Anachronox has jusi one aim in mind, and that is to make Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VIII look like a child's nursery rhyme in comparison. From what we've seen, developer Ion Storm are going the right way about it, too.
Instead of having one long, sprawling, messy story, the action has been split into 100 levels encompassing over 150 monsters. This allows room for subtler changes in the plot, more depth to the characters and, most importantly, gameplay you can actually play - unlike Final Fantasy VII, with its notorious lack of interaction. It's ironic, really, because Ion Storm have touted Anachronox as being the tender action movie of the gaming world. At first, everything is very light-hearted and jovial, but slowly things change. The story takes on a darker feel, and people who you've come to care about begin to die. Apparently, the finished version will actually make you cry. Sounds like one for the girls, then...
"We're not above degrading our main character," says Anachronox's lead designer Tom Hall. He's talking about a scene where the hero finds himself dancing in a gay bar to get money for a ticket off-planet. It's not what we expected, but then again it's probably not what the lead character had in mind either.
Anachronox has been in development for nearly three years and a certain amount of it is common knowledge. We knew that it'd be a sci-fi epic 3D role-playing game with more than a nod to console RPGs. We knew it used a modified Quake II engine, that it'd be dark 'n' moody, and that there'd definitely be a bloke in a long coat in it. But the meat of the game has remained a mystery. All is now revealed. The game shoehorns you into the role of Sylvester 'Sly' Boots, a down-at-heel detective with a debt hanging over his head. Your journey begins in the eponymous city of Anachronox, home to every loser in the galaxy, Sly included. The city resides within a time bubble inside Sender One, a planet-sized reflective sphere left by a long-dead alien race and part of a network of Senders forming the hub of trade and galactic civilization. Taking what appears to be a simple protection job, Sly is drawn into a quest to find out what - or who - is causing the universe to fold in on itself.
Inspiration In Unusual Places
"It came to me while I was sitting on the toilet," says Tom Hall. "If you put together 'anachronism' and 'noxious', you get 'Anachronox'. "Poison from the past - that's what this game is all about! The city has poisonous past to it, and each of the lead characters is hiding some deep psychic poison."
You'll control up to three characters at a time from an eventual cast of seven, as Sly is joined by a bevy of failed superheroes including his lackey robot, an old flame turned mercenary, his holographic secretary, and a renegade scientist. You'll explore six different planets, and tinker with a modular weapons system that allows you to make more than 250 million combinations.
It does indeed use the Quake II engine. As Hall says: "It's Quake II... well, there are still a few bits of it left! As an engine it's a really good, stable base, and then we've added all sorts of stuff, like 32-bit colour, particle systems and a spline-based camera scriptor. Probably the most significant improvement, though, is the lip-synching and facial deformations."
Hall is the first to admit that the game is heavily influenced by epic console RPGs such as Chrome Trigger and Final Fantasy VII. 'To me, the console RPG is not just about hack and slash, it's the variety of game and experience you go through in 35 hours of play. It's about a constantly widening experience. I don't like total freedom in a game from the outset, and I don't want a deluge of information at the start either.
"A game should expand with you, unravelling new layers. Once you know what you can do, the whole world starts to open up for you." The gameplay in Anachronox follows the time-honoured fundamentals of exploration and interaction with people and the environment, battle with various galactic foes, and the discovery of unique weapons and items. Scripted events keep the universe real, while lots of secret areas and a plethora of sub-games provide diversity.
Hall prefers systems of advancement that come with practice rather than spending points. So Anachronox uses an experience-based system where each character has different Battle Skills with unique effects, and World Skills they can use to access places and info the other characters can't. These skills come in two levels and for the second set you have to find your mentor - wherever he or she might be in the galaxy.
Combat is going to be turn-based. Some battles take you by surprise, some can be avoided and in some you can change the conditions to your advantage. Compared to FFVII there will be fewer but more relevant battles - none of that walking two paces and running into yet another marched set of pointless grunts.
The distinctly console-style of combat may raise a few PC-weary eyebrows, but Hall "really likes the way you can combine skills to make something new - the tactics get really interesting. We considered using a timing system, or bringing more movement into it, but we've gone through three different combat systems and each time we've concluded that if you allow a lot of motion it's not as much fun overall." Indeed, Anachronox may well make it over to one or two console formats. It has gamepad support and would pop over easily. But Hall isn't going to be drawn on an Xbox versus PS2 debate.
What really hasn't come across in previous showings of Anachronox is how warped it can be. There's no pseudo-B/ade Runner pomposity to a game where your lead character lap-dances. Or where one of your party members is an old chap whose World Skill is to yammer, moan and bitch until people and inanimate objects give way. That's got to be a first.
