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SummaryA really wonderful game
The GoodAnachronox is an excellent game. If you play it, you will realise just how much love and effort has been poured into it. It is very detailed, very full of variety and fun elements, full of cool things to see and do.
The graphics are absolutely beautiful. Now, I know, lots of people have been saying how bad the graphics are, because Anachronox is based on the Quake II engine...blah blah blah...
Well, I completely disagree with that. This is, in fact, one of the most attractive and visually stunning games I've ever played. The scale of the locations is awesome. The game runs in ultra hi-res (OK, I don't know the actual resolution, but it's high), and it runs fast, as well! So many areas in the game are huge open spaces. You look up and see buildings towering into the sky, upside-down people walking on anti-grav walkways, ships flying past...Then you look down and see further levels reaching down into the ground, also full of wandering people, hovering ships and the flickering neon of shops. All this without even a hint of fogging! The detail and complexity of the game's architecture and level design is the work of geniuses, and then there's the actual art - Wow! The game is so colourful and bright, at the same time as being dark and moody, white and pristine or whatever else the mood of your current locale is. There are snowswept ravines, rusty old industrial complexes, verdant forests and spookily beautiful junkyards to explore...
Add to this awesome 3D effects and a version of the Quake II engine that has been modified and enhanced almost beyond recognition. One of Anachronox's programmers put it best: "Quake3 is Quake2 plus some really cool stuff. Anachronox is Quake2 plus some really cool stuff."
One of the coolest 'fun' features in the game is the camera you can use. What I mean is, early in the game you find a camera, pick it up, and then at any time, you can use it by pressing the 'F11' key. You can store, view and delete up to 12 photos, and it really feels like a real digital camera (but with a perfect viewscreen and no need to replace the batteries!). You need this for various parts of the game, where you will be asked to photograph evidence, people or places, but it's just immensely fun to use it whenever you feel like it. The camera's powerful zoom really shows off those far-away details, thus underlining even more how fantastic Anachronox's graphics are. It's nice for that feeling of being a detective, too!
OK...But graphics alone don't make a good game, right? Well, luckily, there is a wealth of great gameplay in here to complement the visual splendor. As with, say, Baldur's Gate, there is a main storyline to follow, but a whole plethora of optional side-quests and subplots. To get the most out of the game, you will naturally want to find and complete all of these that you can (and there are a lot!). Most side-quests will gain you money or equipment, and some powerful items can only be gained through side-quests. There are several different storylines, with different sets of characters, running through the game, alongside the main one. One of these is the series of quests your old buddy Detective Rukh will give to you, if you seek him out every so often. It all helps to flesh out this universe and give a sense of time passing and people getting on with their own lives. To further this point, although you will find yourself returning to the same places many times during the game, you will usually find that things have changed - There are new people around to talk to, and the people who were there last time usually have something different to say. There is absolutely loads of dialogue in this game (which is a good thing). One nice thing about the various quests in the game is that the main plot details are always logged in your digital assistant's notes, so you always know what the next goal is that you should be going for, but no details are logged for the side-quests. This leaves it up to you to set your priorities (get on with the main story, or go seek out that rare object Jim-Bob asked you to find for him) and means that you have to remember what was going on in the side-quests. This is actually a good thing, as I found it leads to more of a sense of accomplishment when you complete a side-quest and means you have to think more for yourself (as opposed to other games, where too many 'notebook' entries can make it feel like you're being led by the hand too much). Also, it's never a huge mental effort to keep all the details in your head - Unlike Baldur's Gate, where you tended to have about a million things to do at any one time, Anachronox keeps it going nicely, with the main plot to concentrate on, plus a couple of side-quests you might be thinking about, plus the ongoing 'collection' quests.
Ahh yes, collecting things! This is a great idea, and one that I'm surprised hasn't been done more often. As well as a few short-term collection quests (Catch a certain number of critters who are loose in the area, or find and photograph all the members of a certain alien race who are in the area), there are also long-term quests for collectable items, which you will then be looking out for throughout the game. One of these is a quest to collect 20 TACOs (Totally Arbitrary Collectable Object :) - strange spinning-topped things that you will find around the place. Take 'em to the guy who wants 'em, and, depending on how many you've found so far, he'll give you something in return. Some very nice items can be gained through this. Another quest is to photograph eight rare red Bipidri - cute little creatures who can sometimes be heard singing a Gizmo(Gremlins)-esque tune. If you hear this tune faintly, it means one of them is somewhere nearby. Then you just have to find and photograph the little guy - which is often easier said than done, as some of them are very well hidden. It's a fun quest.
The main part of the game is the adventure part, as you run around, talking to people, doing things, etc. Rather than your traditional 'get key, unlock door, get fuse, use fuse in fuse box' type adventurey-stuff, Anachronox has a lot more variety, and feels much less contrived. It all flows nicely, and you're soon zipping around the cosmos, going from planet to planet, using your characters' various skills and abilities.
