I am a long-time adventure gamer not given to playing shooters or RPGs. Anachronox was my first, and I did not even know it was an RPG or what an RPG was. It didn?t take long to be totally captivated by the game due to its clever writing, great sense of humor, unending complexity of plot and physical environments and ease of using all its features. If Anachronox is what RPGs are all about, I have been converted. It is one of the most fun games I have ever played and I can find little to criticize. But there are rough spots, and they are aggravating enough that you may find them significant. They are themes that will come up more than once in my review, so I?ll cover them first, generally, then get on with the review.
Problem #1: The game is far too buggy to get a top score for performance. I played it on a 2.2 gig P IV with massive amounts of memory and RAM, up-to-date sound and video cards, and the latest versions of all applicable software. I installed the patch for the game before beginning. Still, it was prone to crash during scene transfers, and when it crashed, I was tossed out to Windows without anything saved. I have heard of some people who just gave up playing the game because of this alone. If you have a speedy CPU with quick reload, it may not sour you on the game, but it is annoying.
Problem #2: There is virtually no background information to tell you what to do with all the complicated goodies you collect in the game. In-game "lectures" are hopelessly inadequate. Mysterious objects, quests, people and places are just there and you have to try to figure out what is happening and what you should do next. What this game needs is some sort of on-board encyclopedia like some of the adventure / educational games put out with their games. Instead, you have to do a lot of searching for whatever information you can find on game web sites. Much of what you will find is incomplete, inadequately explained or downright wrong. It is very difficult to figure out many aspects of the game components on your own, at least with the thought in mind of maximizing potential game play.
Problem #3: There are some quests whose satisfactory and timely completion are vital to the later progress and success of your character?s overall mission in the game. Yet, you can unknowingly breeze past the origin points of these vital quests, and you cannot go back later to remedy your omission, thereby losing forever the chance to win the valuable rewards these quests have to offer. If you like to "get it all" in a game and you don?t have a Player?s Guide for Anachronox, prepare to screw up. I didn?t have a Guide, no available walkthroughs are complete or adequate due to the game?s complexity, and I found myself seriously thwarted, irrevocably so, several times in the game. When I was nearly finished playing the game, I finally found a Player?s Guide and was disappointed to see what I had missed. Also, I realized after reading through it that even the PG did not cover all the things you need to find or do in the game!
I will elaborate a bit on these general problems later.
OK, now for the good parts!
There are seven major characters whom you meet one at a time and each of whom has different skills and personalities. One "character" is even a planet! Where situations present different challenges, you select different members to make up a team to confront the challenge. Gradually, you accumulate skills, weapons and strength by confronting and vanquishing foes, cleverly bargaining with locals, and trading for, finding or buying upgrades. There is enough variety in the main characters to keep things fun and interesting all the time.
All the characters have clearly distinct personalities and interact in complex ways. They all have "past lives" that have an impact on their present relationships. There are hints of failed romance, past disappointments, etc. Their interactions with each other are often hilarious. Even the way they have been scripted to move is individualized. The babe in the skin-tight leather outfit has a saucy posture, the cartoon character wears a spandex suit and a red cape and broods a lot, etc.
OPPONENTS and BATTLE
There is a cartoon quality to some of the foes, and others are thinly disguised takeoffs on old sci-fi themes, but the variety is impressive: insectoids, crazed robots, lava creatures, yetis, venomous lizards, even what passes for a rabid oversized guinea pig -- you name it. You need to think about which characters to face them with, which are the most effective weapons you have available to use against them, and what attack strategy to use (force, deception, evasion, focused attack, dispersed attack, explosives, etc.). What works with one opponent might be totally disastrous with another. However, if you have lots of money and healing potions, you can just blunder and blast your way through each situation if you aren?t inclined to strategic combat.
Combat is often intense. It is not turn-based, but a continuous stream. You do take turns shooting back and forth, and you have to keep track of who is losing health and which foes are damaged while the battle progresses. Typical RPG stuff. There is a learning curve to managing battle, and the selection of which opponent to hit sometimes defies understanding, but it is great fun anyway.
