Strip away the sci-fi veneer of futuristic settings and you’ll often find traditional stories buried underneath. Ion Storm’s Anachronox is little different, building its planet-hopping adventure on the back of a washed-up detective story set in a weird, wild future. Burdened by buggy gameplay that had problems when it was released, it nonetheless stands out even amongst modern titles. With skilled story direction and a few unique twists on the formula, Anachronox boasts more character and ingenuity in the first hour than most entire games manage. It’s just a shame the game insists on getting in the way.
In the fairly distant future, mankind has joined other civilized alien races amongst the stars, spreading across the galaxy with the aid of a lost civilization’s technology. Small teleportation devices, Senders, are scattered throughout space, and at the heart of the Sender network is Anachronox: a constantly-shifting city built inside a massive Sender, left abandoned by the race that built it. Take the basic setup for Mass Effect about six years earlier and you’ll get a rough idea of how things look. So named for the mysterious plague that presumably killed the prior inhabitants – Anachronox more or less translates to “poison from the past” – the city was never formally colonized, instead becoming home for a variety of outlaws, freelancers, and other people living off the galactic grid.
So it is with Sylvester Bucelli, AKA Sly Boots; a down-on-his-luck detective working out of the back room of a bar in the Anachronox slums, the Bricks. Boots owes money to a local crime boss who’s growing impatient, a fact made abundantly clear when a short but well-dressed thug tosses Boots through his office window. Desperate for a job, any job, Boots winds up working for an eccentric scientist on the hunt for rare MysTech: oddly-shaped artifacts with no obvious function, likely also abandoned by the galaxy’s last occupants. Predictably, Boots’ debt soon becomes the least of his problems as the treasure hunt carries him into one crazy situation after another. Along the way he’ll assemble a crack team of weirdos and malcontents, ranging from the above-mentioned yammering scientist with a Rip Van Winkle beard to a literal cape-and-spandex superhero who’s developed a drinking problem.
|I mean really, you hang out with an old dwarf and a toy robot. I’ve been with some sad crews before, but man.|
One thing clear from the onset is that the game world is ludicrous, and yet it plays its weirdness doggedly straight. This is a galaxy where drug-dealing lizard people wear trenchcoats and speak in sentence fragments, and a scientific haven world is so exclusive that access to it requires both credentials and a pop quiz in advanced astrophysics. A cult has sprung up around the MysTech phenomenon, digging new slabs out of the planet Hephaestus and turning the area into a commercial tourist trap. Personal shieldcells and (eventually) magic use are powered by radioactive glowing rodents. The standard of currency is, somehow, the Canadian dollar; your information terminal describes this as the result of a freak accident of galactic trade laws. Basically, try to imagine your favorite RPG bothering to justify all the stuff the genre usually takes for granted, picking one of the crazier options on the table at every turn, and asking you to kindly roll with it. That’s Anachronox.
Anachronox looked dated even when it was new, what with the aging Quake 2 engine pushed to new limits; the consequence being fairly low-res textures and blocky, ham-fisted character models. That said, what makes the game hold up is its commitment to imagination, from creative world concepts to unique character design. Consider the title city itself, consisting of shifting plate sections, slums and seedy bars built into alien architecture, and grav-paths that put people on the walls and ceilings; Blade Runner directed by M.C. Escher. Various aliens and robots are fantastical and diverse, from pint-sized Bipidri workers to the squat, bug-eyed Brebulans, and like integration of gameplay concepts there’s a real sense that the design team was told to just go nuts.
The visuals are aided by quality cutscene direction, and Anachronox has a flair for the cinematic like few games before or since. Skilled camera cuts and pans accent the dialogue; the camera jumps meaningfully between stone statues in a public park as two party members trade accusations, and shifts back and forth between characters as they awkwardly take turns making an unusual request. Characters are remarkably expressive: trading glances, crooking puzzled eyebrows, facepalming in frustration, and stopping in midsentence when they come across something interesting. Despite the engine’s age, the plot comes across as a naturally directed stage performance, rather than a series of polygons being moved around by scripts.
Speaking of performances, the acting is far above the industry standard, be it 2001 or 2010. A handful of voices take some getting used to, like the rambling, greedy old man Grumpos or Boots’ energetic robot buddy PAL-18, but even they are written well enough for this to be a non-issue. The main and supporting cast are capably acted and scripted, and Boots grows into a likeable lead over time; Bruce DuBose showcases just the right blend of cocky detective and hapless idiot to be endearing. The soundtrack holds up favorably, with foreboding electronica alongside more conventional pieces. Pretty much every major piano section stands out well, such as a bouncy piano chorus adding life to an already bustling volcanic resort town.
|NoxGuards prove there’s no kill like overkill.|
Gameplay, sadly, is where Anachronox stumbles. Playing as a weird mutant hybrid of western storytelling and eastern RPG mechanics, the game quite visibly cribs from PSX-era Final Fantasy titles for its battle system: action meters, limit breaks, long attack and spellcasting animations, you get the idea. It’s fairly intuitive, and battles aren’t random, but the system is unpolished and unbalanced. Difficulty has a nasty habit of spiking with one fight and plummeting with the very next one. Characters miss a little too often, and magic is generally too complex to seriously mess with. Case in point, elemental Mystech both inflicts status effects on foes and cures those same effects on allies, but you’re unlikely to have the corresponding Mystech equipped when so afflicted unless you know in advance which enemies use which attacks.