As you go through the game, you will meet more members of the eventually seven-strong team, each of whom has different special abilities - a 'world skill' (used to solve certain puzzles in the adventure part of the game) and different 'battle skills' (which are, uh, used in the combat section of the game). Stats go up through combat, and new skills can be learned through the use of various special items. Also, each character's 'world skill' can be boosted to 'master level', if they meet a master of that skill, who can teach them. Thus Sly Boots (who is the main character, and yes, I know, he has a terrible name) can become a pick-lock master, and then open the more complicated locks in the game.
This is another thing you will constantly be thinking of as you play - You will remember where you found things that you have to go back to - A locked door that looked really interesting, somewhere, but Boots needed the master skill level before you could pick the lock...or an object high up on a ledge that you need to go back and use the Tractor Beam ability on. There are lots of secrets and bonuses to be found, and your constant desire to discover everything that is hidden and get all of those rarer and more powerful objects is a big part of the addiction factor.
Talking of addiction, that's something Anachronox certainly has! I remember years ago, I used to stay up every night 'til 4 or 5am, playing games. It's been a while since any game has been addictive enough to do this to me, but Anachronox did! There is always something new to do, something new to see, some minor goal in the back of your mind that you just want to go and do, but you're waiting until you get the right skills. Anachronox does drag slightly in a couple of places, but not much - Really, it keeps the pace going throughout, keeps everything perpetually bubbling over, and this is an amazing achievement for such a huge game.
Huge? Yes! When I finished the game, the last save was logged at 56 hours, 36 minutes. And most of that was just damn good fun! Oh yeah, and the other thing is, even when you complete this game, despite your best efforts, you won't have seen it all - There will have been some secrets you missed, higher level items you didn't get, and more importantly, there will be two complete sections of the game you didn't see at all! This is because there is a point in the game where your party splits off and goes on solo adventures (usually, you'll have a team of three people together, consisting of Boots and two other characters of your choice). This is an absolutely great idea, and the way the action flicks between the three people on their solo quests is dramatic and unique (well, it hasn't featured in any game I've seen before). Anyway, each solo adventure is dependent on who you picked for the team, earlier, and so you don't get to see what would've happened if you'd picked someone else for your team. The solo quests are some of the most fun parts of the game, in my opinion, but to play them all, you would have to go through the game three times. That's a big replay draw, and I'm sure I'll be playing it again in the future.
I must now talk about the cutscenes.
They are the best cutscenes I've ever seen, in any game. They are in-engine, so don't jar with the rest of the game. Directed by Jake "Strider" Hughes (who clearly rocks!), the camerawork, editing and animation are absolutely top-notch. The script, as with the rest of the game is good, and the voice acting is remarkable. I know I've heard good voice acting in the past (LucasArts games come to mind), but I swear, Anachronox takes it to a whole other level. At no point was I left thinking of some low-paid voice actor guy sitting in a booth reading his lines. Totally great voice acting, with voices which suited each character perfectly. This was like watching a cartoon...or a movie - It all fitted together flawlessly, and for the first time, I was fully watching actors moving and speaking. I'm perhaps not explaining this properly - It really has to be seen to be understood - but wow - Like I said, the best, most professional and convincing cutscenes ever!
The BadAnachronox is not without its faults, although there is nothing really major.
First of all, then, the music: I'm surprised I feel so strongly about this, but I just didn't like Anachronox's music, which I found repetitive, annoying and generic. I really don't think it did the game justice. That said, though, there were a couple of good pieces during the game, usually played in cutscenes. The music playing during the game's intro, as we see planet Anachronox and Sender Station for the first time was beautiful, conveying well a feeling of spacey awe and wonder. Nice music on the 'Brain Train' (later in the game), too. But I really didn't like most of the music.
The sound effects could be annoying, too. While the atmospheric sound was actually great, with loads of stuff going on, and lots of different effects in different places, the little fanfares and bleeps that accompanied picking up items, launching attacks and clicking interface options did become sort of irritating. But not in a major way.
This was apparently heavily influenced by the systems used in console RPGs like Chrono Trigger and the more recent Final Fantasy games. I've never played those games, so it was my first taste of this kind of real-time (yet, at the same time, turn-based) fighting. At first, I didn't like it, and this remained the same throughout most of the game. Towards the end, I was getting into it a bit more, but overall it didn't exactly rock my world. It does work well, but it wasn't completely to my taste. That said, it was very satisfying watching your 'bouge' (battle skill power) bar hit maximum, and then unleashing a devastating (and yes, visually stunning) radius assault on your enemies. It was also cool watching the points getting knocked off your foes as you hurt them. And it was fun getting new weapons and abilities and seeing what they did. Perhaps I should be writing about the combat in the 'good points' about this game, because the system really does work great. It is very slick. But still, I didn't relish the combat - It did get repetitive and was usually too easy (I think I only lost two fights in the whole game, playing on 'normal' difficulty) I much preferred the adventure side of the game.