As the game progresses, you meet tougher opponents in larger groups. You have to keep improving your fighting skills and acquiring weapons. And you have to think about which members of your team to take with you on a particular quest, depending on what opponents you will face and what skills each of your team members possess.
As you get better skills and weapons, the combat graphics become quite impressive. If you go in for big explosions, lighting, flashing, glittering, ray-gun effects, basically July 4th pyrotechnics, you won?t be disappointed in the high-end weapons effects.
ENVIRONMENTS, CAMERA and GRAPHICS
You will explore Blade Runner-type cities, futuristic planets, deserts, ice regions, forests, tunnels, factories, a monastery, an entertainment planet, space stations and a cartoon villain?s monstrous space ship. All are well rendered, detailed and varied. The depth of the environments amazed me.
The character rendering is a bit old-fashioned by today?s standards: rectangular fingers, odd planes intersecting at acute angles to make up a rock, a bit too pixelated for my spoiled sensitivities. But after playing for a while, you don?t notice it so much. The game is so good in all other respects that inferior graphics are accepted as the price to be paid for greater complexity.
Camera work is pretty interesting and "active." There are some marvelous pans, zooms, reversals of angle, loops and other pieces of camera movement that bring life to the game. For example, guys going up in an elevator might start out with the camera above them, then they rise up in the elevator and the camera pivots to follow, ending up filming them from below. It is the kind of action shot you would take if you were filming the elevator in "real time."
Lighting effects are pretty good. I didn?t encounter any areas so dark that I couldn?t see what I was doing. Things aren?t hidden by poor lighting. When point-source light was used (candles, torches, light spilling from a window), the visual effects are realistic. But when you are inside a room or a city and you look around in a 360 circle, you can see that the shadows are "painted on." Again, I stopped even noticing this once I was fully entranced by the game.
There are a few really beautiful cut scenes involving space flight, the explosion of a planet and other big moments. You just sit and watch one of these and think, "WHOOAA!"
Although the repetitive nature of the short-loop sound tracks often gets tiresome, there is a great deal of variety to the sound, both special effects and background. If you are walking on sand, it sounds like it. Ditto if you are sloshing through a thick forest, running over snow or clanking along on a metal catwalk. It works well on those levels.
The characters move through a combination of mouse and arrow keys. Mouse imparts camera angle and arrow keys give movement. I very quickly abandoned using the arrow keys for anything except going forward or extricating my character from a dead end. It was just much easier to control the character with the mouse. You also use the mouse to look up and down, something necessary to finding many objects.
Doors could be a problem. Most of them opened when you clicked on them. But some did not open unless you tried to just walk through them, and then they opened as though by electric eye beam. At first, I didn?t know the latter was sometimes the case. So, if I clicked on a door and it didn?t open, I went away assuming it was a dummy door. Later, my playing partner asked me if I got the goodies in that room and I had to backtrack to get them. What you learn is to both click on a door and try to walk through it before giving it up as a dummy. That was a bit annoying.
There are lots of ramps, tight squeezes, alleys, switchbacks, tunnels. It could be difficult to navigate these sometimes. I have a laser mouse and it worked OK, but if you have a ball-type mouse, it might be a real pain. I tried adjusting the sensitivity of my mouse to make it easier to navigate, and it didn?t solve the problem.
Inventory management is easy enough, but I have a big complaint about all the JUNK you accumulate in this game and can?t get rid of. What a pain to sort through this stuff! You are able to sell off some old weapons and spells, but there are two full monitor screens full of stuff in your inventory by the end of the game. It is alphabetized, which helps, but the scrolling is clumsy and twitchy. Why not allow a player to dump that old deck of playing cards or those useless money disks? Grrrrr.
The puzzles in the game are not a big feature. There are some good ones on occasion, but there aren?t very many straight puzzles. However, you do have various skills for each team member and you have to learn to use these well. One character picks locks, one hacks computers, one analyzes things, one can magnetically attract objects from a distance, one just bashes stuff. As the game progresses, these "puzzles" get harder and harder, so you have to keep increasing your skills. Once again, though, the game doesn?t supply good enough Help to instruct you on how to use these skills, so there is a big learning curve to figuring out how to use them and get better at using them.
