Apparently, the team at Mango Protocol has taken to heart Warren Spector’s advice that developers should always do one new thing with each game. That thing can be as innovative as a new A.I. system or as obvious as a unique art style. The advice is particularly pertinent for titles that slot into well-worn genres, as a unique selling point can help a game to stand out from the crowd, while the lack of one can easily result in a project being lost to the vacuum of digital storefronts. With Agatha Knife, Mango Protocol’s new game, that selling point is the promise of cutting satire, and while the developers make a notable effort on this front, the remaining elements of this 2D point-and-click narrative fail to leave a lasting impression.
Agatha Knife tries to follow in the footsteps of South Park, regarding almost every aspect of culture as ripe pickings for a lampooning, but makes the mistake of confusing offence with irreverence. The star of the show is the eponymous Agatha Knife, a closed-off, insomniac seven-year-old in charge of slaughtering the animals for her mother’s struggling butchery. With the fortunes of the shop having taken a turn for the worse in recent times, Agatha’s mother elects to visit a church and pray for better days, thus introducing the girl to religion. Bored with the proceedings and confused by the preacher’s inane rambling, Agatha goes wandering and comes across a stranger who promises that founding her own religion, Carnivorism, may offer a solution to her problems. The process of doing so, broken down into a formulaic series of increasingly tedious and seemingly irrelevant tasks, becomes the game’s primary questline. The variety of those tasks provide ample opportunity for satirisation of a wide range of topics, and those that fall under the all-encompassing gaze of the game’s commentary include transvestitism, the digitisation of the workplace, and the ever-increasing obsolescence of physical media in a digital world.
This split focus, unfortunately and inevitably, results in a drift away from the central thematic purpose, which should be paramount in a title with gameplay as simplistic and archaic as Agatha Knife. Rather than integrating naturally into the ongoing story, these side tasks appear as little more than busywork included solely to pad the experience. While the forced prolongation could be justified with strong characterisation, Agatha is an unconvincing protagonist, too eloquent for a girl who professes to hate books and too pessimistic for any child of her age. However, her portrayal works within the realm of the game’s bizarre logic, where children are defeatist, adults are naïve, animals talk, and the fourth wall is a flimsy construct. Nevertheless, consistency is only one element of a good story, and, although Agatha Knife initially proves scintillatingly bemusing, if not thoroughly entertaining, the game’s narrative drags, quickly sacrificing edginess to a pervasive sense of mundanity.
A large portion of the profound and ever-increasing blandness of Agatha Knife is attributable to the gameplay systems that underpin the title. The game adheres unerringly to the well-worn tenets of the 2D point-and-click genre, leaning, unsuccessfully, on the narrative to keep player engagement high. The mechanics are straightforward, requiring players to click on the items or people in each environment to reveal potential interactions, which may include examination, dialogue, or collection. Players are able to pick up an array of items from the game’s environment for later use, with almost all of them relevant to at least one of the tasks that Agatha must undertake. The inability to combine items or to use them in any situation outside of their specified purpose reinforces this utter lack of player agency. The on-rails nature of problem-solving results in a game that demands little more of players than to undertake every available interaction on the rare occasions when the solution is not blindingly obvious. As such, the processes involved in progression through the story frequently feel like a frustrating chore, as travelling between the various areas (even with the boon of teleportation) and engaging in often pointless dialogue consumes more time than is necessary. These design flaws stand out so glaringly because the fundamental gameplay mechanics work without a hitch, while prompts and other UI elements are all easily readable and blend effortlessly with the game’s webcomic-inspired graphics.
Even in the visuals, however, Agatha Knife feels derivative. Mango Protocol’s previous game, MechaNika, adopted a very similar aesthetic, but repetition of form is no sin, considering the two projects are linked. Rather, dissatisfaction arises from the tired nature of the art style, which has proliferated over the past few years. Despite this, character design is generally strong, effortlessly evoking a sense of person, but also often leaning too heavily on stereotype, particularly in the cases of the aged librarian and hippy mystic. Similarly, the simple environmental backdrops serve to capture the apparent mundanity of Agatha’s neighbourhood through a variety of locales, though some serve little more purpose than to offer visual diversity as the activities that Agatha undertakes therein could easily have been transplanted to an urban setting, if not removed entirely. While the visuals thus serve their purpose of creating atmosphere, the overarching style, with bold lines and flat colours, seems like a throwback to the Adobe Flash animations of a decade ago and now feels tired, worn out, and hollow.
Hollow is also an apt descriptor for Agatha Knife’s audio presentation, which simply fails to add to the game in any meaningful way, with one key exception. During the adventure, Agatha undertakes a kind of spirit journey into her own mind to uncover the god and tenets of Carnivorism. In the pitch darkness, the bland ditties that background the remainder of the narrative give way to a more ethereal theme, supported by the demonic grunting of an enormous pig. The entire sequence is haunting, and such a notable improvement over the rest of the production that one is forced to wonder what Mango Protocol could do with a horror game. Given the general drabness of the audio, the decision not to include voice acting seems wise, allowing players to imagine the voices, rather than foisting undoubtedly melodramatic actors upon the user. In this case, at least, omission seems a better choice than inclusion. Unfortunately, one fortuitous decision on the part of the developers is not enough to save the audio, just as one brilliant spark of imagination is not enough to save Agatha Knife.
Mango Protocol’s latest game is rife with potential, but consistently let down by execution and a startling lack of imagination in every area except the use of satire. A lack of focus sends the storyline into a seemingly endless abyss of tedium that cannot be overcome by the archaic gameplay. Despite this, moments of greatness occasionally threaten to break through and make Agatha Knife an engaging experience. Unfortunately, moments are not enough.