Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (174054)
Written on  :  May 15, 2004
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Anachronistically fun

The Good

Anachronox is a peculiar experiment made with a rather interesting design philosophy in mind: eschewing "serious" Western genres, it takes nostalgic, 16-bit-era Japanese RPG mechanics, and builds a constantly flowing, cinematic and humorous experience around it. Basically, it is a collection of varied, yet lightly treated gameplay elements peppered by excellent writing and well-directed cutscenes.

I won't talk here about the designers' rather unexpected choice of the main genre. In a way, Anachronox manages to work in spite of that choice, thanks to all the other creative stuff it throws on top of it. Above all, its creators knew that properly understood diversity can often become a key fun factor. The game simply never gets boring. It never annoys you: it flows. It has a great tempo, it moves swiftly, changing locations just when you feel you want such a change, changing styles just when you feel you've had enough of doing the same thing, changing atmosphere and overall tone, yet always keeping the general lightness and the humor.

Conversations and quests have much more weight in Anachronox than in "real" Japanese-style RPGs. This is where the game takes the right cues from its Western brethren, resulting in a more flexible and refreshing experience than mostly heavily combat-oriented Japanese games. The quests are for the most part interesting, varied and amusing; they often require you to to think and use your special skills to solve them. For example, at one point you need to gain the trust of the High Council on one of the planets, so you'll have find out how they will vote on the elections. What's really good is that besides the main, story-advancing quests there are also optional assignments, collecting and other things that increase the game's life span.

Each companion you gain through the main story has a special skill, which can be used to solve puzzles or just for fun. For example, Sly can pick locks: there are some locks that are needed to be picked to advance the story, but there are also many more, that you can pick just out of curiosity. Using a skill requires more than just pressing a button; they are built like arcade-style minigames, in which you should act quickly to perform the required actions in time. Speaking of minigames: Anachronox has quite a lot of them, and they are fairly diverse. You can even play classic arcade games in specific locations.

Said companions are a great bunch of unusual and comically appealing characters. Ever had a planet in your party?.. More importantly (and this is where Anachronox beats its Japanese progenitors again): the various NPCs you meet while playing the game are not just item- or quest suppliers; each one has something to tell you, and the amount of different, original lines written for each NPC is really impressive. They will tell you about their religious or political views, complain about some silly stuff, or say a joke or two about your appearance. You can just run around in Anachronox and talk to NPCs, and you'll have a game inside a game. Although most NPCs are not important for advancing the story, talking to them and listening to what they have to say enrich the experience immensely.

This is also where Anachronox displays its strongest trump card: the writing. It's a perpetual delight to read (and listen to) the dialogues in this game. They are full of clever humor and never get boring. From standard humiliating jokes about the main protagonist to witty satire, this game has many kinds of humor, but never over-the-top or corny. What makes the humor great aren't even the jokes and hilarious situations (the scene where Sly talks "science language" almost made me roll on the floor), but the way they are incorporated into the narrative, contributing to the ironic attitude towards the characters and creating an unusual form of a "semi-parody", though not at all in the same way Japanese writers would do.

No review of Anachronox would be complete without mentioning its fantastic cutscenes, all made with in-game engine, with great camera work that would do an honor to a movie. The game is naturally cinematic, elegantly using cutscenes to advance the plot in a fashion that is often more spectacular than its Japanese "teachers".

The Bad

Some parts of the game may seem unpolished, underdeveloped. I've heard rumors about cut content, and judging from my experience with the game they ought to be true. Often interesting peripheral locations and well-written secondary characters seem superficial because they were probably supposed to be more important to the game.

There is some discrepancy in tone, mainly caused by clashes between the cheesy, "epic" Japanese-like story and the humor - which, when applied to supposedly emotional events, becomes condescending and unpleasant. Two scenes come to mind: the destruction of the planet where you meet Rho, and the end of the comic-book chapter. In both cases, the scenes of mass destruction and death should have been made in such a way that we would feel the tragedy, but instead they are treated with the irritatingly inappropriate ubiquitous sneer.

The main flaw of Anachronox, however, is the choice of genre. Don't get me wrong: with all their weaknesses, Japanese RPGs can be properly exciting when done well. The problem is that Anachronox is not a good Japanese RPG; in fact, it is good at everything else except that. Clearly, the choice of base game mechanics followed the careful creation of jokes, cutscenes, and minigames. Battles are sporadic, primitive, and much too easy; the character growth system, while interesting on paper, becomes a pure luxury. Why would you hunt for special magical abilities if you can win any battle with bare-bones moves anyway? If Anachronox were any less charming and imaginative, it wouldn't have gotten away with this sloppy job.

The Bottom Line

Anachronox is an example of creative content totally outweighing a less-than-stellar core gameplay system. The game is too inventive, too witty, and too fun to put down even when you realize it's essentially a watered-down Japanese RPG accompanied by an entertaining comedy. There's no excuse for not trying it out just to witness talent and passion triumph over pure mechanics.