Then there's your holographic secretary who forms part of the interface to the game - an interface that is actively pissed off with you because you had the cheek to have her digitised into a cheap system. And how about a sub-quest where you have to obtain a sock from an alien with a gangrenous foot, or meetings with crotch-biting poisonous spiders? You won't get better tests for facial deformation technology than that.
Anachronox: crazy name, quite possibly a crazy game.
There's no denying that Anachronox looks like an old game. From the chunkiness of the polygons to the low-res textures, no amount of tweaking can hide the fact that the Quake 2 engine has had its day. While that will undoubtedly put many of you technology fascists right off, developer Ion Storm has managed to turn this to its advantage, to the point where I've even grown fond of its antediluvian looks. Anyone who enjoyed Final Fantasy VII knows that graphics can become secondary if the game has enough charm, and if there's one thing Anachronox has got, it's charm.
The mention of FFVII is not redundant, since the developer has never tried to hide the influence of the SquareSoft classic and of console RPGs in general. And I'm not talking just about the blocky characters. Anachronox s combat system is a turn-based affair with lots of flashing lights, special effects and celebratory jumps and there are tons of subgames to play. Quest structures also remind you of old Megadrive and SNES titles rather than Baldur's Gate or even Deus Ex.
But its influences are much wider. The humour and sheer quality of the writing are reminiscent of the great Planescape: Torment and anyone who's played The Nomad Soul will feel right at home wandering the streets of the city, exploring the shops and buildings and meeting its swarming population. While we're on the subject of sources of inspiration, how about films such as Bladerunner(a fairly obvious one) or Total Recall (especially the Mars colony where Arnie finds the threebreasted whore, as well as its excavations, diseased people and religious groups). But is this melting pot of a game any damn good, I hear you ask? (Well, not actually hear you, that would be too disturbing for words.) And what the hell is it about?
Let's start with the second of those questions, since you've already made your mind up about the first one having looked at the score, like the lazy sods you are. The game creates a fully realised sci-fi universe with its own races, political groups and social problems and begins in the dark and eponymous city of Anachronox. Here you take control of the typical post-film noir character: a washed-up, hard-drinking and debt-owing detective by the name of Sylvester 'Sly' Boots. Unlike most RPGs you don't immediately set out on an epic quest. Sly is a cynical bum, but he's also broke, and your primary goal is to find yourself a job. Obviously this eventually leads to an epic journey round the galaxy with various allies you pick up along the way (you control up to three characters from the seven you come across), saving the universe and investigating the strange material known as MysTech.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Anachronox is its humour. We're not talking about the odd joke here or there either. At times it's like a full-blown comedy. Not a riotous laugh-a-minute that bends reality too far to make things believable (like point-and-click adventures tend to do), but a comedy nonetheless. It's in cut-scenes, conversations, posters hanging on walls and even certain quest objectives. Like the one where you have to find a mangled worker and give his pus-soaked sock to another character to chew on while he thinks, or the presence of megalocephalic dolls in the shops. Alright, so it might sound odd out of context, but on the whole the humour works well and is almost never overplayed. And for those of you worried about the fact that Anachronox uses an archaic engine, Ion Storm has introduced a new facial expression technology that makes characters come alive like never before, with some very amusing results. They can look disgusted, bemused, surprised or embarrassed. I can see this having a profound effect on future games that might try to engage us emotionally instead of making us laugh.
Humour isn't the only thing that connects Anachronox with adventure games, however. The point-and-click system lies at the core of much of the game, as does puzzle-solving and the conversations with hundreds of NPCs. While you move your selected character using mouse and keyboard, as soon as you stop a cursor appears on screen which you can use to click on people and objects. Although it's a quest-driven game right from the start, you also have the freedom to wander round the city gathering extra information, picking up cash and experience by performing side-quests as well as seeing what other people have to say.
The city, as well as most other locations, is densely populated and you can talk to virtually everyone. It's a fully realised world. If you want to travel to another planet you need to get enough money to buy a ticket for a shuttle to the space station and from there find tickets for the ship to your destination. What really prevents any of it from becoming boring is that Anachronox, like Nomad Soul, really does have a sense of a living environment (despite the fact that, this being the Quake 2 engine, the city is completely enclosed rather than an open urbanisation of Nomad Soul). People go about their daily business; drunks clutch bottles of Jack Daniels and sprawl in dark corners, men and women fall in love, seethe with hatred or are out to sell their bodies to finance a drug habit. This is why the humour never gets in the way of a realistic world full of real people. The way the cinematics work is also reminiscent of Nomad Soul. The camera pans around your surroundings when entering new areas, zooming right out. But the cut-scenes are not just used to give you a better look at the backdrops, they're superbly used for laughs or to create a real sense of dramatic tension.
