Anachronox

Review by Jen and ...
January 2002

Well, I did it. I finally did it. I completed my first PC nonadventure game, Anachronox. All the while I was playing, I had sort of a love/hate thing going on. Let me tell you about it.

First, a little about me. I consider myself a pure adventurer, point-and-click all the way. I have completed several nonadventure games in the past, the distant past, but they were always on consoles. I later put aside any kind of swordplay or action in favor of graphic adventures, once I learned there were such things, and I have never looked back. I am an action weenie all the way, and you know what? I'm proud of it! It is definitely one of my defining characteristics as a gamer.

Anachronox is an RPG, although I think diehard RPGers would consider it an RPG "lite." Your main player has stats and level-ups and finds bigger, meaner weapons along the way. You must complete levels, or missions. You must manage a party after you get people (I use that term very loosely) to join you in your quest.

Anachronox has your typical save-the-universe story. You start as a down-on-his-luck PI named Sylvester Buccelli, aka Sly Boots. In the opening cinematic, you are taking a beating from a thug and end up doing a face plant in the bar that your office is above. (Don't ask; the architecture was hard for me to get a handle on.) You learn early on that you need to scrape up the dough to pay off Detta, a loan sharking mafioso type. You are unfortunately broke and drunk, and so you set out to earn some cash. As is so often the case, your simple "will work for food" quest snowballs into an epic story of intergalactic proportion with you alone as the barrier between the ultimate forces of order and chaos in their purest forms.

Anachronox is a masterwork of game design. Even the basic interface is woven into the story. Your menus are all contained in a device called a "Lifecursor," which also holds the digitized personality of your deceased secretary, Fatima. Fatima is actually a major character in the game. She offers up advice and commentary at strategic points throughout the game, and sometimes she shows herself in the form of a holographic image outside of the Lifecursor. She keeps track of your inventory and your party members (when you get some), and all this with the simple touch of a key.

By the end of the game, you will have a party of seven. Usually you choose three of them for each mission. Sometimes the choice is yours; other times your choice is forced by the game design. Sometimes you play a mission as an individual character, and one part of the game has you making use of all seven characters in three separate groups, and they must all cooperate and coordinate from different locations in the game. This last is one of my absolute favorite gameplay devices, and that part of the game was by far the most fun for me.

Each of the various NPCs, whether playing a very small part or a very large part in the overall game, has his or her own distinct personality and tale to tell. Some provide clues that only become relevant at some later time in the game, others will offer you side jobs for money or useful objects, and yet others are just there to populate the universe. These last will always have something to say, and usually it's pretty entertaining.

The humor is abundant in Anachronox. This is one game that does not take itself too seriously, and yet all of the emotional heartstrings were pulled at exactly the right time—no mean feat considering many areas of the game are nonlinear and there are many, many side quests you can do if you so choose. I laughed, I cried, I pulled my hair out in frustration, I rooted for the characters like never before, at least not since Grim Fandango. As well, there are numerous sight gags and occasional references to silly things in other games. Whoever wrote the script should get the gaming equivalent of a screenplay Oscar.

Anachronox's graphics are fully real-time-rendered 3D. I have spent half of my adventure gaming life bitching about how 3D games all look the same because the graphic designers all seem to have the same texture palette. Not so in Anachronox—the visual design is very well-done, even magnificent in places. There are probably hundreds of locations in the game, and the whole thing ships on only two CDs.

There is voice acting only in the cinematics; the rest of the dialogue is presented as text. What voice acting is present is exceptionally fine; the actors are really acting, not just reading a script. At first the switch from full voices to plain reading was jarring, but it seemed natural before too long. The music is full and rich, with sweeping crescendos in all the right places and different pieces for each game area, but the game is so long that the music becomes repetitive in places. Each party character has a "world skill," or minigame, and the music is the same for everybody's minigame. I sure got sick of that tune. The music is also the same for every one of the eight million battles.

Battles, you say? Let's talk about the battles. There is a lot of fighting in Anachronox, but fortunately for this point-and-clicker, they were, well, point-and-click. The good guys get a turn to whack the bad guys, which consists of waiting for your strength to build up to a certain point and then choosing the icon for the type of wallop you want to deal out. Then after your turn, the bad guys get a turn to wallop you. A successful wallop results in loss of life points and eventually (hopefully only for the bad guys) death. At the outset, Anachronox gives you three choices, "Really Easy," "Normal," and "Way Too Hard." The only difference in gameplay is the amount of damage you deal versus the amount of damage you take. Of course I picked "Really Easy," and I never lost a battle, except once ... due to a bug.

