Psygnosis were hoping that the unusual main sprite would disguise this?

They also claim that 'priority has been given to playability' and for once it's no idle boast. Things start out easily enough as you'd expect, but by the fourth or fifth level it's serious mayhem on the screen - shoot 'em up heaven, in fact. It's a shame that autofire isn't available (because of the scroll selection) but the action will soon have you ignoring tired fingers.

It seems that Psygnosis have finally got rid of the Beast-ghost and other 'looks-pretty-but-where's-the-game' products. The screen shots will indicated the quality of the graphics, but thankfully there's more to Agony than that, with fast-moving playability putting it on a level above th vast majority of similar games released on the Amiga.

Perhaps not a classic, it should still be given shelf space by anyone devoted to blasting games.


IF LOOKS COULD KILL

Agony boasts seventeen tunes altogether, and if you'd expected the usual bombastic drivel normally associated with shoot 'em ups, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Actually, the music seems inspired by South American folk music, with haunting pipe sounds complementing the action perfectly.

Visually, I've never seen a game with this much attention to detail. With three levels of parallax scrolling smoothly across the screen, the backgrounds change to reveal scene after scene of glorious graphics. Incredibly, all these backdrops are also animated, and it's hard not to be distracted by them. Add to these some realistic bird animation and you've got one of the best-looking games of '92.


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Nostalgically recalling that old problem page sit-com, Agony, Amaya Lopez raced up to Liverpool to see Psygnosis' new game, in the desperate hope that she might catch a glimpse of Maureen Lipman. Sadly, it was not to be...

Dear Clare,
I've got a bit of a pressing problem. You see I was a wizard's apprentice until a couple of weeks ago, when he passed away. Now I'm unemployed, my wife's left me and I've got a huge boil on my buttock. Apart from that, I'm a little cheesed off with Acanthropsis' (my former employer) will. After wasting his life for looking for the invaluable Cosmic Power, he goes and pops his clogs. You'd think that after my devoted love he'd remember me in his will. But oh no - the miserable git couldn't decide whether to tell me or his other former apprentice, Mentor, where the dosh, sorry... secret of Cosmic Power is hidden.

So he decided to set us a quest (we have to journey to find the Cosmic Power, you see). The one who finds it first keeps the power. The thing is, Mentor keeps sending me these horrible creatures: funny anteaters, dragons, monstrous fish, ghosts, giant crawly beetles and - horror of horrors - killer tennis balls. I've lost all my self-confidence and I don't know what to do.
Please Clare, take me into your bosom for a dose of your excellent advice.
Yours desperately,
Alestes, (ex-junior wizard).

Clare Replies:: Well lovey, don't you fret - your boil is obviously at the root of the problem. But it's evidently stress-induced. You've not been having a lot of luck lately, Alest (you don't mind if I call you Alest, do you?). The solution is crystal clear to me, dearie: magic yourself into a laser-blasting owl and fly at the speed of light through six frantic levels of parallax, horizontally scrolling terrain, sea, forest, highlands, mountains and menacing fire, fighting off all these despicable monsters.

You should find the odd energy-giving magic potion or scroll which will provide spells with more power-ups like a plasma shield, rotating fireball and smart bomb. But do take care with those deadly tennis balls, lovey - we all know how lethal they can be.

Amiga reviewAmaya: Three things struck me when I began to play Agony. Firstly, the sad absence of Maureen Lipman (mind you, she has sold her soul to BT). Secondly, the stunningly beautiful graphics which we've almost come to take for granted from Psygnosis, and thirdly, the speed at which the nasties come at you.

But back to the graphics - they really are breathtaking. Six levels of the smoothest horizontally scrolling parallax screens, complete with night and day changes, little bridges swaying in the background and running waterfalls.

The programmers (the same team that brought you the fab Unreal) have put an enormous amount of detail into Agony - and it's paid off.
The locations and weather conditions are impressive, with the sea swishing away, rain pelting down, various old galleons, forests, mountains, and more fires than Guy Fawkes night.

A plethora of horrid nasties come hurtling towards you at a frightening rate of knots. Just when you're getting used to the little grey piggy things, blobby flying rocks and ghosts, you're confronted by ant-eater thingies, giant beetles, flying green kangaroos, odd tadpoley woss-names and dangly spiders. When those creatures start firing tennis ball-like projectiles, dodging the whole caboodle can be well tricky.

Luckily you've got five lives, but even that doesn't seem enough in the later levels. When you die, your owl turns into an attractive bag of bones, transforms temporarily into a ghost and then back to its original form. The spells for the power-ups are easy to access, and provide a wide range of exciting weapons.

I really liked the dramatic, orchestral soundtrack, and the difficulty level seems to be pitched just right - you're hooked early on and left with an aching trigger finger. My only criticism is that there's not a great deal of depth to the whole thing.

All in all, Agony's a luscious, painfully fab game, but perhaps the best thing about it is the fact you don't get a free Roger Dean T-shirt. (Just joshing). Stop