Like when you're picking the lock into someone's apartment and the camera switches constantly between you and the security guard coming round the corner.
But this being an RPG it's not all exploring, talking and puzzlesolving. There's some fighting to be done too. This is perhaps the area where the Final Fantasy influence can be most heavily felt as Anachronox uses the same sort of turn-based system, with the same sort of options and the same sort of presentation. Each of your characters has a bar that fills up over time and you can only attack when it's at its limit. This means that there is a certain amount of tension and quick reflex action, and you can't just walk off, make a cup of tea and ponder which move you're going to make next. You can use a weapon, move closer or further away from your foe, use an object or even something in the environment. There is hardly any combat at all during the first few hours of play, but there is good reason for this. It's not until your characters become more advanced, get better weapons and learn how to use MysTech that things get really interesting.
MysTech is the material whose properties allow you to cast spells and bring lots of bright colours to the battles. Its name seems to derive from Hall's love of puns, since it's a compound of 'mysterious' and 'technology', but it's also very close to 'mistake' because its power can have disastrous consequences. The combat isn't one of the game's strongest points, but it does have the advantage over FF in that there are no random encounters or battles every few steps. You can always see your enemies ahead and choose the moment of confrontation.
Anachronox makes things even more interesting by giving each character a special skill. There are battle skills (which give the combat another tactical twist) and, more importantly, world skills. You can use these to solve puzzles and get past areas you otherwise wouldn't be able to. They range from standard RPG abilities such as Sly's lock-picking to the computer hacking of PAL-18 (your small robot companion who, for some reason, has been given an annoying, not to mention racist, squeaky plantation slave voice). Old man Grumpos' skill is whingeing and complaining until the other person gives up. Sly also gets to perform some real detective work, at one point having to follow a suspect without getting too close to be noticed or too far to lose him. Another time he takes pictures of unsavoury characters with the camera and sells them to the police.
But Anachronox is not without its problems. I've already mentioned the graphics, and they do occasionally get in the way of the game. If you go off exploring tunnels, for example, you find no end of square brown corridors, and the visual style is often more reminiscent of SiN than any recent game. More annoying, however, is the way you're made to go from one area to another and then back again, like some miserable errand boy. This is especially true of the first part of the game and less so later, but it does become aggravating. A contributing factor is the amount of loading between areas which, if you're taking the quickest route from one point to another, can often mean loading one area, walking a few metres and loading up another one. You often wish you had some sort of map where you could just point at a location and be transported to it.
Thankfully, the game does get the save system right. You can choose to save anywhere you want or use the console-like save points, represented by cute insects - if that isn't an oxymoron - that you can pet to save your game. These are strategically positioned often enough to make them useful, but they seem more of a nod to future console conversions since PC gamers believe their right to save where and when they want is sacrosanct. And, thanks to Fatima (the secretary Sly turned into a holographic PA when she died), you're never left in any doubt as to what to do next (so often a problem in massive RPGs). For some reason though, only your main goals are registered and not your side-quests.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if many people cast Anachronox on the Daikatana bonfire, blinkered by its obvious console roots and its dated graphics. Others may decide that it's one of the best and funniest RPGs ever made. Both conclusions would be wrong. But for all its flaws, this is still a great game that deserves to be given a chance.
What we said
I wouldn't be at all surprised If many people cast Anachronox on the Daikatana bonfire, blinkered by its obvious roots and its dated graphics. Others may decide that it's one of the best and funniest RPGs ever made. Both conclusions would be wrong. But for all its flaws, this is still a great game that deserves to be given a chance.
What you thought
- I have just completed Anachronox anti it turned out to be the most enjoyable game I have ever played. While it may not be the best technically or visually, from a gameplay perspective, it's outstanding. The storyline is excellent, and with all the different styles of play and sub-games, it never becomes boring or repetitive. The puzzles aren't so hard that they put you off the game either. There are also vast quantities of humour that add to the enjoyment. I urge everyone to give it a try. Turn a blind eye to the old style graphics for the first hour or two and enjoy the experience. Hopefully, enough people will buy Anachronox to ensure that the developers make a sequel.
- On the strength of your review I decided to purchase Anachronox without waiting for a demo. Luckily for me, I was far from disappointed. Anachronox has many nice little touches which make it so enjoyable; each character uses different weapons, so no more wasting time deciding who to equip with what; one big inventory for the whole party, making it much easier to keep track of what you've got; introduction to new items/ characters at a steady pace rather than all at once; option to save whenever you want... I could think of more, but I can't be bothered. The story is another great feature, as it's better than both System Shock 2s and Deus Ex's. Overall, your review was spot on, although a higher score would have been nicer, and the two downers regarding the graphics aren't really downers at all.
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
Anachronox Screenshots and Media
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