Exploration works better, as you’ll move Boots and company in third person and poke stuff with a cursor – an actual in-game item housing Boots’ virtual secretary, Fatima – but there are still hangups. Character skill minigames are quick enough to be harmless fun, while plot minigames are more annoying; a rail shooter section is the most noteworthy, as you’re not instructed how to reload (click the energy meter) or where you need to go when given the option. Secrets tend to be incredibly obscure, such as letting PAL play in a ball pit for at least four hours to find goodies, or collecting eight special bugs for custom MysTech. While you can gain levels outside of combat for certain accomplishments, character building is minimal and mostly dependent on equipped weapons and accessories. There’s nothing about the overall interaction that’s flat-out bad, it’s just weaker than the presentation and too often feels like an obstacle to more interesting happenings.
Technical problems underscore the whole thing, and late-game quest bugs can be nasty. One in particular can repeat an entire section of three mini-quests if a certain quest flag isn’t cleared and you talk to the person it’s attached to. It’s possible to get stuck on the environment in certain places, and an optional (but interesting) sidequest requires you to open the console and noclip through a door. Battles occur in fixed locations yet creatures tend to wander, so you might have to wait a while for everybody to get in position. Lastly, Anachronox has real problems working on modern operating systems, and this reviewer had to roll back his graphics card drivers just to start the game on Windows 7; even still, animation glitches were common. Conversely, booting the game on an XP-equipped netbook gave no hassle whatsoever.
Anachronox has seen post-release patching, some of it unofficially by former staff. These do iron out many problems, such as providing a front end to modify the resolution to non-standard sizes and, more importantly, adding a fast-forward key to bypass long animations. It’s still not enough to offset the glitchy, semi-functional feel the game gives off, and no patch could fix the major sequel hook the game ends on. Make no mistake, it does have a concrete ending. Some elements seem to come out of left field, but the dots do connect if you stop and sidequest a bit. However, it’s painfully clear the developers were gunning for another game, and since the team was fired a day before release, the sequel was over before it ever really began.
|Well, I was here to unlock the secret of MysTech, but… you got one in a large?|
And that’s the real crime here, because the story of Anachronox is worth your time. The characters, the world, the acting, and even the music are all a memorable mix of quirky and dramatic, silly and serious. A tense confrontation with a mob boss ends with arrangements to repay a debt later at a restaurant; “Not Brebulan,” Boots casually quips, “I hate Brebulan.” Grumpos rebuffs Boots’ offer to stop by the Red Light District on a space station, then after a beat recommends a classier joint elsewhere. Some scenes even genuinely tug on the heartstrings in spite of their absurdity on paper; the aforementioned superhero’s near-silent bond with an adorable trapped child is just one example, expertly driving home the value of a well-timed quiet moment. Fatima is at once a tragic figure and a snarky narrator, and she knows when to let her expression alone do the talking. As strange as it gets, it somehow wraps back around to become compelling and it’s never too busy to be entertaining.
Even aside from the story, a lot of work was put into making the world stand out. As mentioned, your cursor is a floating holographic projector and actual in-game item, and people react if you start poking them with it. Save points (made optional by the unofficial patch, which lets you save anywhere) are creatures that experience all of time as a singular event, and petting them helps them remember you. A subquest is one long Return of the Jedi homage, only you’re on the losing team as armed soldiers are decimated by killer cute furry things. Your enemies range from simple guards and junkyard thugs to pipe mimics and tiny Mexican wrestlers, yet it never becomes too surreal in context. The infamous Dopefish shows up on occasion, a callback to the days of Commander Keen; another Tom Hall cult classic. The world has character in ways that should be taught in school, and it’s just a lot of fun from start to finish.
It’s a pity the game doesn’t quite pull its own weight, on top of the difficulty of finding a copy and getting it to work. If you can do so, you might find something worth the 20-30 hours you’ll spend hitting every last corner. You might even have fun playing it. What can be said with certainty is that you won’t find anything else like it; the Machinima edit of all the cutscenes put together suggests the story and direction are strong enough to stand on their own. The tale of Anachronox is the antidote to business-as-usual RPG production, and it’s one of the funniest adventures of its time. The gameplay wasn’t that good to begin with and time has not sweetened it, but there’s something here that deserves recognition despite the long years since its release. Check it out if you can, and remember: Anachronox starts with you.
I swear that last bit will make sense after Sunder.
This game was played to completion and reviewed using a retail copy purchased a long time ago. Like, we’re talking “Duke Nukem Forever was only four years delayed” long ago.