I have to warn you about this one sequence. There is one flying combat sequence that ? if you don?t like timed arcade stuff ? may really get you steamed. I went around in circles on that one, staying alive but not getting anywhere, until I finally posted a plea for help. Turns out there is a pattern to succeeding in that arcade sequence, and once you know it, it is easily accomplished. So don?t let it block you from trying Anachronox.
Like all RPGs, the opponents get tougher as you gain more experience and weaponry toward the end of the game. But in Anachronox, there is one fellow near the end who poses an almost insurmountable challenge (but rewards you handsomely if you can beat him). I found it impossible to do so. It was rumored that a 25-minute battle was necessary to beat him, an even tougher fight than the end battle! It didn't make much sense to me to include someone 1000 times more powerful than any other opponent in the game. I am not an action gamer, so maybe it isn?t surprising that this part of the game frustrated me. Others may relish it.
At the end of the game, all your team members come into play, together for the first time. You all converge on the big guy?s headquarters, to defeat Mr. Big and recover an important device. Sound familiar? Yep. It is tense, difficult, but satisfying. Each team member has tasks to complete that are well suited to a particular skill or talent, and everything converges toward the denouement. Just before heading off to this final combat, there is an interesting piece of advice given to your main character by an friend regarding this powerful boss: "Just remember, he may be powerful now, but inside he is still the scruffy little street punk you used to push aside on The Bricks." It is worth remembering that all powerful people are, after all, people. Kinda like when Bob Dylan sang in the 70?s, "Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked."
I would give this game an 7 on a scale of 10. The reasons I wouldn?t give it higher rating are a follows:
1. Game Crashes: As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Anachronox crashed regularly during play, tossing me out to Windows. It got to where I was saving about every 10 minutes, in order to not have to redo so much when it crashed. That is nonsense and speaks of sloppy programming and inadequate beta testing.
2. Built-in Roadblocks: The game puts roadblocks in the way of your progress many times, in the form of built-in irreversible decision points. If don?t do some task in a timely manner or if you make the wrong choice at a crossroads ? and you usually do not know A) that there is a time issue involved, B) that you are at a crossroads or C) that one choice you are offered is a bad one -- you could be setting yourself up to miss an important opportunity or event which would doom you later on down the line. And some things that you miss can never be recaptured or redone.
3. Not Enough Save Game Slots: If you are playing a game that you?ve learned will burn you badly if you make a wrong decision, you want some extra room to save games. There was a strict limit of 10, I think. So, you sometimes have to save over games you really don?t want to lose. Inevitably, you end up saving over a game that it turns out included a pivot point, and you can?t go back to recover it because it is gone. Hours -- or days -- worth of work might have to be redone to correct your error or omission.
I would have to say Anachronox has high replay value, partly due to its complexity, partly due to the "roadblocks" issue mentioned above, and partly due to how difficult it is to find and figure out how to correctly use some of the key components in the game. I would guess that most people who play this game without a Guide will miss close to half of it the first time through the game. By missing many key elements, you will not have the skills, experience and weaponry to defeat the end boss and his gang. That?s one way to encourage replay! Also, there are decisions you make regarding which team members to take with you on a mission that will change the way the game progresses. That makes it more interesting to replay. Finally, it is just a heck of a lot of fun to play. The game has a great sense of humor and I admire that as well as enjoy it. Despite the aggravation it caused me, I may hold onto it and replay it again someday.
If you missed this game, I would say give it a try. Especially:
1. If you like a great sense of humor in your characters.
2. If you don?t mind really complex games that involve taking a LOT of notes, drawing maps, and maintaining checklists. And you don?t mind looking really hard for very small items hidden here and there throughout many worlds.
3. If you can get your hands on a Player?s Guide for the game or know a gamer who has played it and could answer your countless questions.
If you like a very engrossing game that will take many hours to complete, take you to many different worlds, and render all other life meaningless for at least 2 months.