Bug? Yep! Anachronox is easily the crashing-est game I have ever played. Granted, I played in Windows 2000, which is technically not a supported platform. The game ran just fine for the most part, but frequently during the load transitions between one area and another, I would get the dreaded "Program Error," which is sort of the Win2K equivalent of the all-too-familiar "blue screen of death." But I have heard even worse tales of woe from Windows 98 users. I learned to save right before the transitions, when I knew they were coming, but here's the rub: You can only "save anywhere" if you play on "Really Easy." Otherwise, you can only save at designated save spots, marked by creatures called Time Minders. Granted, the Time Minders are pretty plentiful and well-placed, but there are definitely instances where you'd be in for a lot of backtracking if you suffered an inopportune crash. In fact, even as it was, I did a lot of backtracking due to the crashes. My logged time was about 32 hours, but I probably really put in over 40 hours. (And before you ask, both Minnie and I applied the patch. Minnie went to extraordinary lengths to stabilize the game, all to no avail.)

Another factor contributing to the length of the game was some arcade sequences that are unavoidable. Most of these are pretty easy, taking no more than 10 or 15 tries over the course of five or ten minutes to get through them. Nevertheless, they are a pain in the ass. There was one, however, that I found purely awful, almost a game-stopper for me. In hindsight, once I figured out the mechanics of it, it really was not hard to last for a long time—in fact I never did die after I resolved to beat that $#@! thing—but at the time I was playing it I absolutely loathed every last millisecond of it. It consisted of navigating a maze all the while shooting, and being shot at by, alien spacecraft, only to confront a "boss" at the end. For all you pure adventure types, "bosses" are the biggest, meanest, hardest-to-kill monsters in a game and are usually found at the end of levels. (I learned about bosses playing The Legend of Zelda way back in the olden days of electronic gaming, before I hung up my scabbard for good. Back then, they weren't even called "bosses," they were called "those big monsters at the end.")

All in all, Anachronox is a long, rich, elegant, worthwhile, and above all satisfying gaming experience. The characters, story, and quests are really loads of fun. The goals are always clear, and if you get sidetracked you have no one to blame but yourself, and ultimately no harm is done. The interface is easy to learn even though it was combination keyboard and mouse. My clumsiness didn't matter because the characters never get hurt from bouncing off walls and it is impossible to fall off cliffs or leap to your death. The only drawbacks were the program crashes and the fact that the battles were irritating after the first three or four. Since they were so easy to win, there really was very little strategy involved. Deeper into the game, you get some attacks that will mow down all of the enemies in one fell swoop, and of course I started doing that every chance I got since battling really isn't my bag, but I'd imagine if you like it, you'd want a little more meat on the bone.

I am giving Anachronox the FFC Gold Star but with reservations, as discussed above. In closing, let me just reassure all you fearful adventure gamers: don't be afraid of the RPG aspects. This is one game that you can play and probably not even need a walkthrough, although it's likely that you'll need a hint or two (I did).

... Skinny Minnie

I began as an adventurer in the late 80s under the tutelage of Sierra's reigning sleuth, Laura Bow, and continued purely mouse-clicking my way to happiness until the late 90s, when Eidos's Lara Croft took me under her wing. Laura, Lara; they were only one letter apart. How different could they possibly be?!

I would call Anachronox an adventure story/RPG. The RPG and puzzle elements are basic but the tale is complex, with its escalating sci-fi plot and wide array of emotionally charged personas. In Sly Boots I saw a perpetual tip of the hat to my favorite gaming detective, Tex Murphy. Fatima is also a total gas with her sarcastic wit. The way all of the characters' lives have been and/or do become intertwined as this epic progresses are classic. How was Fatima killed, and what did Stiletto and Boots feel for each other before that? Will old curator Grumpos ditch his hired hand Boots as they solve the mystery of the alien technology, so he can cash in on it alone? Just what intergalactic secrets got Dr. Bowman spurned from the scientific community? Will the huge planet Democratus ever quit breaking away from its orbit and shrinking itself down to the size of a beach ball so it can spend its time following Boots around?! The story just goes on and on.

