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SummaryPseudo-Japanese RPG with great humor and writing
The GoodIon Storm is surely a remarkable company. During recent years, they gave us two great games - Deus Ex and Anachronox.
Anachronox is great fun from the beginning to the end. It simply never gets boring. Even the best games I know often have weak parts, become repetitive, or suddenly shock you with an overly tough, illogical puzzle or a frustrating battle. Anachronox never does that. The game never annoys you. It flows. Like a good novel or movie, 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 kind of things, changing atmosphere and overall tone, yet always keeping the general lightness and the humor. Good taste, great tact and sensibility - this is Anachronox.
Genre-wise, the game is a rather peculiar experiment: it is primarily a Japanese-style RPG as far as gameplay basics and attitude towards narrative development are concerned - i.e. a fairly linear, story-driven experience with simple turn-based battles thrown in. Its quest and dialogue system, however, is more similar to those of Western RPGs. Of course, it is not a serious, deep RPG in the sense of Arcanum, but it it also significantly more conversation-oriented and less heavy on combat than "real" Japanese RPGs.
Combat has a secondary importance in Anachronox. The system is very much like in Final Fantasy games, which means turn-based with ATB ("active time battle"). It works well, and there are also some nice additions: for example, you can move around while fighting, or use objects that you see on the battle field.
A very interesting gameplay element are the "field skills" of the characters. Each character in your party 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 mini-games, in which you should act quickly to perform the required actions in time. Again, this is neither too complicated nor difficult - just fun.
Speaking of mini-games: Anachronox has quite a lot of them. Not only can you play real arcade games in different parts of the game, but there are several action mini games you need to complete during your quest. Those mini games are absolutely cool and offer plenty of diversion, especially after a long portion of clue-seeking.
Conversations and quests have much more weight in Anachronox than in other Japanese-style RPGs. This is where Anachronox incorporates the Western RPG style, which makes it a more varied and refreshing experience than most "real", heavily combat-oriented Japanese games.
The quests are for the most part very 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 what you have to do is to find out how they will vote on the elections. So you wander around the city, talk to various people, trying to find clues, occasionally use your party members' skills, take sub-quests, etc. Sometimes, there are also "real", traditional puzzles (like finding six colored crystals to put on pedestals), but they are also quite simple and logical.
The main plot of the game might look like a Japanese RPG clone, but the storyline alone is not what makes Anachronox so great - it's the amount of detail in it. First of all, your party is a great bunch of unusual and cool 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 astounding. 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: 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. Many comedy movies can learn from Anachronox. What makes the humor so great aren't even the countless 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.
I know some people disliked the game's music, and it is indeed not so memorable in the earlier parts of the game, but alone the mellow jazz tunes in the Entertainment District on Hephestos or the sinister monastery melody surely qualify as musical masterpieces. As for the graphics, I disliked them very much the first time I tried playing this game, mainly because of the character graphics. Granted, the characters look a bit blocky, and their animation is not always natural (ever tried putting Stiletto at the head of your party?), but their design is great, each one of the characters has so much personality, and after a while you stop noticing their blockiness.
I should also mention the fantastic cut scenes, all made with in-game engine, with great camera work that would do an honor to a movie. Anachronox is naturally cinematic, elegantly using the cut scenes to advance the narrative in a fashion that is often more spectacular than its Japanese "teachers".
The BadThere are very few flaws in Anachronox, one of which is the abundance of bugs. The game can crash suddenly or display some weird graphics from time to time.
Some areas seem a bit unpolished, underdeveloped. It is still remarkable they could fill the game with so much content, it almost seems there was too much talent put into the game, which is the reason why even the most interesting peripheral locations and the most brilliant secondary characters seem superficial at times - they are so well made that they should have been more important to the game.
The combat system is pretty simplistic, and the difficulty level is a joke even when compared to the more "hardcore" Japanese-style RPGs. You will certainly not want to play this game for combat alone.
I felt that some scenes were a little bit too light-hearted and superficial, compared to the overall serious tone of the main story. It is always great to have some diversion, but it seems that the game is afraid to take itself too seriously and to be dramatic where it should be. 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 almost as a comedy. This was the part that bothered me most in Anachronox.
The Bottom LineThey took the approach of Japanese RPGs towards story-telling, cinematic direction, and basic gameplay; then they merged all this with quest system, humor, and great writing associated with Western RPG tradition. Result? An awesome game!
Seriously, even if you have prejudices against Japanese-style RPGs, throw them away and play Anachronox; through the power of its writing, humor, and "quest above combat" attitude it can become highly entertaining even for those who can't stand "real" Japanese RPGs for their cliched narrative and abundance of battles.