One point of combat I didn't find too worthwhile was the whole Mystech Elementor system, whereby you create your own weapons. Sounds good, and, in fact, can be good, but most of the time, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't create weapons that were as good as the best standard (i.e. not user-created) Mystech. It was also practically the end of the game before you were able to find really good Elementor hosts. I ended up with only one team member (Rho) using a weapon I had created. Everyone else stuck to the highest-level standard Mystech.
Anachronox is also buggy. However, for such a huge game, the number of bugs is surprisingly low, and the patch seems to fix anything major or game-threatening. There is also another patch on the way (a kind solo project by one member of the old programming team, now that Ion Storm is no more). Any bugs I found did not detract from the experience and had obvious work-arounds (well, except in the final battle - That crashed a few times).
The manual is not great. It's not very clear and glosses over most stuff, leaving out lots of details entirely. It was only towards the end of the game that I discovered a few useful things about the interface and wished I'd known about them sooner.
The controls, at first, seemed awful, and I spent a ridiculously long time trying to fine-tune mouse sensitivity and various other options, until I was happy with it. Even then, I wasn't that happy, but I got used to the way it worked. I was soon clickin' like a pro, but even so, there are some clunky moments and various times when you're trying to click on something and your mouse pointer seems rather too clumsy. Overall, though, this was just part of the learning curve.
Subgames and mini-games.
There are various 3D subgames sprinkled through Anachronox. They're not that good. In one, you have to fly your ship along while rocks tumble around. In another, you have to pilot your boat through a dangerous tunnel, avoiding mines and picking up health. In one that took me ages to do, you zoom down alien-tunnels in a style reminiscent of one of those early CD-ROM 'on rails' shooters. These games are not terrible, but they're not great, either. Mostly, they're a minor annoyance that you'll beat after a few goes. I don't think they add much to the game.
Next up is the mini-games. These are a mixed bag. Each team member has a mini-game that you have play when you use their special skill. Boots' is the best - a higher/lower type game, as you try to figure out each digit of a combination lock, against a time limit. It's a good little game, that rewards intuition and a bit of strategy, although it becomes pointless at 'master' level, when he gains the ability to reset the timer whenever he wants. Stiletto's 'throwing rings' type game is OK - very annoying, and seemingly impossible at times, but satisfying when you finally do it. Pal-18's 'Pipe Dream'-ish data path game is the easiest, and most pointless - There really is no skill involved. It's just needlessly fiddly and requires you to squint into the monitor. Overall, these games are a good idea, and work pretty well.
There are also four arcade games, which you can play in bars and arcades in the game. They are alright - clones of old classics -, except for the one original game ('OX') which is one of the crappiest and most stupid games I've ever played. Later in the game, you can find cartridges to play games on your own entertainment console - a great idea! Sadly, though, they are just those four arcade games again...
The story in the game is well told, with a few interesting twists (the best part is the backstory about Boots' past, told as a series of flashbacks - amazing stuff), and the characters are likeable, but...While some of it is quite original, a lot is startlingly unoriginal. The main thing is: The characters are incredibly cliched - Boots' trenchcoated, down-on-his-luck private detective, Stiletto as his sexy ex-partner, Grumpos the grumpy old dwarf guy, PAL-18 the comedic little robot (Just looking at Boots and PAL, they are incredibly reminiscent of Foster and Joey from Beneath A Steel Sky, even more so because both PAL and Joey are out of action at the start of their respective games, and you have to find a way to get them up and running again). The best character could have been El Puno, the disillusioned superhero, and indeed, his solo section in the game was perhaps the part I enjoyed most of all, but he is woefully underwritten. Rho could've been better too - She's a brilliant scientist, but too often just offers the odd one liner in an 'I'm black, female and tough' way. That said, though, there's a hilarious relationship she develops with a minor character involving 'art appreciation', which I loved. And as I said before, the voices for these characters are perfect. I did like them, there is quite a lot of comedic banter between them, but...they're just not very original. Oh yeah, and the plot later on in the game turns strikingly Babylon 5-ish.
The Bottom LineAnachronox is a huge, varied and above all, fun console-style adventure/RPG, with awesome visuals and the best cutscenes I've ever seen. It had me staying up until 5am for weeks, because it's just darned addictive! If you like adventures...if you like RPGs...and if you like games that don't take themselves too seriously...then I don't know why you wouldn't enjoy Anachronox. In some ways, this is the most advanced game I've ever played (from a design point of view), because it packs so much in, and has so much variety.
Sadly, though, not many people bought this game, perhaps because of all the negativity due to its use of the Quake II engine, perhaps because of its loooong development time (4 years...and it shows...This is a labour of love), perhaps because of its release after Daikatana and just before Ion Storm folded, and perhaps because of Eidos' almost non-existent advertising for it. It is a true shame, because this is a game that deserves a place in any good software collection.
Anachronox is wonderful.