This game mostly has simple, automated fighting and character stats buildups. On "Easy" you virtually can't die, and on whatever setting, the slow, turn-based combat is basically a "ducks in a row" lineup of heroes versus villains. You always see the baddies waiting in the distance, too; few surprise attacks loom. Most weapons even have unlimited ammo. If you're an action gamer, you may feel frustrated at the lack of both challenge and control here. You just click on a weapon and the game takes over.

However, the enemies are unique and comical, and some of the late game weapons effects look spectacular. Anachronox is mainly populated by adventure purist characters, though, because both the righteous and the evil usually can't hit the side of a barn with standard weaponry. One shred of excitement did happen late in the game, when I discovered that certain enemies can cast a spell over one of your party members, making them spontaneously kill another member of your own party. This can be quickly rectified by equipping certain deflective armor, though.

Things also got more interesting in the end battles as I enabled some special weapons devices with MysTech (alien artifacts found freely around Anachronox but misunderstood by the population) and some special alien bugs that bring out MysTech's true power. These weapon and bug configurations do require some experimentation far beyond what you learn within the game.

As for the infamous "Hive FPS Scene," where you're picking off attacking robots while you're flying through tunnels in your fighter ship, ahem. This ain't Rogue Squadron, Descent, Wing Commander, or Freespace here, folks. (Mental note: Take these games off of the Christmas list for Jen.) You don't even have to pilot the danged spaceship, for Pete's sake! You just get chauffeured around through some tunnels where flying robots want to do you in. Simultaneously, your cursor becomes the biggest, thickest crosshairs in the history of computer gaming. Said crosshairs are colored stoplight red to boot, except when you are centered over the flying body of an enemy robot. Then your cursor becomes, well, golight green. Click. Robot go boom. Yes, there is a boss robot, but the green cursor quickly reveals the best strategy; after that it was a done deal, my first time through. Sorry, Jen!

Anachronox is 3D-rendered in the much-maligned Quake II engine, but facial expressions and scenery are enhanced with vibrant detail. The musical orchestrations are high quality, at times reminiscent of a John Williams score. The in-game text is a bummer, but the cutscene voices are as fabulous as the graphics!

I loved that the save feature and the mouse clicking have been woven right into the tale. The Time Minders are bird-like creatures who are both revered and reviled by the people of Anachronox. They are strategically placed; your lead character must pet them so that they allow you to "turn back time" in the story if need be. Your mouse arrow, which changes when you can interact with someone or something in-story, is called a Lifecursor. As Jen mentioned, Fatima resides in yours except for her occasional holographic appearances. You will see other characters' Lifecursors too, and some NPCs will agitatedly comment about your abusing them with yours if you ask too many questions!

Adventure purists need not fear Anachronox's third-person mouse-and-keyboard interface, either. The arrow keys and some mouse clicks are all that is required to get through this free-roaming, nonlinear 3D world (where once again Anachronox gives a nod of the trench coat to Tex Murphy). There is a lot of trekking back and forth in the worlds, but the varied locales are gorgeous, and your party (maximum three at any given time) moves along at a healthy jog. Inventory becomes large, but carrying space is infinite, and usually an acquired item is used automatically when needed.

Anachronox is fired from the Stability Department in Windows XP (though the game doesn't state support for it anyway). I don't run any other programs in the background while gaming on my 1.6 gig Athlon XP, and I did try four different GeForce 2 Ultra video drivers and XP's Program Compatibility Wizard, all to no avail. I did the full install (and delete and reinstall) on a huge hard drive, too. The game tended to crash at scene changes, and I did hit a battle bug where clicking on Grumpos in one scene continually froze the game.

I guess I would rate it the same hesitant Gold Star that Jen did, for the same reasons: Top rate story, characters, and graphics, with crappy (albeit mostly boring) battles and crashing issues. Still, if you love great stories, it's a wonderful adventure game and one not to be missed... The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos
Release Date: 2001

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

PII 266 MHz (AMD Athlon or Pentium III recommended)
Windows 95/98/ME (98/ME recommended)
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
12 MB 3D accelerator card with full OpenGL support (16 MB recommended)
DirectX 7 (included)
4X CD-ROM drive (8X recommended)

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