Gosh, I thought Daikatana was bad for the whooshy camera, but that was small fry compared to Anachronox. Definitely not a game for sufferers of motion sickness — even for me, a veteran of the lightning-fast FPS, some of the camera movements get just a bit too wonky.
So Anachronox is a… turn-based? … comedy RPG from 2001.
Once you get past the whooshy cameras, there is a vibrant setting here, reminiscent of a rather tongue-in-cheek version of Star Wars. Starting on an alien techno-planet that rearranges its surface every so often (this is a convenient way to wall off some areas until plot-appropriate), you play a wise-cracking private detective and his motley crew of oddballs as you explore and do stuff.
The plot escalates fairly fast, and it’s a grand adventure in the way of truly classic RPGs — humble beginnings spiralling out into the very fate of the world (or because it’s a sci-fi, the universe). Despite its overt comedy, though, there are plenty of thoughtful and emotional asides; unlike the Mass Effects of this world where character development tends to only occur when you poke the team members between battles, here the companions are tightly wound into the fabric of the main plot — and it’s far stronger for it. Brooding, atmospheric synth music also belies the humorous dialogue: this is not a one-dimensional game.
The story is played out through extremely lavish cinematics. From banter-packed one-on-one conversations to exploding planets and basically everything in between, the facial expressions and disintegrating scenery are extremely well realised considering the technology of the age. Within the game itself, simple un-voiced text-boxes provide satsifying chunks of depth (and flippant commentary) for the rest of the setting.
Sadly, the game itself is extremely questionable. I’m not sure if that’s my innate distaste for turn-basis coming out or the slightly wonky implementation we have here, but whatever it is — it just doesn’t work.
Rather than taking turns in sequence, each character has a turn timer that has to count up before they can do anything. It means that while you’re trying to assign an action an enemy’s timer might expire and they’ll interrupt your train of thought (it’s hard to tell which icon matches which enemy when the camera is flying everywhere too) — and on the flip-side, you’ll spend quite a bit of each battle staring at the meters until they go up… Meters that pause while attack animations and whatnot are playing, so battles with more than four opponents become tiresome awfully fast.
It’s basically the worst of turn-basis and the worst of real-time mashed together: purporting to be strategic and thoughtful, but punishing anyone that takes their time over a choice.
Luckily there isn’t actually that much battling, overall, and it’s not particularly difficult on Normal… Until the final bosses, when you realise you just don’t have the equipment to stomach some pretty poorly designed fights. A few painfully overlong dungeon crawls are scattered throughout the game too.
I guess it’s like Planescape: Torment in that sense, where combat is not… its strongest asset (though I am actually a fan of real-time-with-pause 2nd Edition AD&D, and Torment‘s weirder spells make it even more fun). Unfortunately, there are no conversational shortcuts or easy combat-ending nukes here, so you really do have to suffer through every single battle.
Unfortunately, to add insult to injury, a hideous amount of wandering fills up the time between these turgid fights. The world sprawls and, while it delights with its monolithic tangle of alien architecture and sweeping low-poly vistas, this tangle doesn’t help navigation — points of interest are split up by winding corridors and flow-breaking elevators complete with (yep) unskippable, vomit-inducing camera sweeps. It gets a bit less confusing beyond the titular city-planet, but long corridors and backtracking continue to abound.
Sure, I’ve noted before that some level of wandering and down-time is necessary to soak up the atmosphere and catch your breath, but Anachronox falls just a bit on the wrong side of that line. The long corridors might be due to technical limitations to allow larger seamless areas, but the elevators are just not funny after the first ten times.
It also has a bit of a problem with Sonic Adventureitus — too many minigames spoil the broth. It’s not quite defined entirely by them like the aforementioned folly, but there are perhaps too many for comfort.
The obligatory lockpicking game is a bit pointless when there’s no cost for failure but having to try again, while the obligatory hacking game is marred by awkward cursor hotspots and questionable mouse sensitivity. Every character has their own special skill that can be used out in the world, and each skill requires participation in one of these minigames. They’re not much individually, but put all these niggly little challenges togther and things get nasty.
Beyond that, the main quest itself often descends into variety (is this an admission even from the developers that the core gameplay is flawed?). It has a rail-shooter type section where you operate a space-fighter’s gun turret, it has a few awkward dodge-the-obstacles parts controlled sloppily by the mouse rather than the arrow keys…
All in all: a few amusing bits of cruft that I would gladly have sacrificed for more engaging combat system. Hell, they could have turned them into cinematics, Anachronox is really good at those.
It’s a real shame. I want to like Anachronox, maybe even love it. It’s brilliantly witty and it’s wonderfully ridiculous in that unrestrained childhood-creativity kind of way. It’s a delight to explore its lavish environments and chat to its peculiar denizens.
It’s just that all of this is wrapped around a game that is at best wonky, and at worst intolerably dull.
Recommended? Erm… If you can stomach the grind, there’s an absolute belter of a story here. Play it on Easy Mode so the fights go in quicker.